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Obama banking on black turnout

Strategists think new voters could be decisive. The trick is to woo them without alienating whites.

June 23, 2008|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As they ponder a political map that has spelled defeat for Democrats in the last two presidential elections, Barack Obama's campaign strategists are quietly laying plans to draw African American voters to the polls in unprecedented numbers by capitalizing on the excitement over the prospect of electing the nation's first black president.

Obama strategists believe they have identified a gold mine of new and potentially decisive Democratic voters in at least five battleground states -- voters who failed to turn out in the past but can be mobilized this time because Obama's candidacy is historic and his cash-rich campaign can afford the costly task of identifying and motivating such supporters.

In Florida alone, more than half a million black registered voters stayed home in 2004. Hundreds of thousands more African Americans are eligible to vote but not registered. And campaign analysts have identified similar potential in North Carolina, Virginia, Missouri and Ohio.

In these five states, which were crucial to the GOP's presidential success in 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush's victory margins were generally slim enough to suggest that a major expansion of black turnout could lead to Democratic gains this year.

"I think the numbers are going to be astonishing," said Florida state Rep. Joseph A. Gibbons, who heads the state's black legislative caucus and has been discussing the strategy with leading Democrats.

John Bellows, a database expert in the Obama campaign, said he had already identified "big pockets of potential voters" in key states. "There are pretty big numbers lying around to turn out," he said.

The strategy requires a deft touch and carries risks, however.

In large part, Obama, an Illinois senator who is the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, has succeeded so far by appealing across racial lines. Strategists say he cannot afford to appear to be exploiting race or running solely as a black candidate -- particularly as he courts moderate whites and blue-collar workers who did not support him in the primaries.

"It's a sensitivity," said Ronald Walters, a strategist for African American Democrat Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns in the 1980s. Walters has criticized Democratic candidates in the past as sidelining black voters by ceding the South to Republicans. "You've got to have a black strategy, but it has to be a biracial strategy."

Obama's formula for energizing blacks while appealing to whites relies in part on demonstrating independence from the more militant traditions of black politics and using rhetoric that spans race. He has opposed monetary reparations for descendants of slaves, for example. And he has said that he does not think his daughters should benefit from affirmative action, because they have had a "pretty good deal," and he has expressed openness to programs that could help disadvantaged whites, Latinos and women.

That enables Obama's campaign to mobilize black voters while shielding him from being portrayed as the black candidate, supporters say. "No community can complain of being shortchanged," said Virginia Democrat L. Douglas Wilder, who in 1989 became the nation's first African American elected governor.

Party strategists believe that Obama's competitive showing in primary contests proves that the approach will work. In some primaries, notably North Carolina and Virginia, he ran strong among white voters, but his victory margins came from drawing blacks, including new African American voters, to the polls in overwhelming numbers.

Major get-out-the-vote efforts in 2004 managed to increase black voter turnout just 3 percentage points, to 60%, compared with 64% of voters overall. Obama's campaign believes it can far surpass that this time.

David A. Bositis, an expert on black voting trends at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, predicts that turnout could rise by as much as 20%, and some Democratic strategists feel they can spur black turnout in the battleground states to as high as 75% of registered voters.

"This will be a completely new precedent," said Bositis. "This year we're going to be looking at record territory, and this will be a level of black turnout that's never been seen before."

The pursuit of black voters is part of the Obama campaign's broader strategy of targeting constituencies that have been underrepresented in past general elections but that proved crucial to his victory over New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in their battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.

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