By JULIE BAUGHMAN and MATT FLEMING/ Capital News Service
Maryland's black communities overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama's historic rise to the presidency four years ago, but this time around, his support for same-sex marriage and the nation's continuing high unemployment are tempering African-American voters' enthusiasm for his re-election bid.
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Four years ago, estimates put African-American support nationally as high as 96 percent. But as the Democratic National Convention gears up in Charlotte, N.C., this week, the Obama campaign will have to work hard to limit a natural falling off of supporters in a race tied in national polling where every vote will count.
"In 2008, it was the first time an African-American was seriously considered for president of the United States, and it was unprecedented," said Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett. "Naturally, to capture that again at the same level of outward display of enthusiasm is difficult. But that doesn't mean people won't vote for him, there is just no way to top the 'first time.'
It is more than a fading new-car smell, though. Two issues in particular working to undermine this optimism are the president's support of same-sex marriage and a high unemployment rate plaguing the African-American community.
The Rev. Anthony Evans, president of the National Black Church Initiative, said he expects many black voters, especially Christians, to abstain from voting for a new president while casting ballots against Gov. Martin O'Malley's same-sex marriage bill.
The bill, signed into law in March, would legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland. However, more than 100,000 citizens opposed to this idea signed a petition to put the issue to voters on the presidential election ballot this November.
Evans, and many others seem to be positive that voters will overturn same-sex marriage. "The president knows that we oppose him on this particular issue," Evans said, "(Obama's) career has just ended by opposing the power of the black church."
Terrence Biggs, a 33-year-old African-American Gaithersburg resident, disagrees. Biggs said he believes that, while many churchgoing black voters do fiercely trust their pastors, many of whom oppose same-sex marriage, they trust Obama equally if not more.
"I think I trust him more than I trust my pastor," Biggs said. "I'm not voting for my pastor (for president)."
When Obama finally came out in support of marriage equality in May, black voters uncomfortable with that position will still support Obama because of the trust and respect that they have for him.
"The opinions changed when they heard an opinion from someone they respect as much as their pastor," Biggs said.
Evans said Obama's loss of black followers, and what he feels will be a subsequent loss of the election, is also exacerbated by continuing high unemployment among blacks. He said that Obama has not done nearly enough to improve the unemployment rate in Maryland and the country.
"He has not been good for us," Evans said.
However, Calvin Ball, Howard County councilman and acting chairman of the Maryland Association of Counties Minority Caucus, disagreed, saying Maryland voters will stand behind Obama regardless of his stance on marriage equality or his difficulty improving unemployment levels.
"I think that the vast majority of people who support President Obama do not support him because of one issue. They support our president because of the commitment, leadership and the caring that he shows and has shown on a myriad of issues," Ball said.
According to the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, unemployment in Maryland has increased from 4.5 percent in July 2008 to 7.1 percent in July 2012. However, unemployment is down from 8.6 percent in February 2010, the highest it has been since Obama took office.
Similarly, unemployment in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, the areas with the state's highest concentration of black citizens, has increased from 7 percent in July 2008 to 11.1 percent in July 2012 and 4.6 percent in July 2008 to 7.1 percent in July 2012, respectively. These numbers are also down from 12.6 percent in July and August 2010 in Baltimore City and 8 percent in Prince George's County in January, February and July of 2010, the highest they have been since the start of Obama's presidency.
Ball was quick to defend Obama's employment policies and referenced his many attempts to pass legislation that were quickly shot down in Congress. When Obama entered office, he said, many people were losing jobs, but now near the end of his term, jobs are being gained slowly, but steadily, nationwide.
If campaign contributions are any indication, the numbers reflect a slight dip in support. The Federal Election Commission reported that Maryland contributions totaled more than $8 million, compared to 2008, when CNS reported Obama having received nearly $9 million through the end of July.
"I'm doing fundraising, volunteer work, and was at the campaign office the other day to get volunteers," said Karren Pope-Onwukwe, a delegate to this year's Democratic National Convention. "I had one woman the other day give $25 at a dinner with Obama. That's the thing -- people don't have to give a lot of money. You can go online and buy a mug or something; it's all supporting the campaign."
People have been doing just that. Despite the staggering unemployment rates, the money is still coming in.
"It's about the same," said Norma Lindsay, the Prince George's County Central Committee chairwoman. "I haven't seen any difference. Now other places, I don't know, but Prince George's County, we are exactly where we should be."
Delegate Emmett Burns, D-Baltimore County, who heads an Economic Matters subcommittee on unemployment insurance, agrees with Ball that unemployment has, "been (on) an upward trend as the economy worsens," but that voters, particularly black voters, will not place direct blame for their unemployment woes on Obama.
"I think they're going to go out and support him in great numbers," said Burns.
Voter turnout would be more predictable if people voted based on one issue. Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby said that "voter group predictions should be based on socio-economic subgroups and not by race," and pointed to Michael Steele's failed bid for lieutenant governor.
"At the end of the day, voters will see that the Republicans are not coming up with real answers as to how to create jobs," said Mosby. "The stimulus package and other job-creating mechanisms may not have lived up to your expectations, but it was an attempt at solving a complex economic crisis that has been inherited from failed policies of past administrations."
One of the most outspoken critics of the president's support of same-sex marriage, Burns, a minister at Rising Sun Baptist Church in Woodlawn, condemned the president's actions, but has since reiterated his overall support for the president.
"Though many don't like same-sex marriage, ultimately, the president will do more to help the country than Mitt Romney will," Burns said.
The president will need all the support he can get, if he hopes to defeat Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The two have been neck-and-neck, with the most recent CBS News poll, released on Aug. 28, showing Obama with a slim one-point lead? 46 to 45 percent.
There is still a long two-and-a-half months left for the campaign to play out, so any polling is premature.
"The enthusiasm may have dampened on the surface," said Leggett. "But you won't know more until closer to the election."