President Barack Obama’s push to help fellow Democrats in midterm congressional elections leans on motivating black voters, a core constituency that continues to support him even as his national approval ratings drop.
At campaign rallies over the weekend and when casting his early ballot yesterday in his home neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, Obama spoke directly to black voters, who supported him in record numbers in two presidential runs but historically turn out in lower numbers for congressional elections.
“I love voting. Everybody in Illinois: early vote,” he said before casting his ballot at a community center that’s his neighborhood polling place. “These are my neighbors,” Obama said before kissing an older black woman on the cheek.
The president later spent part of the afternoon doing interviews on black radio stations, a tactic he has used increasingly in recent weeks.
Obama, who canceled some recent campaign events to deal with crises at home and abroad, has focused his limited political activity this year on attending fundraisers for fellow Democrats instead of openly campaigning for them.
In the Nov. 4 election, control of the U.S. Senate is at stake, with incumbent Democrats most threatened in states where Obama’s unpopular.
His appearances over the last two days were in predominantly black communities. Both Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have emphasized early voting at campaign events targeting blacks, who in many states use early voting at higher rates than other racial groups.
“Folks like to complain, and talk about Washington, but if only 45, or 40 percent of the people are voting, then it’s not surprising that Congress is not responsive,” Obama said last week on the Steve Harvey radio show. “I need everybody listening to understand this is really, really important.”
The results could influence Obama’s final two years in office. Lower voter interest among blacks and other minority groups could make it easier for Republicans to gain control of the U.S. Senate and win competitive governors races in several states. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to have a majority in the chamber.
In 2012, 66 percent of eligible black voters cast ballots, the first time in 44 years that blacks turned out at a higher rate than whites, according to a Census Bureau report. Exit polls showed Obama took 93 percent of their votes. In non-presidential years, turnout drops for all groups. In 2010, 44 percent of black eligible voters showed up for Election Day.
Obama encouraged supporters to vote early during campaign rallies Oct. 19 with Maryland’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown and Illinois Democratic Governor Pat Quinn. Brown, Maryland’s current Lieutenant Governor, is vying to become the state’s first black governor.
“There are no excuses,” Obama said at the rally at a high school in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which is about two-thirds black. “The future is up to us. If you want better policies out of Washington, then you’ve got to vote for them.”
Obama’s appearances with gubernatorial candidates in Democratic-led states contrasts with his absence from the campaign trail in the Senate battle.
“It’s helpful for Quinn to associate with Obama, particularly in the African-American community,” said Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “In terms of highly competitive races across the country, this is one of the few where the president can come into Chicago and it’s a plus for the Democratic candidate.”
In the run-up to Election Day, Obama is also scheduled to appear with Democrats running for governor in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Maine and Michigan, all states Obama won, according to an administration official, who asked for anonymity because the plans haven’t been publicly released.
The cities on the president’s tentative campaigning schedule also have large black populations. In Wisconsin, Obama is scheduled to appear at a rally in Milwaukee County, home to about 70 percent of the state’s black population.
In Pennsylvania, Obama is scheduled to appear in Philadelphia, the fifth most populous U.S. city, with a population that is about 44 percent black, according to data from the U.S. Census.
In Maine, Obama is scheduled to appear in Portland, where 7 percent of the population is black, more than five times the state average, according to Census figures.
Obama’s Michigan event is scheduled to take place in the Detroit area, where more than eight in 10 residents is black.
As the Nov. 4 election nears, Obama’s schedule for the week remains open. He has been dealing with the Ebola crisis and military action against the Islamic State militant group in Syria while juggling campaign activities.
“There’s a lot of significant complex situations going on both around the world and here at home,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz told reporters yesterday. “And a lot of those issues have dominated the president’s time. Given that the elections are a few weeks away, obviously that is a priority as well.”