Politics

Obama Takes His Message To Young Black Voters

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College students played a pivotal part in the historic turnout and result of the 2008 presidential election. With less than a month to go before midterm elections, polls show a flagging interest in the vote on campuses. Host Michel Martin explores the Black college student perspective on midterm elections with Stefanie Brown, national field director of the NAACP's Youth and College Division, and Kirk Pressley, president of the Student Government Association at Bowie State University where President Obama spoke yesterday.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

The Barbershop guys take their seats today to talk about the baseball playoffs, to be sure, but they'll also take on the firing of Rick Sanchez by CNN for his comments and Tea Party Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell's new ad campaign featuring the line, I am not a witch. We'll talk about that later.

But first, our weekly political chat. On a day when the government announced that the economy shed 95,000 jobs in September, that was many more than economists had predicted. The unemployment rate, though, held steady at 9.6 percent.

This was the last jobs report before the November 2nd midterms, and it may not bode well for Democrats trying to close what's being called an enthusiasm gap, a flagging interest in the races among the party's faithful.

A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll found that only 61 percent of Democrats said they were certain to cast their ballot, compared with 77 percent of Republicans. Now, as part of an effort to energize voters, President Obama has been traveling the country, stumping for some candidates.

Yesterday, he addressed a rally at Bowie State University. That's a historically black institution in largely Democratic Maryland.

(Soundbite of applause)

President BARACK OBAMA: What the other side is counting on, the other side is counting on is that this time around you're going to stay home. They're counting on your silence. They're counting on amnesia. They're counting on your apathy, especially the young people here. They don't believe you're going to come out and vote. They figure Obama's not on the ballot, you're not going to come out and vote. Maryland, you've got to prove them wrong.

MARTIN: Now, the president's audience was comprised of many young people, many African-American people and many middle-class voters. Those are all groups that played an important part in getting him elected in 2008. And one study shows that young voters give Democrats a 34-point edge over Republicans in the presidential race. But in these elections, that margin is just four points.

So we wanted to dig more into these numbers, so we've called two people who have a close interest in these matters. Stephanie Brown is the field director for the Youth and College Division of the NAACP, that's the oldest civil rights organization in the country.

Kirk Pressley is Student Government Association president and a senior at Bowie State at the site of the gathering. And I welcome you both. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Ms. STEPHANIE BROWN (Director, Youth and College Division, NAACP): Thank you for having me.

Mr. KIRK PRESSLEY (President, Student Government Association, Bowie State University): Thank you for having me, as well.

MARTIN: So, Kirk, you were at the rally yesterday. What was the mood like?

Mr. PRESSLEY: Everyone was really excited. I wanted to have the president on our campus and then to also just be in the presence of greatness, and to be able to listen to what he has to say and be a part of that history and be a part of that.

MARTIN: You know, now, we've mentioned that young voters were reporting less attention to the election than those 30 and older, but the gap between younger and older voters this election is double what it was in 2006, just to give you some numbers from the Pew Research Center, which is a very, you know, respected research institution.

It says that 53 percent of voters 30 and older are giving a lot of thought to the election, compared with just 31 percent of young voters. That's a huge gap. And in 2006, it was just an 11-point difference. Why do you think that is, Kirk?

Mr. PRESSLEY: One of the main reasons I think it is that way this time around for the elections is because one of the things that President Obama did do when he campaigned is that he did take different methods to getting younger people involved in the election.

And I believe that the candidates that are running during this midterm are not meeting that standard that he set.

MARTIN: Stephanie, what do you think? You've been traveling the country. That's partly your job is to get people interested in not necessarily from a partisan perspective but certainly from a policy perspective. What's your take on this?

Ms. BROWN: I totally agree with Kirk. I think it's extremely important for candidates and parties that really want the youth to turn out to vote for their issues or for their candidates, they have to get them involved in the front end. They also have to see what are the issues that these young people care about?

I think it's important, though, to note, it's actually not a bad thing that 31 percent of those under the age of 30 are interested and likely to vote, because in 2006 there was only 25 percent that actually voted.

And so I think we need to keep, you know, historical precedence in mind and look at what the trends have been. So we're not far off track of where we have been over the last 30 years.

But I think getting young people engaged and listening to them are some of the really key components that candidates and parties need to look at.

MARTIN: So you think it's in part that there isn't that specific outreach toward younger voters that the Obama campaign instituted? You know, because it's interesting because a lot of people have been questioning the whole question of coattails, whether the president's coattails actually apply. That just because people were interested in supporting President Obama, that doesn't necessarily translate into interest in other candidates.

Now, Kirk is saying that this is in part a lack of outreach, but some people say it's a question of policy is that the policies or the issues that are in front of the voters just don't seem to be energizing Democrats to the same degree, in the same way that Republicans may be motivated by their distaste for these policies. And they want to come out to say that they don't support them. But Democrats aren't similarly engaged. What is your take on that, Stephanie?

Ms. BROWN: You know, I think in a lot of ways, people in their everyday lives don't think about Democrats or Republicans or independents. They think about the fact that I don't have a job, that I want my children to have a great quality, public education, that I want my streets to be safe. And if they feel as though their parties or their candidates or those in elected office are not adhering to their needs or really addressing them, then they feel, what is the point of turning out to vote?

