(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—Mitt Romney is going to face Barack Obama in what will likely be a much closer presidential election than anyone thinks. There’s no more Hope and Change out there, just the long difficult slog through what may turn out to not be a recession but a new level of economic hardship in America. The Republicans and Democrats are steady cherry picking which demographics they will pander to in the fall, Latinos, voters under 30, educated 40-something single White women (the Cougar vote) and of course the rich, the somewhat poor and the evangelicals. Basically every group has been accounted for except for what might be the most important demographic for Barack Obama’s re-election chances: The African-American Woman. The most overlooked and unappreciated segment of our society is poised to play the most important role in the 2012 election, and no one is talking about it.
Let me be clear, the African-American vote is always important to a presidential candidate. In the case of Democrats they hope to win about 90 percent of the Black vote or more and get turnout numbers in the 50’s in key swing states like Ohio and, run up the score in places like New York. As recently as Bob Dole in 1996 Republicans were gaining 14 percent of the African-American vote, and steady efforts by Democrats and increasing conservativism by Republicans in the last 15 years have wittled that number down to less than 10 percent. But it is a specific segment in the Black vote that is became a game changer in 2008 and will transform the electoral landscape in 2012 as well.
In 2008 African-American women had the highest turnout amongst ANY demographic group in America. Let me make that clear, BLACK WOMEN turned out in higher numbers, than Latinos, Whites, Men and or women of any color and any class level combined. Just over 68 percent of all eligible Black women in America came out and voted in 2008 and upwards of 97 percent voted for Barack Obama to become the first African-American president of the United States. While the mainstream press was talking about Hockey Moms and Security Moms, it was “Momma” that was dictating who eventually became president. African-American women had never led all voting groups in the history of the United States, and this high turnout is how Obama won crucial southern swing states like Virginia and North Carolina, as well as earn and unprecedented 47 percent of the vote in a red state like Georgia. Without Black Women Barack Obama isn’t president of the United States. So the question now is—what has Obama done for Black Women and will he continue to do so?
Obama’s signature piece of legislation that helps Black women is likely the Lilly Ledbetter act, one of the first items he put into law, which allows women to get equal pay for equal work retroactively. This is a powerful piece of policy for African-American women. Prior to the act, women only had 180 days to file for pay discrimination, which was a problem because you may not find out that you were being paid less than male colleagues for the same work for years. Obama has also increased funding for Domestic Violence protection with the Justice Department and put in policies to enhance and protect reproductive rights. However, he can always do more. Symbolically the president has been lacking in his direct appreciate for African-American female voters, and with a tough re-election ahead, it’s time for him to stop being shy and get to sharing his true feelings. Many Black women were frustrated by his horrible handling of the Shirley Sherrod case, his failure to stand up to GOP cuts in federal government jobs, one of the best opportunities for Black women to succeed professionally, and his continuation of George W. Bush’s drug and 9-11 policies which are being used to lock up thousands of Black men, and women and boys everyday. Those aren’t the policies of a man who knows where his strongest supporters lie.
In the end, I am confident that Obama will still garner the vast majority of African-American female support, but if his success depends on repeating the historic turnout numbers of 2008 he’s got a lot of work to do. A few wobbly lines from Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” may get him some claps and cheers but unless he’s planning on dropping a whole album he’ll have to come a lot stronger than that to re-win the hearts of Black women this fall.
(Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)