In 1980, with an unpopular Democratic incumbent in the White House, Ronald Reagan posed a simple, effective question to American voters: Are you better off than you were four years ago?
As the Super Tuesday battles bring the nation closer to a nominee who will face President Barack Obama in the general election, that man could pose the same question to black Americans: Are blacks better off than they were in 2008? By almost every top-line economic measure, the answer would seem to be no.
A study by the Pew Research Center released last summer found that 53 percent of black household wealth had vanished between 2005 and 2009. Almost a quarter of black borrowers have lost their homes to foreclosure since the housing market cratered. While the jobless rate for the country as a whole sits at 8.3 percent, black unemployment rests at around 13.6 percent. (And that number -- a steep decline from the previous month -- is likely a statistical fluke.)
But if the economic crises afflicting black American communities has remained intractable, so has black support of President Obama. His approval ratings currently sit in the 80s, which is actually down from the near-90 percent approval he enjoyed among blacks early in his presidency. (Obama won 95 percent of the black vote in 2008, but every Democratic presidential candidates since Bill Clinton has nabbed at least 80 percent.)
African Americans were a major peg of the bloc that propelled Obama into the White House. The good news for Obama is that so far his 2008 coalition is largely intact: His numbers among the various subgroups are virtually identical.
But could the bad economy cause black turnout to dip in November? It's hard to say, in part because gaming out the actual size of the black electorate is tricky. "African Americans have a greater propensity to over-report voting than do whites," according to a new study by the journal State Politics and Policy Quarterly. The study found that blacks over-report three times as much as whites.
Jelani Cobb, a professor at Rutgers, recently told MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry that African-American women were the demographic with the highest percentage of electoral participation in 2008. "Can you count on that happening again?" he wondered. "I don't think that you can."
"I think one of the concerns is that what Obama has delivered to the black community, he hasn't really played up," added Cobb. "For African Americans, who are a quarter of his electorate, many people are really expecting him to say, 'This is what I've done on your account.'"
It's a concern that the Democrats are taking seriously. "We are confident that voters understand the president's accomplishments and his success at turning things around," said Melanie Roussell, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee. "We don’t take anything for granted, and we know that it is going to take an even larger effort to get out the vote than four years ago."
Roussell said that the White House has increased funding to Pell grants, which help low-income students pay for college and bumped up funding to historically black colleges and universities, as well as passing healthcare reform that will help 7 million uninsured blacks get healthcare coverage.
But is that enough? Critics like Cornel West, Tavis Smiley and Maxine Waters have criticized the president for what they say has been his unresponsiveness to rising black poverty and economic hardship. The administration has said that its policy of staving off a deeper recession and promoting growth will also benefit black Americans.
But Algernon Austin, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, thinks the approach needs to be two-headed. He said that black unemployment, even in less dire economic times, is normally about twice the rate of whites. Austin pointed to the height of the housing bubble in 2007, when the economy was humming along: White unemployment was close to 4 percent, while black unemployment was at 8.5 percent, which is higher than the current national unemployment rate.
Austin argues that driving down broader unemployment lowers the floor on black joblessness. "If the national unemployment rate is high, there's no way that black unemployment is low.
"An unemployment rate of 8 percent creates serious economic distress, and unfortunately that's been the norm over the last three or four decades for African Americans," Austin said.
He said that while some of Obama's programs aren't necessarily race-specific, there are a few that are especially beneficial to African-Americans and other nonwhites. The American Jobs Act, for example, extends unemployment benefits for young people -- a segment of the U.S. population that Algernon notes is now mostly nonwhite -- has especially benefited blacks. "Once you put the income constraints on [the programs], it becomes even more targeted."
But on the other side of the ledger, the GOP has been less effective in its outreach to black voters who might be disaffected by the economic doom and gloom and looking for an alternative. During the early part of the election cycle, the Republican hopefuls said little about blacks, besides lamenting African Americans' supposed overreliance on welfare and social safety net programs.
April Shines, a Republican activist in Georgia, recently wrote that while the party's dismal performance among black voters in 2008 "should scare the GOP," its response has been counterproductive.
"The [reaction] isn't [about] connecting; it is fear-mongering," she wrote in the Cobb County Republican Examiner. "While Democrats would convince you, Republicans would go out of their way to halt the Black vote" -- a reference to recent voting laws that many argue will hamper black turnout -- "The Republican response has been to (seemingly) not encourage it. The Southern strategy has been lightly veiled in poorly coded verbiage throughout this election cycle. In large delegate states, it may be a detriment in the general election."
Other black conservatives agree. "The short answer is, the party sucks at it," said Timothy Johnson, the founder of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a black conservative group. "That's the bottom line. The party, when it comes down to the black community, [has done] a terrible job and is still doing a terrible job."
"I have candidates who are honest with me and they say, 'Tim, I've had people tell me, "Don't worry about the black community.'" That pisses me off. When they are honest with me and say, 'Tim, we've been told, "Don't worry about going to the black community, they're not going to vote for you anyway."' That's a bold-faced lie. You don't know who I'm going to vote for. I'm an American."
The Republican National Committee's website prominently displays links to their sites dedicated to Latino- and women-focused voter outreach, but no such site for blacks exists. (Calls to the Republican National Committee went unreturned.)
Austin, the sociologist, said that while more still needs to be done to improve the economic picture for African Americans, the numbers need to be put into historical context.
"I think you can criticize any of the things he did or didn't do, but you have to put it in the Great Recession," Austin said. "[The problems facings blacks] would be bad under any president."
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