Is Obama Doing Enough to Get Out the Black Vote?

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Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Getty

Barack Obama supporters stand in the rain during a rally at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., in September

For weeks, Charles Cherry II has tried to get Florida's Republican Party to buy ads promoting Senator John McCain on the seven African American–targeted radio stations and in the two newspapers that make up part of the Cherry family's sprawling Tampa business empire, the largest black-owned media entity in the Sunshine State. The ads would have enabled McCain to make his case to potentially millions of black Floridians, about 13% of whom voted for President Bush in 2004. Instead, Cherry, 52, recalls a Republican official saying, "We're ceding the black vote in Florida to Obama." Last week, Cherry's statewide newspaper, the Florida Courier, featured a house ad asking, "Why aren't Crist [Florida governor Charlie Crist, who was elected in 2006 with 18% of the black vote] and John McCain campaigning in Black Florida?"

But if the McCain campaign is writing off the black vote, some say Obama is taking it for granted. It wasn't until three weeks ago that Obama's campaign bought two half-page Courier ads for $3,000 each, and a half-page ad in Cherry's other newspaper, the Daytona Times, for $1,500. The Democratic National Committee and Obama's campaign, Cherry says, bought a 60-second "register to vote" ad to run on WPUL-AM in Daytona Beach five times a day, for seven days, ending on Oct. 5, the eve of Floridians' last day to register to participate in next month's elections. There are no more orders for ads. "The Democrats will spend pennies on black voters, when they spend dollars on the general population," says Cherry, an Obama supporter. Given the stakes in Florida and Obama's unprecedented fund-raising success, Cherry adds, "It's a wasted opportunity, and it's going to show up at the polls."

Cherry's sentiment reflects the broader anxiety and frustration about Obama's candidacy that persists in many segments of black America. While the campaign has successfully increased voter registration levels among blacks, getting them to the polls is a very different matter. Cherry and others in the black community worry that the Obama campaign is too concerned with striking a moderate pose that puts white voters at ease and, as a result, is not working hard enough to get out the black vote.

Yet the nation's estimated 26.4 million voting-age blacks are crucial to Obama's success. Black voter turnout in the Democratic primaries soared some 115% above 2004 levels, according to an analysis by the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which examines black issues. A record 70% of eligible black voters are expected to participate in the 2008 presidential election, a 20% increase from 2004. But the true test lies in battleground states like Ohio, Florida and Virginia, where blacks comprise a significant portion of the electorate. In Florida, for instance, blacks' share of the electorate is expected to rise to 15% from 12% in 2004, when only 44.9% of the state's black voters participated in the presidential election. While analysts like the Joint Center's David Bositis project that black voter turnout will rise to about 65% in Florida, they say Obama must work harder to surpass that number if he is to win the state's 27 electoral votes.

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