And so you have a Congress, there's still many different bills that are stuck in Congress, that are stuck in the Senate. You know, there was a long time coming before we had unemployment benefits reauthorized by Congress. And that's people's livelihoods.

So people oftentimes lose faith in their politicians when they feel, you know, they're not being listened to.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly political chat. We're talking about the midterm elections. We're talking about efforts to get younger voters interested. We're talking about President Obama's efforts to sort of travel the country to energize his base.

We're speaking with Stephanie Brown of the NAACP and Kirk Pressley, a student leader at Bowie State University, which hosted the president yesterday for a rally.

I just, I want to play a clip from the rally yesterday, something that kind of caught our attention. As we mentioned, Bowie State is a historically black institution. The crowd is very diverse, but kind of tilted African-American. And this is the music that was selected to introduce the president. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "City of Blinding Light")

(Soundbite of cheering)

MARTIN: And that's a U2 song called "City of Blinding Light," and the rally closed on an often-played Brooks & Dunn country song. Now, nothing wrong with that. But, Kirk, a lot of people were wondering if that's kind of emblematic of an effort to appeal to constituencies that perhaps are not as impressed with the president as the constituencies that are. So I guess the question I'm asking you is, were you feeling it, the U2, the Brooks & Dunn?

Mr. PRESSLEY: To be honest, I didn't even pay attention to the song because I just saw the president of the United States coming out in front of me.

MARTIN: No, but I know it's bigger than the song. But I'm just saying, do any of them ever talk to you about feeling that the Democrats in general and this administration in particular are not speaking to them as directly as they would like to be?

Mr. PRESSLEY: Well, I think I would have to say no on our campus, only because of the fact that when he does speak, he's very relatable and very in tune with what's going on.

I mean, people were dropping like flies yesterday in the rally, passing out all over the place. And Barack stopped to say hey, hey, hey, just calm down. You know, just give him some water. Sit him up, you know.

He's just very calm, cool and collected, and that's what we can relate to. And we're smart enough to know that the president's not going to control everything that goes on around him, but to know who he is rather than looking at all the people that are making him be who he wants to be.

MARTIN: Stephanie, though, what do you think about that whole question of whether the base has been sufficiently attended to throughout the first two years of the administration, whether that is playing a role in this so-called enthusiasm gap?

Ms. BROWN: Yeah, definitely. I think especially for young, African-American voters, they want to feel as though people get them and understand. And they also don't want to be taken for granted. And that's a big thing that people talk about with the Democratic Party and African-Americans that they take advantage of our vote, and I think a lot of that is true.

I don't think we can stress enough the importance of going out and listening and sitting down and taking time to talk to people in their communities, where they are. You know, people aren't going to always come out for your rally, but they have to go to the grocery store. So why aren't you there talking to them about, you know...

MARTIN: So what's the answer? What's the answer? I mean, earlier this week, we reported on what's being described as an enthusiasm gap among Latino voters, for example, but they overwhelmingly identify with the Democratic Party but are less inclined to go out and actually vote. So the question is: Why is that?

Ms. BROWN: You know, I think community empowerment and education are two key factors that have to be in place. People need to know, what are the issues that are before them and the policies that can be enacted to change their lives?

And so when you don't have an educated voter base, it often reflects in the voter turnout. And so, if we spend time as not just the politicians and the parties but the community organizations, groups like NAACP, we have to get out and tell people that, you know, you need to be educated to what is going on in your local community, as well as on the federal level.

So many of the mayors' races and the city councils' races, they don't even get paid attention to, but you can see those people every day. And so I think that community engagement and empowerment and education are extremely important.

MARTIN: And Stephanie, finally, I'm going to have to ask you this question. The president keeps saying, you know, prove the pundits wrong. Do you think the voters will?

Ms. BROWN: I definitely do. You know, African-American youth are actually the most politically engaged group of young people in this country. They are more likely to support candidates by giving donations, but showing up to rallies, by volunteering. That's a little-known fact that people don't want to talk about oftentimes.

And so I think that, you know, we feel a sense of responsibility to uphold our communities, and we're going to show that through our vote. And there's the vote is a great equalizer. It doesn't matter if you're a millionaire or if you don't have any money at all, you have the choice of democracy, to vote for what you want to see in place. And I think that we're going to turn out in large numbers on November 2nd.

MARTIN: Kirk, I'm going to ask you the same question. You earlier noted that a lot of the candidates you're seeing in other races have not emulated the president's success at reaching out to voters through things like social media. They just aren't they just for whatever reason don't seem to be doing it. Some are; some aren't. Do you think it's too late to correct course?

Mr. PRESSLEY: I don't think it's too late to correct the course. I think that if they continue to push those different agenda items that focus on students, like the tuition freezes and how those might be in jeopardy if, you know, people like the governor, Governor O'Malley don't get reelected in the state of Maryland and, you know, just pushing the things as far as they are concerning the student population in young persons across America, then I feel like they're going to come out, and they're going to vote in large numbers, as Stephanie said.

I think we are very in tune with what we want to happen for our future and very in tune with what's going on. When we see people that are real, that actually have a mind for leadership and leading us to success, then we're going to go out and vote.

MARTIN: Kirk Pressley is Student Government Association president at Bowie State University. It's in Bowie, Maryland. And he was here in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with Stephanie Brown. She's the national field director for the NAACP's Youth and College Division. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. PRESSLEY: Thank you so much.

Ms. BROWN: Thank you so much, Michel.

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