Can the Black Vote Pull It Out For Obama This Time?

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This was the subject of a report released this morning from David Bositis, one of the nation’s foremost experts on black voter trends, at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

Bositis presented a convincing case on how African American voters could make the difference for Democrats, comparing this year to the 1986 and 1998 midterm cycles. In 1986, two years after Jesse Jackson’s first presidential run where he showed black voters could turnout if properly mobilized, the Democrats’ Operation Big Vote led to record levels of black voting in a midterm election and helped Dems win back the Senate. Twelve years later, Bill Clinton called on African American voters to help him as he faced down the Monica Lewinsky scandal. They heard his call and Democrats ended up winning six House seats. “The black vote is not a national vote, it’s in 20 states and a quarter of congressional districts,” Bositis said. “So the impact in any election cycle depends on the competitive districts.”

Twelve years later and Dems are looking at a tough year, Bositis acknowledges. But, he says, the black vote is ideally positioned to help. They make up large enough margins to swing 20 House seats, 15 of those in the South. Republicans need to win 39 seats to control the House, which means African American turnout could literally save the House if it’s high enough. “President Obama is more popular with African Americans than Bill Clinton was in 1998,” Bositis said. “Bill Clinton then had a 60% approval rating amongst African Americans and an 80% favorability rating.  Obama has an 80% approval rating and a favorability rating of 95%” with black voters.

Democrats aren’t oblivious to the potential of the African American vote. At a breakfast this morning sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said they’re investing $3 million to get out the black vote. “That’s seven or eight times what we’ve invested in previous years,” he said.

Still, the black vote has yet to answer Obama’s calls thus far. They didn’t show up in the 2009 gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey. Nor did they turn up in the 2010 primaries: according to an American University study by Curtis Gans out today, Democratic turnout was a record low – just 8.2% of the eligible electorate. And for the first time in 70 years, Republican primary turnout eclipsed Democratic turnout.

While Obama is still incredibly popular amongst African Americans, he won’t be on the ballot next month and it remains to be seen if his popularity will rub off on other candidates. In fact, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already cut off funding for four of those 20 seats — Rep. Steve Dreihaus in Ohio, REp. Chet Edwards in Texas and the open seats in Tennessee’s eight district and Arkansas’s second district — essentially giving up those seats as lost. Plus, African Americans are amongst some of the most affected by the economic turndown and the Congressional Black Caucus has often criticized the President for not doing enough for one of his core constituencies, to the point that they held financial regulatory reform hostage for several weeks demanding more aid for minorities.

Will the black vote save the day for Dems? It’s impossible to tell at this point. The potential is there but it’s not looking likely.

The Washington Post this morning has a poll out that finds African Americans are as engaged in the midterms as they were in 2008 — so may they will turn out.