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CLEVELAND — After living through the civil rights movement, Jimmy Thornton recalls what it felt like to vote for the first black president almost four years ago.
“I really was enthusiastic,” Thornton, 73, remembered on a snowy Sunday morning following services at the Mt. Zion United Church of Christ. “It was something to see, to see this gentleman become president.”
In 2008, black voters such as Thornton famously lined up around city blocks to vote for President Barack Obama. They pushed turnout in their community to new highs and helped deliver the ever-competitive Buckeye State to the president.
As Obama ramps up his re-election campaign, Cleveland is slowly seeing some signs of economic recovery. But as the third-poorest city in the country, America’s Comeback City has a long way to rebound from the years-long recession — and so do its voters, the majority of whom are black.
Will black voters be as enthusiastic in supporting the president in November? Rep. Marcia Fudge (D), who represents the only majority-black district in Ohio, gave a pregnant pause before answering.
“Uh, I hope so,” Fudge replied in an interview after the gospel-filled church service. “But you also have to realize that in ’08, it was history; it was in some instances, to some people, a novelty; it was hope; it was the belief that this country had changed and taken on a whole new persona. And I think that people haven’t seen, in terms of the way we have responded to this president, any real change in America. So I don’t know that people would be as enthusiastic.”
The importance of Ohio in the presidential contest cannot be underestimated. No Republican has won the White House without winning its electoral votes.
And while the presidential nominees will eventually fight for the political middle in the suburban and exurban areas surrounding Cuyahoga County, Obama’s campaign must simultaneously drive up its margins in urban areas such as Cleveland to deliver the state.
Polling proves black voters, such as those in urban northeastern Ohio, continue to overwhelmingly support the president. A recent Quinnipiac University survey showed 95 percent of black voters viewed the president favorably.
“The polling we’re doing shows he gets the vast majority of black votes, but gauging turnout is much more difficult,” said Peter Brown, a Quinnipiac expert on Ohio. “Are they willing to wait in long lines as they were willing to do four years ago?”
Thornton thinks so, once the president fully engages in the campaign.
“To me, it’s like a sleeping lion. He’s dormant. ... All of a sudden, it’s going to be like a flash and get everyone’s attention,” he said.