One of the country's oldest civil rights groups says President Barack Obama may have a tougher time winning at least three battleground states in November should black voter turnout fall at least 5 percentage points below the record levels that helped to put him in the White House.
Black voter turnout of 64.7 percent was a significant factor in Obama's victory in 2008, and African Americans are considered solidly behind Obama now. But having achieved the milestone of electing Obama as the nation's first black president, black voters may be less motivated to return to the polls in droves again, the National Urban League said in a report to be released Tuesday.
Assuming no change in 2008 voting patterns, Urban League researchers said, black turnout at about 60 percent or below could cost Obama North Carolina and make it difficult for him to win Ohio and Virginia. In addition to diminished voter enthusiasm, the still-ailing economy, persistent high unemployment among blacks, new state voting laws and limited growth in the African American population could help discourage turnout.
"We achieved a high-water mark in America in 2008. For the first time, African Americans were at the table with white America" because the turnout of black voters was just 1.4 points below white voters, said Chanelle Hardy, senior vice president and executive director of the National Urban League Policy Institute. But, "because we achieved so much in 2008, we have to push even harder to meet those numbers.
"President Obama does not take a single vote or support from any community for granted and he is working to secure the same levels of support based on policies that give everyone a fair shot and the opportunity to succeed," said Clo Ewing of the Obama campaign. She cited the payroll tax, job training, education and health care reform as areas the president has worked hard to improve and noted that all these efforts benefit African Americans.
The campaign for likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney, said he would compete for black votes.
Tara Wall, a spokeswoman for Romney's campaign, said he is committed to competing in the black community, despite the odds. She said Romney acknowledges he won't get a majority of black voters' support, but recognizes Obama can't count on the margins he once enjoyed. "Every percentage point that we chip away from President Obama counts," Wall said.
The reality is that a number of other changes could affect the influence of the black vote, even if it does fall to 2004 levels. Increased turnout of Hispanic voters, who went heavily for Obama in 2008, or drops in turnout of conservative Republicans could conceivably offset a lower black-voter turnout.
The Urban League released its report ahead of the president's July 25 speech scheduled for opening day at its national convention in New Orleans, and a week after Obama's likely Republican rival Mitt Romney was booed at the NAACP's convention in Houston for saying, among other things, that he would repeal Obama's landmark health care law if he is elected.
Marc Morial, National Urban League president, said the African-American vote should not be thought of as static, even if black voters are expected to overwhelmingly cast their ballots for Obama. "We wanted to point out that turnout makes a difference and African American turnout makes a difference," Morial said.
The league said African-American voters had their biggest impact in North Carolina four years ago. An additional 127,000 black North Carolinians who had not voted in 2004 cast ballots in 2008, and Obama won North Carolina by about 14,200 votes. If support for Obama among Africans Americans remains the same but only 60 percent of African American registered voters cast ballots, the National Urban League estimates Obama would lose close to 64,000 votes, more than four times his overall margin of victory in North Carolina.
A similar drop would also make it difficult for Obama to win in Virginia and Ohio too, the league said. The National Urban League did not calculate the effect of a turnout somewhere between the 2004 and 2008 numbers.
African-American voter turnout has been on a steady climb since 1996, when turnout was just 53 percent, down from the 1992 turnout of 59.2 percent.
Such downturns in turnout after record highs have been seen in major cities where African Americans have been elected mayor, said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University. Usually turnout drops on the second election. The incumbent is usually re-elected easily but voter participation is smaller, Gillespie said.
Alberta Cameron, 38, of Washington, D.C., said the vote she cast in 2008 for Obama was the first in several years because she really hadn't been interested in voting previously. She said she definitely plans to vote again in 2012.
"It's hard. Anytime you want to go vote for something, you want to be sure you are making the right decision," said Cameron, who works with children in a community center. But after talking about the election a bit more, she said there was no way Romney was getting her vote. "I wouldn't vote for Romney if you paid me. I just wouldn't. It's not a black thing. It's not a white thing. I just don't trust him."
Gillespie said mobilization will be key, adding: "You just can't take anything for granted in this type of race where you've got this level of polarization."