Young African-Americans Support President Obama, but Turnout Not a Guarantee

Are you better off today than you were four years ago? Young-African Americans are divided on the answer.

"I honestly think that is a stupid question," said Antwaun Sargent.

The 23-year-old Chicago native, who once knocked on frosted doors campaigning for a little-known state senator named Barack Obama, still supports him.

However, he added, "The question young African-Americans are asking themselves isn't, 'Are we better off than we were four years ago?' it's, 'What kind of America do we want going forward?'"

The president isn't just facing an economic deficit. He's facing an enthusiasm deficit, and it's among his most trusted supporters -- young people. The problem for Obama is not whether he'll lose loyal young, African-American supporters to Romney, it's whether or not they'll vote for him, again.

The Ambivalence Factor

With overall African-American unemployment at 14.1 percent, and African-American unemployment among those 16 to 19 years old at 39.3 percent, nearly twice that of whites in the same age bracket, Sargent recognized that "some feel like Obama hasn't done enough for the African-American community."

Citing the creation of the African-American Education Office as one of the initiatives Obama has taken while in the White House, he gave the president a different kind of credit. In Sargent's eyes, "He's done things that speak directly to my generation and directly to my minority group."

But some Obama supporters sound less enthusiastic now.

Among "people like me," said Kareem Campbell, a registered Democrat who grew up in the New York's Bronx borough, "there's a sense of disillusionment with the whole 'change' platform."

That is exactly what Republicans are banking on.

"I think we are better off," said Campbell, almost as if it was a question.

He paused.

"Well, actually, I don't know."

Having already been hired by a leading Wall Street bank, Campbell recognized that he doesn't face the same challenge and frustration as many other college seniors around the country. But he believed the president deserves credit, adding, "We are certainly better off with social issues."

Youth Enthusiasm: Has It Come and Gone?

Historically, young people have leaned Democratic. But 2008 marked a new age of American politics. Obama won 66 percent of voters under the age of 30, and 95 percent of the African-American vote.

Now, the president appears to be much more focused on keeping this significant part of his coalition. It should come as no surprise that he kicked off his re-election campaign with a college campus tour.

There's no doubt that when he first stepped onto the national stage in 2004, it was a different America. Back then, the national voter turnout rate of African-Americans was 60 percent. That year, in Jay-Z's hit song, "99 Problems," he rapped, "If you don't like my lyrics you can press fast forward."

So fast forward to 2012, there are more than 99 problems for this president, and a weakened enthusiasm is just one.

According to a recent Urban League study, "The Hidden Swing Voters: Impact of African-Americans in 2012," high African-American voter turnout in certain swing states -- specifically North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana and Florida -- was key to Obama's 2008 victory. If they don't turn out again in several key states and slip back down to the levels of eight years ago, it could cost Obama a second term.

For now, the battle really comes down to two of the four 2008 swing states with high African-American turnout -- Virginia and Florida. With Election Day less than 50 days away, both camps are working to garner young people's attention and support.

Enter Hollywood

The Obama re-election campaign is calling on Hollywood, perhaps more than ever. Raising money may be one thing Hollywood does well, but the clock is ticking down, and it's not all about the big bucks.

"Celebrities are the new force in American politics," said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. "They have a platform and they have a voice. I see more and more celebrities wanting to use that voice for civic and political purposes."

Including Eva Longoria, Kerry Washington and Scarlett Johansson, the president had a host of celebrities speaking out on his behalf at the Democratic National Convention.

In recent months, he has attended fundraisers hosted by the likes of George Clooney, Anna Wintour and, this past week, Beyonce and Jay-Z.

But what is won from one night with the 1 percent? Having the first-couple of hip-hop spending time with the president "sends a message to young people," said Morial.

Kareem Campbell doesn't believe that celebrity hip-hop endorsements have any bearing on his voting. As he sees it, "some music celebrities can definitely have a positive impact on the young African-American community." They are "making it cool again to vote."

But is "cool" going to make the cut?

The Alternative

In 2012, the economy is a focus for many voters, something the Romney campaign and Republicans welcome with open arms.

"We're not buying what you're selling in 2012," declared Saratoga Springs, Utah, Mayor Mia Love, when she took to the podium at last month's Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. The rising star, who may well become the first African-American Republican woman to serve in the House if she wins her race November, spoke for only a few minutes but caught the attention of millions.

While the Romney campaign may not be actively seeking the African-American youth vote, they're not just sitting back and hoping that the demographic will stay away on Election Day. In June, the Romney campaign launched Young Americans for Romney in an attempt to reach out to the millennial generation. Led by Craig Romney, the youngest of Romney's sons, the effort has been largely centered on economic challenges.

'This Is Not 2008'

Victoria Wanjiku, a Kenyan immigrant who grew up in Atlanta, sees this election from a different perspective. Although unable to vote herself, the Georgetown University senior calls America home.

"People are still excited about an Obama presidency," she said. "From what I'm reading and experiencing and seeing from my friends on Facebook, I think they'll vote."

As she saw it, enthusiasm among African-American youth is still there, but it's the media narrative that has changed.

Put simply, "This is a not the same election as it was in 2008. At that time, the story was about the first African-American president of the United States."

Nonetheless, there is mounting evidence that the Obama campaign is beginning to pull ahead in some key swing states. A recent Washington Post poll showed Obama up by 8 points in Virginia.

Marc Morial sees a "growing interest" in the election and a "growing sense of how important it is," but he was quick to admit, "This is not 2008."

Although moments of the Democratic National Convention may have shown flashes of the excitement surrounding the last campaign, even Democrats admit the same enthusiasm has yet to be re-created.

"In 2008, you heard people on the streets, people on trains talking about how excited they were by Obama. That is physically absent today," Sargent said.

Growing Enthusiasm, Growing Confusion: Voter ID Laws

Finding ways to pull young Americans to the voting booths will be key for the incumbent.

But while major celebrities and social media chatter may be pulling them in, something else is pushing them away -- voter ID laws.

Although brought forth in the name of combating voter fraud, Morial said he believes, "These laws are going to trick people." He saw the effort to pass the laws as "deliberate and intentional," brought about by those who "wanted to try to tamp down the votes of young people and African-Americans and senior citizens."

As a result, much of the Urban League's "Occupy the Vote" campaign to increase voter registration is aimed at ensuring people know what the laws are and that they understand what paperwork they need to provide to be able to vote.

Perhaps they may be a little less enchanted, perhaps a little less enthused, but most young African-Americans continue to support their president. There's just one question that remains: Will they vote?

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