Top Democratic officials say the battle against Republican-led "voter suppression" efforts and a continued push to capitalize on millions of eligible but unregistered black voters will be key to President Barack Obama's reelection efforts.
"We are in the process of starting up the most dynamic grassroots presidential campaign in American history," Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee said during a conference call this morning.
"When anyone starts out in politics ... you learn to follow one simple rule: Never forget your base. You dance with the one that brought you," said Schultz, citing the record level of African-American voter turnout in the 2008 presidential election, which helped install the country's first black president. "We're making sure that we can build off that base group and not take it for granted, and in fact expand it and use it to build President Obama's reelection campaign."
While support among black voters remains extremely high, according to recent polling, there is concern among Democrats that Republican-led efforts across the country, including a wave of recently passed laws in several states that require photo identification at the polls, could chip away at the black voting bloc. Analysts say black voters will be key to an Obama win in November. And while the latest unemployment numbers show that the unemployment rate for African Americans has dipped to just below 14 percent, its lowest point in three years, the rate is still nearly double that of whites. The high unemployment rate has blunted some of the enthusiasm of blacks, many of whom were initially caught up and then disappointed by Obama's promises of change, which some feel have not been fully realized.
Meanwhile, as the remaining Republican presidential hopefuls continue to battle it out in state primaries, and with about nine months until Election Day, the Democrats and the White House are pulling out all the stops to shore up and expand the black voting bloc while also pushing back against the voter ID laws, which Schultz called "offensive" and "insidiously designed."
"To limit the franchise and to restrict people's access to the polls is offensive," she said. "This effort of voter suppression in the states where it has occurred across the country, deliberately organized by Republicans, is targeted at groups of voters who are the most likely to go to the polls and vote for Democrats and for Obama."
Schultz said that she has personally traveled to 29 states and about 70 cities, taking the message of the president's record of accomplishments to the masses in roundtable discussions, "which turns into a town hall, which sometimes become a rally because we have so much enthusiasm."
Among the president's accomplishments, Schultz includes the president's economic recovery act, Wall Street reform, affordable health care legislation that expanded to include an additional 7 million uninsured African Americans, the bailout of the auto industry, tax breaks aimed at small business owners and some $850 million being funneled to historically black colleges and universities.
Democrats have compiled a long list of black surrogates, including Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, Gov. Duval Patrick of Massachusetts and others, to take Obama's record to the people. Late last year the White House held its first African-American policy conference. The Obama campaign launched Operation Vote, its outreach arm to select voting blocs, including African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, LGBTQs, youth and older voters, and hired Stefanie Brown, a long-time NAACP operative, to lead its African-American outreach.
Last week the campaign launched the Greater Together initiative, a series of roundtable discussions and town hall-style meetings at 28 HBCUs. And earlier this month the campaign launched yet another initiative, African Americans for Obama, which encompasses a number of programs, including one to engage barbershop and beauty salon owners as "opinion leaders" and volunteer recruiters in the community. Other initiatives include programs to empower and engage black business leaders, civic organizations and students at HBCUs.
Obama launched that effort with a rare video overture directly aimed at blacks, urging them in part to "keep making history."
Patrick Gaspard, the DNC's executive director, said the goal is to "animate" existing black voters, as well as to reach millions of eligible unregistered black voters. He cited key states such as Georgia, which he said has about 420,000 such voters. North Carolina, which Obama won by only 15,000 votes in 2008, has some 300,000, Gaspard said.
"We have little bit of wind in our sails at this moment," Gaspard said during today's conference call, noting the turnout of thousands of young and willing volunteers, particularly during the black college tours. "But all of this needs to take place while we still protect and defend the franchise."
Democratic officials said that part of defending the franchise involves a team of lawyers traveling to key battleground states where strict new voting laws have been enacted, collecting information about problems voters are facing, educating voters and groups that register voters about the new laws and doing everything they can to help citizens legally vote.
"We understand in 2012 that we have great potential," Gaspard said. "But we also face significant challenges as well."
CORRECTION: A previous headline on this story stated that the initiatives were the work of the Obama campaign. They are in fact a product of the Democratic National Committee.