09/03/2012 09:01 am ET

The Man Who Is Obama's Problem

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- I know that 21st-century campaigns are about micro-targeting individual voters using social media and laser-casting of print, web and Facebook advertising, plus organizing and get-out-the-vote drives of ultra-granular, peer-to-peer viral specificity and outreach through personal, neighborhood and email contact.

I get that.

Well, I laser-cast, too. I did it by talking to the guy sitting next to me on the plane to Charlotte.

After an hour-and-a-half flight and two cups of coffee, I knew this: The fellow was as vivid an explanation as there could be for why President Barack Obama is in the fight of his life against the newly nominated Republican ticket.

My seatmate (whose name I can't use because his employer would have fits if he spoke publicly) is a 44-year-old African-American Army vet and married man. He describes himself as apolitical but is a registered Republican who reads national newspapers on his iPhone. In his spare time, he mentors young athletes and their families and does some recruiting for his college.

In 2008, he crossed party lines to vote for Obama. He watched some of the GOP convention from Tampa, Fla., last week and was underwhelmed. But he's not voting for the president again.

"I'm not going to vote this time," he said flatly. "I don't believe in politics anymore. Nobody can get anything done. It is gridlock and a lot of bickerin' and bitin'. Why should I bother?"

In the energize-your-base game of this election, helpless sentiments such as that can cancel out all the fancy micro-targeting and get-out-the-vote efforts in the world. Inertia is a very powerful thing, and cynicism is, too.

"The last 10 years have been very tough on the working man," my companion said. "I voted for the president for two reasons: Maybe he could do something about the economy; maybe he could do something about fixing Washington. I'm not happy saying it, but he hasn't done a good job at either."

In one recent poll, Obama was ahead 94 percent to 0 percent in the black community. But that doesn't mean African-American turnout this year will match the 90 percent-plus of registered voters who came out in 2008.

My new friend said that he had not voted in 2004 but, with some hope in his heart, had voted for Obama in 2008. According to the U.S. Census, voting participation among African Americans rose from 60 percent overall in 2004 to 65 percent in 2008. That translated into 2 million more black voters taking part, almost all of them voting for Obama. There were similar increases among the Hispanic community.

Since then, minority communities have been hurt badly and disproportionately by the slow pace of economic recovery, and if any group can say their hopes have been dashed, they can.

Will they turn out for Obama again? And if so, will they vote in the numbers and percentages of 2008?

That's one of the key questions of the fall and one of the concerns the president needs to address here in Charlotte.

As for my seatmate, he hasn't ruled out changing his mind. "As of now, my position is I'm not voting," he said.

Safe travels to wherever your next destination may be.



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