Chris Keane / Reuters

With history made, N.C.’s young black voters may pass on election

They helped propel Kay Hagan to Senate in 2008, but Washington has had little to offer them in the past six years

RALEIGH, N.C. — In November 2008, students from two of the historically black universities here, Shaw and St. Augustine's, were so jubilant about the election of Barack Obama that many poured forth from campus and into the streets of downtown Raleigh, reveling with the Democratic organizers who had been watching the returns from a nearby hotel.

Sayvon Stubbs, now a sophomore at St. Augustine's, was then only a teenager, but he too remembers the electricity of that day.

"It was more about that black president. That's when I got into politics and got involved," he said. "A lot of young people around me were thinking that same thing, and it wasn’t about anything else."

But don't expect the same jubilation this November in Raleigh, Stubbs said. With the first African-American president re-elected — his place in history secure — Stubbs and many of his peers are significantly less enthused about participating this year.

The 21-year-old had only a vague notion that there was an election in 2014 and no idea who was on the ballot.  

"We're on pause," Stubbs said of how he feels about the country's direction. "It don’t seem like it’s going in no direction right now."

For Kay Hagan, the first-term senator from this traditionally conservative state — and for a Democratic Party banking on her re-election to help it hold its Senate majority — that is worrisome news.

Hagan was elected in 2008, riding a wave of enthusiasm about Obama’s candidacy among typically Democratic-leaning voters. A record 72 percent of registered black voters went to the polls then, surpassing the 66 percent turnout among white voters, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan good-governance group Democracy North Carolina. About 55 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 cast ballots in North Carolina, playing a decisive role in Democratic victories in the state.

But seven months before the midterm elections, there are early indications that the Hagan campaign and Democrats will have to work much harder to get those voters back.

Two years ago, Mitt Romney narrowly reclaimed the state for Republicans in the presidential election. And in 2010, despite a continuing demographic transformation powered by an influx of young and minority voters, there was a surge of older whites casting ballots that led to a North Carolina Democratic rout.

A repeat of 2010 would prove a nightmare scenario for Hagan and other Democrats running in traditionally Republican states this year.

“They’re not going to come out at 2008 levels,” Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University, said of those who catapulted Hagan to national office the first time. “But if the electorate looks like 2010, she's just toast.”

The silver lining might be that Hagan still has time to make an impression.

"People aren’t tuned into the U.S. Senate race right now, and they’re not going to tune in until the fall," said Thomas Mills, a Democratic political consultant who runs the website PoliticsNC.com. "If those people still don’t know there’s a Senate race in the fall, that’s worrisome."

Still, according to The Washington Post, outside conservative groups have already spent $7 million against Hagan, hammering her for her support of the Affordable Care Act, which remains unpopular in the state.

Political analysts note that Hagan is trying to walk a very fine line, attempting to activate the Obama coalition while also branding herself an independent-minded moderate Democrat palatable to a state that still has a strong strain of small-government conservatism.

Despite the high stakes, among more than a dozen interviews with young African-American voters in Raleigh, the most common reaction to questions about the midterms was surprise that there were elections at all.

That was the case for Shaw senior Gregory Fisher. Without the excitement of a historic presidential race, 23-year-old Fisher admitted, it was harder for students like him to feel they had a stake in politics.  

“I’m one of those people,” he said. “If I’m not hearing about it and Obama’s not in the picture, I guess I ain’t got to vote.”

Jerika Fisher, another 23-year-old Shaw senior, remembers her mother and her grandmother waking her up in the middle of the night to celebrate Obama’s victory in 2008, before she was old enough to vote.

“They felt like there would be a president that actually cared about them,” she said.

Fisher said she voted for the president in 2012 and plans to vote again this year — probably for Democratic candidates — but that the last few years have taught her to be wary of politicians' promises.

“I don’t see much change,” she said. “If people have been let down after they were excited about voting the first time, they get discouraged. They don’t feel like it’ll make a difference.”

Shaw senior Alibaba Odd put his support for Obama in 2012 more simply. “He embodied the struggle,” he said. “He wasn’t supposed to be there, and he was.”

Now, Odd added, “people aren’t really aware of what’s going on [politically].”

Frederick Harris, director of the Center of African-American Politics and Society at Columbia University, pointed out that in addition to Obama’s absence from the ticket, there have been few policies coming out of a gridlocked Washington that give black voters a reason to come to the polls. While immigration reform can be a galvanizing issue for Hispanic-Americans and gay rights for the LGBT community, there’s no equivalent lightning rod for black voters.

There remain, however, recalcitrant problems for the African-American community. In the Obama era, the black unemployment rate is still double that of whites; black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men nationwide; in North Carolina, black families are almost three times as likely to be in poverty as white families.

In order to galvanize black voters, along with young people and women, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has launched something called the Bannock St. Project, a sophisticated voter-turnout machine that will bring $60 million and 4,000 field staffers into 10 states, including North Carolina.

Hagan campaign spokeswoman Sadie Wiener promised a turnout operation that was "the biggest, most effective that North Carolina has ever seen in a Senate race," although she did not detail any specific minority outreach efforts when contacted by Al Jazeera.   

"I don’t think it's going to be [Hagan's] personal appeal that makes the difference with African-American turnout," said North Carolina political analyst John Davis. "She is simply not that dynamic a candidate when it comes to appealing to voters.

"This Bannock St. Project is designed to come in and do what she cannot do for herself," Davis added. "Which is motivate the most loyal Democratic constituencies."  

Kevin Hall, 18, a Shaw freshman, said he has had no contact with the Hagan campaign or Democrats yet, although his parents were strong Obama supporters in 2008 and 2012.

“Senators don’t really come to young people and ask us to vote,” he said. “They say they’re going to do stuff and then they don’t.”

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