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Can Barack Obama Get Black Voters in Ohio Excited?

CLEVELAND — After living through the civil rights movement, Jimmy Thornton recalls what it felt like to vote for the first black president almost four years ago.

“I really was enthusiastic,” Thornton, 73, remembered on a snowy Sunday morning following services at the Mt. Zion United Church of Christ. “It was something to see, to see this gentleman become president.”

In 2008, black voters such as Thornton famously lined up around city blocks to vote for President Barack Obama. They pushed turnout in their community to new highs and helped deliver the ever-competitive Buckeye State to the president.

As Obama ramps up his re-election campaign, Cleveland is slowly seeing some signs of economic recovery. But as the third-poorest city in the country, America’s Comeback City has a long way to rebound from the years-long recession — and so do its voters, the majority of whom are black.  

Will black voters be as enthusiastic in supporting the president in November? Rep. Marcia Fudge (D), who represents the only majority-black district in Ohio, gave a pregnant pause before answering.

“Uh, I hope so,” Fudge replied in an interview after the gospel-filled church service. “But you also have to realize that in ’08, it was history; it was in some instances, to some people, a novelty; it was hope; it was the belief that this country had changed and taken on a whole new persona. And I think that people haven’t seen, in terms of the way we have responded to this president, any real change in America. So I don’t know that people would be as enthusiastic.”

The importance of Ohio in the presidential contest cannot be underestimated. No Republican has won the White House without winning its electoral votes.

And while the presidential nominees will eventually fight for the political middle in the suburban and exurban areas surrounding Cuyahoga County, Obama’s campaign must simultaneously drive up its margins in urban areas such as Cleveland to deliver the state.

Polling proves black voters, such as those in urban northeastern Ohio, continue to overwhelmingly support the president. A recent Quinnipiac University survey showed 95 percent of black voters viewed the president favorably.

“The polling we’re doing shows he gets the vast majority of black votes, but gauging turnout is much more difficult,” said Peter Brown, a Quinnipiac expert on Ohio. “Are they willing to wait in long lines as they were willing to do four years ago?”

Thornton thinks so, once the president fully engages in the campaign.

“To me, it’s like a sleeping lion. He’s dormant. … All of a sudden, it’s going to be like a flash and get everyone’s attention,” he said.

At the same time, Fudge said it’s been difficult to get the White House to hear out the needs of her district.

As a group of children rehearsed with a piano in the background at the church, Fudge attributed her frustrations to the competitive nature of the Buckeye State. It’s hard for the president to balance his pitch to urban and rural voters in Ohio, she said.

“I also think, more importantly, that there is sometimes not the sensitivity to certain areas of the country out of some of the White House staff,” Fudge said. “They call us the ‘Rust Belt.’ I don’t think that we’re the ‘Rust Belt.’ I think we are the heart of America.”

A Different Campaign

As the GOP’s presidential hopefuls descend on Ohio ahead of next month’s Super Tuesday primary, the president’s campaign plans to open its sixth field office this week.

The Cuyahoga County office is one of two stations that never closed after Obama’s ’08 race. At the posh Shaker Heights storefront, volunteers and organizers work phone banks all week long. There’s a new poster up with the slogan “We Can’t Wait” sent directly from national headquarters in Chicago.

Volunteers tweet #teamcuyahogaisonfire when they’ve persuaded a voter. But the spirit in the office is merely smoldering on this gray Sunday evening.

A dozen volunteers use their cell phones to ring Ohio voters, guided by call sheets and talking points. The goal is to take the temperature of voters, Democrats and Republicans, said phone bank captain Judy Pugsley.

“The Obama campaign in ’08 was beginning to become computerized. This one has become completely data-oriented and computerized as far as collecting a lot of information,” said Pugsley, a 66-year-old retired nurse.

Pugsley struggles with her iPhone as she goes through her assigned list of registered voters. After about 30 minutes, campaign officials switched her and other phone bank participants to recruiting volunteers from a list of 2008 supporters.

“The ’08 campaign was a completely different campaign,” she added.

Obama’s Best Surrogate

First lady Michelle Obama has taken a particularly prominent role in reaching out to Ohio voters. Her visage frequents campaign paraphernalia here, and commercials for her “Let’s Move” campaign to battle childhood obesity run often on local television.

Marian Bryant, a 63-year-old urban planner and ardent Obama supporter, said she spoke to the first lady personally on a Feb. 2 conference call with Ohio voters.

“I think African-American folks like her,” Bryant said. “I see her as much more comfortable in her skin, much more comfortable than when he ran before.”

In her church basement’s social hall, a banner above Bryant reads, “Black History Month Is Every Month.” It stays up all year round. Churchgoers dine on pound cake served on aluminum and plastic platters — not the kind of dish the first lady would approve of.

The Obama campaign maintains it continued outreach to the black community in Ohio, citing budding neighborhood teams and Black History Month events, such as voter registration drives and house parties. But it still doesn’t seem like enough — at least not yet — Fudge said.

“I know they’ve hired some African-Americans lately, that’s the best I can tell you,” Fudge said. “It’s wonderful that they’ve engaged a lot of young people, a lot of young energetic people. But I think there has to be someone there who understands the soul of African-Americans.”

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