Voter doldrums - especially among blacks far less energized than they were for Barack Obama’s historic presidential bid last year - pose problems for Democrats struggling in the governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey.
Pollsters and election analysts expect a steep drop-off of black voters - who historically back Democrats - in the nation’s two gubernatorial contests and in congressional races Nov. 3, and they predict it is likely to cast a shadow in 2010 over at least 10 House Democrats with large black constituencies.
It is part of a broader trend of waning enthusiasm among Democratic voters as the country grapples with continued job losses, a mounting federal deficit and uncertainty about Mr. Obama’s plan to restructure the health care system.
About 15 percent of New Jersey voters are black. Mr. Obama got about 12 percent to turnout in 2008 but polls predict black turnout as low as 8 percent for the upcoming election. The governor’s race is so tight - neck-and-neck two weeks before Election Day - that a blip in black turnout could decide the contest between incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine and Republican challenger Chris Christie.
“If Corzine can bring that [percentage] up, it is going to make the difference in a close election,” said Tom Jensen, spokesman for the Democrat-leaning Public Policy Polling.
A Rasmussen Reports survey this week showed Mr. Christie with 41 percent, Mr. Corzine with 39 percent and independent Chris Daggett, a former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, taking 11 percent of the vote.
Earlier in the campaign, Mr. Corzine trailed Mr. Christie, a former federal prosecutor, by as much as 14 percent.
On Thursday night, Mr. Obama acknowledged the challenge posed by dispirited voters when he hit the hustings in New Jersey for Mr. Corzine, a Democrat in a heavily Democratic state who is waging a come-from-behind race to overtake Republican Mr. Christie.
“I’m here today to urge you to cast aside the cynics and the skeptics, and prove to all Americans that leaders who do what’s right and who do what’s hard will be rewarded and not rejected,” Mr. Obama told the crowd of about 3,500 at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Hackensack, N.J.
The Corzine campaign did not return calls seeking comment. Last week, he captured the endorsement of the Rev. Reginald Jackson, politically influential leader of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey. The Star-Ledger of Newark has reported that Mr. Corzine and his foundation last year donated $87,000 to Mr. Jackson’s congregation.
University of Wisconsin political science professor Barry Burden said the upcoming elections will test the staying power of 2008’s “Obama effect,” the first election in which blacks voted in similar proportions as whites.
Mr. Burden doubted Democrats could sustain it. He did note that the growing wave of Hispanic voters will give Democrats an advantage in the future.
“For the moment, [Democrats] need African-Americans to win office, particularly in places like Virginia that have trended more red [Republican] than blue,” Mr. Burden said.
Virginia backed Mr. Obama in his historic win a year ago but voted Republican in the previous nine consecutive presidential elections and now appears poised to send a Republican to the governor’s mansion.
Mr. Obama will be campaigning in Virginia next week for Democrat R. Creigh Deeds, a state senator who trails Republican Robert F. McDonnell by about 8 percent in recent polls.
Black voters cast 20 percent of Virginia’s ballots in the presidential election. Pollsters say that number will drop to about 16 percent Nov. 3.
“It is going to be pretty much impossible for Creigh Deeds to win at that level,” said Mr. Jensen of Public Policy Polling, adding that such a defeat should be a wake-up call for the Democratic Party heading into 2010.
“It is going to show there is a limit to how transferable the excitement Barack Obama generated with black voters is to other candidates,” he said.
Democratic campaign officials say they are prepared for a drop-off in voters, mostly first-time voters that turned out for Mr. Obama, and not specifically black voters. They said their efforts are aimed more at containing the historic trend of the president’s party losing seats in the first midterm election.
“We have already committed resources to turning voters out across the country and we’ve started earlier than ever,” said Ryan Rudominer, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
House Democrats imperiled if fewer black voters make to to the polls next year include Virginia’s Reps. Glenn Nye and Tom Perriello, first-term lawmakers who won narrow victories in conservative-leaning districts in 2008.
The black vote also will be crucial for vulnerable House Democrats in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Ohio.
In Virginia, Mr. Deeds resisted being too closely linked to Mr. Obama, whose job-approval rating has lagged in Virginia as it has elsewhere. But in recent days, he embraced the president’s offer to join him on the campaign trail.
The strategy shift underscores the Deeds campaign’s struggle to gain ground on Mr. McDonnell, a former state attorney general. A Rasmussen Reports poll last week showed that just 23 percent of voters said they would be more likely to vote for Mr. Deeds if Mr. Obama campaigns with him, compared with 43 percent who said it would make them less likely to vote for the Democrat.
Deeds campaign spokesman Mike Gehrke said that the president has proven he can “get voters fired up and to turn out here in Virginia and everywhere for that matter.”
“We are doing every thing we can,” he said. “African-American turnout is an important component of our strategy and will be an important component of our win.”