By Craig Timberg and Lonnae O’Neal Parker
The Washington Post
CLEVELAND —For many African Americans, this election was not just about holding on to history, but also confronting what they perceived as a shadowy campaign to suppress the black vote.
Black voters responded with a historic turnout here in Ohio and strong showings across a range of battleground states, according to exit poll results. Buoyed by a sophisticated ground operation by the Obama campaign, African Americans helped provide the edge in Virginia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and perhaps Florida, which remained too close to call Wednesday. Their support narrowed President Obama’s losing margin in North Carolina.
“This is a man who is fighting for the opportunity for all people to reach the American dream,” said retired Marine Andre Baird, 55, as champagne dripped down his bald head at an Obama victory party in Cleveland on Tuesday night. “These hands,” Baird added, his right hand clenching into a fist, “have knocked on at least a thousand doors!”
African American voters described broad support for Obama, despite some disappointments, and a deep feeling of empathy for the political attacks he endured while attempting to revive a disastrous economy. Expectations for his second term are sky-high, many said.
Analysts, voters and politicians said that a series of episodes here in Ohio — where exit polls showed black voters accounting for 15 percent of Tuesday’s electorate, up from 11 percent in 2008 — were seen by African Americans as efforts to keep them from voting, stirring a profound backlash on Election Day.
“That was a strong motivator because we know we got here through blood, sweat and tears,” said state Sen. Nina Turner, D-Cleveland.
She was among those who fought for the removal of dozens of billboards that appeared in largely black enclaves of Cleveland and Milwaukee declaring “Voter Fraud is a Felony!” and threatening jail time and hefty fines for violators.
Decisions to limit early voting to weekdays also stirred ire, as did a widely reported comment by Doug Preisse, chairman of the Republican Party in Franklin County, who said in an e-mail to the Columbus Dispatch, “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine.”
When the Obama campaign successfully sued to open polls on the final weekend of the early-voting period, black voters thronged many polling stations.
The story was similar, if less dramatic, across much of the nation as black voters maintained or heightened their enthusiasm levels from 2008, when Obama was elected the nation’s first black president. Their staunch support helped protect his vote totals as white support shifted to Romney; 95 percent of the Republican’s voters in Ohio were white, exit poll results show.
African American voters expressed far more optimism about the state of the nation. In exit polls, 86 percent of black voters said the country is headed in the right direction, and 70 percent expressed confidence that the economy is getting better. Fewer than half of voters overall expressed either sentiment.
Only 9 percent of black voters said their family’s financial situation is worse than it was four years ago — despite government data showing African Americans have been among those hit hardest by the recession — compared with 32 percent of voters overall.
Still, 47 percent of black voters said unemployment is the most important economic problem facing people like themselves.
African American voters had more concrete relationships with Obama in this election and had benefited from his first term, said David Bositis, a researcher with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Obama’s health-care overhaul, in particular, offered a disproportionate benefit to African Americans, 36 percent of whom previously lacked health coverage, as opposed to whites, 12 percent of whom lacked coverage, he said.
In North Carolina, the African American vote held at 23 percent, the same level as 2008, even as the pull of making history faded.
Arnold Dennis, 65, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Institute at North Carolina Central University, said some people had unrealistic expectations when Obama was elected in 2008, underestimating how bad the economy was when he took office.
“I think some people thought that Obama was going to get elected and make magic. There’s nothing magical in this stuff. It takes hard work,” Dennis said.
But as he has done for more than a decade, the undaunted Dennis ferried voters to the polls Tuesday in his 1991 Camry, pockmarked with rust and fading paint.
“We don’t have a choice but to vote,” he said, noting the struggles of black people to achieve that right.
The effort to enact a voter ID law in North Carolina — which passed the General Assembly but was vetoed by Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat — was arguably the biggest factor in getting black people to the polls, said William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP.
Anna Kellam, 23, a sales representative for a bathroom remodeling company who just moved to North Carolina from Florida, said she supported Obama because of his emphasis on education and women’s rights. But, she said, she wants more from his second term.
“I would like to see people come together,” said Kellam, who is biracial. “I’d like to see more jobs and more opportunities for people who are poor. All in all, I want people to get along. I know it’s hard, because we’re in a kind of segregated society, but I want people to come together for a greater cause.”
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