Barack Obama’s promise of change in 2008 inspired a generation of first-time voters to register and rush to the polls, which most political observers credit for the president’s electoral success four years ago. Support for his campaign was especially prominent among young minority voters.
As a Pew Research Poll found after the historic election of America’s first black president, a large majority of African Americans under the age of 30 — a whopping 95 percent — voted for him.
Fast-forward to present day, and Obama could use a little more of that excitement at a time when polls have him running neck-and-neck with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. While recent surveys show he still has the support of minority and youth voters, this year’s election hasn’t garnered the same degree of dedication.
You couldn’t necessarily tell that from the party faithful who flocked to the Queen City this month for the Democratic National Convention.
“I really love that he did Obamacare, if you want to call it Obamacare,” said Anthony Brown, 24, a self-identified African American. “Healthcare reform was awesome. Keep on slashing prices for tuition and allowing for Pell Grants and, you know, lower the rates for interest on (student) loans.”
Menna Dennessie, a college graduate from Ohio, said she, too, believes Obama is on the right track. “[He] really cleaned up the mess of the prior eight years,” she said. “He is protecting students.”
The gauzy veneer of a party convention can prove deceptive. Beyond Charlotte’s bustling streets, some political activists worry that young minority voters feel Obama has unfinished business. Energy for Obama is high at the DNC, but the atmosphere may be fostering a false sense of enthusiasm that’s greater than the average voter’s motivation to get to the ballot box in November.
Carey Jenkins, deputy director of the League of Young Voters, which serves voters under age 30 in low-income communities, says enthusiasm has dwindled significantly. “Excitement is nowhere near the level it was in 2008,” Jenkins said. “Folks are upset.”
For all the conventional wisdom from the nation’s media elite that conventions are next to pointless, they miss the larger point that rallying the party faithful is just as important as making headlines in the next day’s news cycle. Look no further than convention attendees here in Charlotte.
“I know I myself maybe wasn’t as enthusiastic initially, but after Clinton’s speech, I am more enthusiastic which prompted me to come down here,” Crystal Herring, 36, said the night after former President Bill Clinton’s convention address.
The added wrinkle for the Democrats in 2012 is a slew of new voter ID laws taking effect in states around the country. Such regulations affect minorities, low-income citizens and the elderly in greater proportion than other demographics, since all three groups are less likely to have a government-issued photo ID.
Voters just won’t be able to solidify their support for Obama if they can’t even get inside the polls. As Jenkins points out, in Wisconsin, more than 70 percent of African Americans between 18 and 24 don’t have a driver’s licenses, which could particularly hurt turnout in places like Milwaukee, where African Americans make up 40 percent of the population. “That’s just one city,” he said. “How many more Milwaukees are there?”
We may be about to find out.