POLITICS

Obama's final mission in 'his' last election: Get out the African-American vote

10/29/2014 04:15 EDT | Updated 12/28/2014 05:59 EST
WASHINGTON - The president's approval ratings are underwater. His party risks being drowned next week. And in this, the final election of the Barack Obama era, the embattled U.S. president is pleading for a lifeline from one group that still adores him.

He's calling out for African-American voters to save his party in next week's midterm elections.

Obama has mostly avoided the campaign trail — which is perhaps understandable given that several key Senate races are in swing states where the Democrats would rather not be photographed with, mentioned by, or in the case of Kentucky's Alison Grimes even admit she ever voted for, a commander-in-chief whose 42 per cent Gallup approval rating is just barely above the George W. Bush level at the same stage in their respective presidencies.

He's had one main role for most of this election: Give speeches at pricey fundraisers, to help the party raise campaign cash. Now, in these final few days, he's got a second mission: Get out the vote.

A few Washington pundits instantly leapt to the conclusion that Obama had committed some catastrophic strategic error this month by inserting himself into the campaign, by stating that the election was about electing more of his allies to Congress. Indeed, Republicans wasted nary a nanosecond before turning that soundbite into attack ads.

But it's where he made that statement that speaks to the president's motives. He said it during an interview with the Rev. Al Sharpton — one of numerous one-on-ones he's granted to black-community voices in recent days.

In another interview that got less attention, he laid out his case to millions of listeners on Steve Harvey's radio show. Obama began by pointing to a statistical fact: Americans, in general, vote less in non-presidential election years, but the drop in turnout is even steeper for key Democratic constituencies including African-Americans, Latinos, and young voters.

Obama warned his audience: there would be consequences if voters didn't show up this time.

"I'll bet a whole bunch of your listeners aren't even thinking about this election that's coming up on Nov. 4. But this is really the last election in which I have the opportunity to get a Congress that will work with me," Obama told Harvey.

"Back in 2010, folks didn't vote. As a consequence the Tea party took over the Republican party, we lost the House... (and) basically Congress has fought me every step of the way," he said, mentioning gun control, the government shutdown, a higher minimum wage, pay equity and early-childhood care as examples of his blocked agenda.

"I need everybody listening to understand: This is really, really important... This is the last election that I'm involved with that really makes a difference. I'm just hoping that everybody comes through."

He twice invited listeners to head to Iwillvote.com and get information on polling stations and advance voting. The friendly host promised to do whatever he could to spread the message: "Hey, man, we're pulling for you," Harvey told the president. Obama will now hit the campaign trail for a few days, to take that message to mainly safe Democratic areas.

The hope-and-change enthusiasm of 2008 might be fading in most of America. But it's still common to see photos of Obama, framed, gracing the wall of African-American businesses.

The first black president still enjoys 87 per cent approval from America's black community. That's according to a Washington Post poll last month that says he also retains popularity, albeit a little more muted, with Latinos; non-religious people; people with post-graduate degrees; and in the Northeast.

If those stalwart Democrats don't show up to vote in sufficient numbers next Tuesday, Obama's party may lose the Senate, and he'd spend the last years of his presidency dealing with two hostile chambers in Congress. Democrats would also have a harder time nominating judges, approving political appointments, and deciding what bills make it to the Senate floor — all powers that belong to that chamber's majority party.

Some of the key races could be decided by African-Americans, who make up 32 per cent of the electorate in Louisiana, 31 per cent in Georgia, 22 per cent in North Carolina, eight per cent in Kentucky, and four per cent in Colorado.

Black-community newspapers have urged their readers to get out and vote next Tuesday.

The Louisiana Weekly ran an editorial explaining how the incumbent Democrat had hired a black chief of staff, appointed black judges, and provided financial support for historically black colleges: "Mary Landrieu deserves our vote," the paper proclaimed.

In Georgia, the Savannah Tribune ran two voter-turnout items near the top of its main webpage this week: A piece titled, "Young Black People Should Vote," and an editorial that warned, "Your vote for (Democrat) Michelle Nunn could be the vote that stops the Republicans from taking over the Senate where they would certainly cripple all of President Obama's initiatives."

But, it appears, two can play at that game.

Some of the president's opponents appear to be trying to discourage African-American turnout. The popular conservative website the Drudge Report gave big-font, across-the-page billing to a Youtube video of a few black men explaining how they were disillusioned that things hadn't gotten better for them under Obama.

One man asked: "Why should they even go out and vote?"

He's not the only person, by any means, who feels that way about voting in midterms.

The overall turnout percentage in U.S. presidential election years — like 2008, and 2012 — tends to hover around the mid-50s and it drops off to the high-30s in midterm years, like 2006 and 2010. And the dropoff for black voters has been noticeably steeper, with turnout about 22 per cent lower in midterm years compared to a decline of 15 per cent for white voters.

The end result is that African-American voters have had less clout in midterm elections: they were 13 per cent of the electorate in the last two presidential votes, and only 10 per cent in the 2010 midterms.

One expert on African-American voting patterns says the demographic story in midterm elections is one of age — not just race. David Bositis pointed to census data that showed the median age in the U.S. is 42 for whites, 34 for blacks, and 26 for Latinos.

"Minorities and younger people are synonymous," Bositis said in an interview.

"What white people are is old. And older people vote in the midterm elections — the non-presidential elections."