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Lack of 'superstar' candidates and lackluster outreach may keep black voters at home election day

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 7, 2010 - The 2008 presidential election was significant not only because Barack Obama, an African American, won. It was also a watershed event because Obama energized black voters to the point that they turned out in greater proportions than whites nationally. In Missouri alone, an unprecedented 73 percent of blacks went to the polls.

Will black voters, an important part of the Democratic Party's base, turn out in force again this November? A local political scientist and several black Democratic office-holders don't think so. Some say the turnout will be lower for reasons beyond the party's control. Others fault the party's message.

Whatever the reasons, Democrats running for national offices aren't winning over nearly as many black voters this time. The pro-Democratic Public Policy Polling firm points to problems for the party in this election. The firm says blacks' approval of Obama isn't matched by their support for Democrats in many key races. For example, the polling firm found that blacks' approval of Obama stood at 78 percent in Missouri. In contrast, their approval of Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, is 67 percent, an 11 percent drop-off -- and may be bad news for Carnahan who is in a tight race against U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Springfield.

Similar trends were found for Democratic gubernatorial and Senate candidates in Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states.

No Candidate or issue to energize Black voters

Charlene Lofton Jones, a political science professor at Harris Stowe University and a former assistant superintendent in St. Louis schools, managed nearly two dozen of the district's tax campaigns, all of which were successful. But she says this year's election is a different animal.

"You don't have the president and the governor running, so there's no superstar on the ticket," she said. "Plus there is no momentum this time because of the dreadful economy. We're talking about a 9 percent unemployment rate overall and a rate of 15 percent in the African-American community. That makes it very difficult to energize people and build momentum for a high turnout."

Obama remains very popular in the black community, Jones said. Blacks regard him as having inherited a lot of economic problems. "Also he has been unfairly criticized for his health-reform law," she adds.

State Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis, says national and state party leaders are making some effort to fire up blacks and encourage the thousands of first-time Missouri voters from the 2008 election to show up again this time. Still, she says the party needs to do more.

"People just aren't excited," she says, adding that she and others have told officials at the Democratic National Committee that "we're willing to help. We just need some sort of plan to work with."

On the other hand, she says, Robin Carnahan's brother, U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, "has been working diligently to increase the African-American turnout, not so much for himself but overall."

Jones adds that she will use the remaining weekends to visit churches to send the message that "elections 90 miles away are just as important as those 900 miles away," meaning that what Missourians do in mid-term elections do make a difference.

"Even if people are not excited about the Democratic candidate in the race, they still need to show up to vote because the alternative would be a lot worse," Jones says.

Both Robin Carnahan and Blunt have visited black churches in an attempt to appeal to black voters. The fact that both have been speaking from pulpits in St. Louis and Kansas City says a lot about the importance of black vote. In addition, Blunt announced his candidacy at Harris Stowe, which has a largely African-American student body.

Lackluster outreach to minority voters

It remains unclear whether these efforts will make much difference. It certainly hasn't impressed some black Democrats.

"The Democratic Party hasn't sent a clear message about how important the Carnahan-Blunt race is in terms of the party holding control of the Senate," said state Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, another St. Louis Democrat. "I just don't think that Robin Carnahan's camp is articulating how important it is for the party to be able to protect the president and the middle class."

The problem, Nasheed said, "has been in the messaging. Robin Carnahan has been totally on an attack message. It hasn't been: How are you going to create jobs, preserve health reforms or do something about the economy? Those are the things that people want to know. They don't want to know what Blunt did five years ago, or what his wife did six years ago. They want to know about the consequences if he gets elected."

State Democratic Party officials take issue with Nasheed, said party spokesman Ryan Hobart.

"Members of the Missouri Democratic Party are out there every day talking to voters about the issues that matter to them, whether it is jobs, the economy or affordable health care," he said. Efforts have included "talking to voters on the phone and on their door steps about the clear choice in this election."

In addition, he says the party "has been reaching out to leaders in the African-American community to set up events and make sure they are engaged and have input in the various campaigns."

Although giving no specifics, he says these efforts will intensify and grow stronger "from now until Election Day."

One ingredient missing from the campaign, Nasheed argues, is getting local and national black leaders on the radio stations in Missouri that target black listeners.

"The party's campaign should include blacks who have credibility and respect among black voters," she said. Asked for examples locally, she mentioned License Collector Mike McMillan and Alderman Kacie Starr Triplett, D-6th Ward.

In spite of her criticism, Nasheed says the party leaders still have time to "change the way they are doing things" to get out the black vote.

"I'm going to do all I can to help turn out the base because we have a lot at stake in this election," she says. "I'm not giving up hope."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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