(CBS NEWS) RALEIGH, N.C. - Here at the African-American Cultural Festival, among the people listening to bands and drinking pina coladas out of pineapple shells, an Obama for America volunteer is trying his best to register voters.
The volunteer, a middle-aged black man in an Obama t-shirt, isn’t explicitly telling people who to vote for. But he knows his audience: African-American voters turned out for President Obama in unprecedented numbers here in 2008, helping drive the president to an improbable and narrow victory in this southern state. (African-American turnout in North Carolina increased by 127,000 people between the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections; Mr. Obama won the state by just 14,000 votes, with 95 percent of the African-American vote.) North Carolina hadn’t previously gone blue since 1976, and Democrats know that unless they can repeat their turnout coup from four years ago, the state will almost certainly flip back to red this year. That’s why the Obama volunteer is here, and why Democrats have placed registration forms in barber shops across the state and engaged with supporters in black churches who can help in get-out-the-vote efforts.
The volunteer is calling out to passers-by with a big smile on his face, but few of them stop. Many of the people here, he says, are already registered. He asks a man walking past if he needs to fill out the form. The man grins and makes clear he doesn’t: “You hurt my feelings,” he says. A few steps away, Darian Smith of Raleigh tells a reporter he plans to vote. Asked who he’s backing, he keeps his eyes on the band onstage. “The black guy,” he says.
Yet even here, where Obama buttons and t-shirts are being sold alongside incense and African-American-themed art, there are reasons for the Obama campaign to worry. Most voters surveyed indicated that they plan to vote for the president, but the thrill of four years ago seems to have at least somewhat dissipated. Wyona Goodwin, an executive assistant at North Carolina State University, says she is “not as enthusiastic as in 2008, but optimistic.”
Kelvin Johnson, who works for a beer distributor, says he remains enthusiastic but does not expect African-Americans to come out for Mr. Obama the way they did four years ago. “A lot of people are really not satisfied with the job he did,” he said. It’s not that people will vote for Romney, Johnson said. It’s just that they won’t vote.
Dawn Downey, a student, said she isn’t sure who she’ll vote for this year. She backed Mr. Obama in 2008, but this year feels like she is deciding between “the lesser of two evils.”
“We knew coming in that Obama wasn’t going to be able to clean up everything that Bush messed up, but I don’t know, it’s like, the state of things seem to be much worse, though I’m not sure if Romney is going to do much better,” she said. Unemployment among African-Americans in the state stands at 19 percent.
Corey Branch, president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council of the Greater Raleigh Area - a coalition of African-American fraternities - is also here trying to register voters. He said he’s had 25 or so registrants over the course of a few hours, mostly people who have changed addresses or turned 18 since the last election. “The overall energy right now is not as high as 2008,” he said, “but the energy is there.”
Software engineer Chris Mwarabu, who backed Mr. Obama four years ago, says he does not feel engaged with the process this time around. He says he’s probably back the president, though - if he decides to vote.
“In 2008, I guess it - there was all this sense of hope, there was all this promise that things were going to be a lot different, and I mean, he’s gotten in, he’s been the president, but he really hasn’t been as effective as I thought he would be,” Mwarabu said. “He came in with a platform of bringing change, and to be quite honest, I really haven’t seen the change.”
”I probably would vote for him again, just because the other choice is - I’m not going to vote for Romney,” Mwarabu continued. “I’m at the point where if I am to vote I’ll vote for Obama. Or, if I wake up and I don’t feel like going, I’m probably not going to go.”
The Two North Carolinas
Democrats decided to hold their nominating convention in Charlotte earlier this month in part to send a signal: Even in this polarized political age, they are not giving up on the South. North Carolina is the most fully southern state the president won last year, and its importance to Democrats thus goes beyond its 15 electoral votes. (The two other states won the president that might be considered southern are Virginia and Florida. But his win in Virginia was powered by support in the Washington, D.C., suburbs in Northern Virginia, and the only area of Florida that is truly culturally southern is the panhandle in the northern part of the state.)
There are three pillars to Mr. Obama’s base here. The first is African-Americans. The second is young voters from the region’s many colleges, whom the Obama campaign has also been aggressively courting. At a coffee shop in Raleigh, a North Carolina State University sophomore named Josh Malchuk is studying with friends. This is the first election where he is eligible to vote, and he says he has yet to really tune in. Asked if he and his friends are excited about the election, he said no.
“Just because I don’t know anyone that into politics,” he said. “It’s not something we talk about a lot or think about a lot.”