Obama win in North Carolina may hinge on black vote

As delegates flock to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., renewed focus is being placed on the African-American vote and whether issues like same-sex marriage may put a dent in the support of the president.
Pastor Dwayne Walker delivers a rousing sermon to his congregation at the Little Rock AME Zion Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Mark Gollom/CBC News)

On a shelf in the Charlotte, N.C., church office of Dr. Dwayne Walker rests a picture of himself with U.S. President Barack Obama, who, despite his recent support of same-sex marriage, can still count on the strong backing of the pastor.

"I disagree with the president on same-sex marriage," Walker told CBC News, hours after giving a rousing sermon to his congregation at the Little Rock AME Zion Church.

"But just because I may not support every plank of the platform does not mean I cannot support [him]," said Walker, adding he does support civil unions.

Walker, who is still grieving the recent loss of his wife to cancer, compared the issue to his own marital relationship, saying just because he and his spouse didn't agree on everything didn't mean they were going to divorce.

North Carolina recently voted in support of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. But the opposition to same-sex marriage by some African-Americans has gained renewed interest in the state, where this year's Democratic National Convention is getting ready to roll in Charlotte.

Small margin of victory in 2008

A traditional Republican stronghold, North Carolina was a surprise victory for Obama in 2008. However, the margin of victory was small — just over 14,000 votes. And with African-Americans making up 22 per cent of North Carolina's population, and having played a critical role in his electoral success, any fracture of support could deal a blow to Obama's chances of repeating victory in that state.

Dr. Patrick Wooden, an African-American pastor in Raleigh, N.C., and vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, is using the issue in attempt to oust Obama. He recently released a YouTube video accusing the president of turning his back on the values of the African-American community and charged by seeking to overturn the state's same-sex marriage amendment.

"Join me in saying no more to President Obama," Wooden says in the ad.

In a recent report, the National Urban League calculated that if the African-American voter turnout rate in every state declines to 60 per cent, down from 64.7 per cent in 2008, Obama would lose North Carolina and have trouble in Ohio and Virginia.

"When you win by 14,000 votes, your margin of error is very small," said Eric Heberlig, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina.

Currently, polls are about even for Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney in North Carolina. But a solidified African-American vote could be crucial for the president to win in November as he also won't have, as Heberlig referred to it as, the "perfect storm" of conditions he had in 2008. Those included a combination of an unpopular Republican party and presidency, an imploding economy, and a grassroots phenomenon for Obama. As well, the campaign for Obama's 2008 Republican opponent, John McCain, had put few resources in North Carolina, possibly taking the state for granted.

Romney's campaign has more staff and offices than McCain did, Heberlig said, adding that Romney has been investing heavily in advertising.

"The Republicans aren't going to get caught flat-footed twice," he told CBC News.

Heberlig said he doubts same-sex marriage will have much, if any effect on Obama's electoral results.

Economy a top issue among African-Americans

"African-Americans are not going to vote against the president because of that. If there's any dampening of support, it will be because of the economy."

Walker agreed that the economy is still the number one issue among African-Americans. But  it may also be to blame for what he perceives as a lack of enthusiasm among some black voters.

The latest figures show the unemployment rate in North Carolina is 9.6 per cent, higher than the national average rate of 8.3 per cent. Statistics from the Economic Policy Institute in February revealed that unemployment in the African-American community in North Carolina was roughly nine points higher than the state average.

"I'm concerned there is a sense of apathy among voters because people are distracted with the notion of surviving. One of the last things they would be thinking about is who's in the White House," Walker said.

Walker said that he also worries that the same-sex marriage issue could mean that some black voters may just stay home.

"I think there are some people who may take that position and I will consider it a very misguided and unfortunate position because staying at home is still a vote for Mitt Romney," Walker said.

Voter ID laws 'blatant racism'

However, Rev. Ricky Woods, senior minister of First Baptist Church-West, said the same-sex marriage issue and the impact it may have on the Obama campaign has been overhyped.

Reverend Ricky Woods, senior minister of First Baptist Church-West, in Charlotte, said he doesn't believe same-sex marriage is a big issue in the African-American community. (Mark Gollom/CBC News)

"It is not a widespread issue as the general media would like to present it, Woods told CBC News, sitting in his church office. 

"Because within our congregations, African-American churches have always been welcoming and affirming of people who have not necessarily made the choices that mainstream society said they should make," said Woods, who was against the constitutional amendment.

Woods noted there have been other black religious leaders who opposed the constitutional amendment, as did Rev. William Barber, head of the state chapter of the NAACP.

Woods said he believes African-Americans are more concerned about attempts at introducing tough voter identification laws, which Republicans say are needed to combat fraud. In 2011, North Carolina vetoed new photo ID laws.

Woods called the attempts "blatant racism" that puts an "undue hardship on minority groups, particularly elderly minority."

"The voter suppression is far more important than the same-sex issue. The same-sex amendment was not going to have any impact at all on families. But voter suppression does." 

Teri Taylor, a member of Walker's church, said while she opposes same-sex marriage, other important issues like health care trump any disagreements she may have with the president.

"I oppose [same-sex marriage]. I do believe that God ordained for men and women to be together, but I will still support him," she said. "We're not all going to agree on the same things and I think that's one little issue we're going to have to agree to disagree."