WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama is turning to black radio listeners to plead for midterm votes, a targeted approach to drum up Democratic support at a time when many candidates don't want him around in person.
African-American turnout will be vital to Democrats' hopes in states such as Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina that will help determine control of the Senate. And Obama remains beloved among black voters even if Democratic candidates in those races are running away from him amid the president's low overall approval ratings.
"This isn't about my feelings being hurt," Obama told the Rev. Al Sharpton in one of seven nationally syndicated interviews he's conducted the past week. "These are folks who are strong allies and supporters of me. I tell them, I said, 'You do what you need to do to win. I will be responsible for making sure that our voters turn out.' "
That's a big responsibility to take on in a midterm. Census figures show that in recent congressional election years, around 4 in 10 black adults turn out to vote. In recent presidential election years, a majority of black adults reported voting, including more than 6 in 10 in 2008 and 2012. White voters traditionally voted in larger percentages than blacks in both midterm and presidential elections, but in the past two presidential elections black turnout was higher - which Obama pointed out was what helped put him in office.
"We do not vote unfortunately in midterm elections as high a rate as we do during presidential elections," Obama explained on the Rickey Smiley Morning Show, hosted by a comedian known for his prank phone calls. "I'll bet there are whole bunch of folks listening to your show who may not even know that there's an election going on. I need everybody to go vote."
An Associated Press-GfK poll out Tuesday found Obama has an 85 percent approval rating among black voters, versus 34 percent of whites. The White House said the president and first lady Michelle Obama plan to do more radio interviews aimed at black listeners in the final two weeks of the campaign. Obama also has been doing web videos, mailings and recorded calls targeted at black voters in key races, although the White House declined to reveal which candidates are requesting them.
The efforts indicate that even if Democratic candidates think Obama would do more harm than good by appearing at a rally, they are eager to have his help reaching black voters.
The Democratic National Committee is using Obama's popularity among blacks in a seven-figure advertising campaign targeted at minorities and young voters. An ad targeted for black newspapers reads "GET HIS BACK" in large letters over a picture of Obama and urges readers to stand with the president by voting for Democrats. In a DNC commercial airing on radio stations popular among black listeners, an Obama speech touting his economic agenda is set to jazz and ends with a voiceover urging listeners "to stand up for our community and vote Nov. 4."
Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said a challenge for Democrats this election is that many of the most hard-fought races are in Republican-leaning states where Obama didn't compete in 2008 or 2012, so his campaign did not engage core voters. "In the closing weeks of just about every campaign that I've been involved in since the late 1970s, people worry about the black vote in the last two weeks," she said. "The problem with the two-week strategy is that it doesn't give you the kind of turnout you need."
The base voters Democrats are trying to get to the polls often don't follow mainstream news media. The White House has found that black radio is a particularly powerful motivator, looking back on the voter response during Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns and enrollment increases under his health care law.
Obama argues in the interviews that low black turnout in the 2010 midterms allowed the GOP tea party wave in Congress that has been blocking his agenda. The pitch is part solicitation for votes, part lecture to blacks for staying home in midterm elections when the president is not on the ballot.
Obama said Republican officials in some states are pushing legislation to make it harder to vote, but said that can't be an excuse for low turnout. "You can't complain about, 'Oh they are trying to mess with us or trying to take away our vote,' but then half of us or more don't even bother to try to vote," he said on the Yolanda Adams Morning Show.
Obama told a predominantly black audience in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, on Sunday that the election "will be a done deal if you vote" and get friends and family to vote as well.
"You've got to get that cousin Pookie sitting at home on the couch," Obama said to laughter. "He's watching football right now instead of being here at the rally. You've got to talk to him and let him know it is not that hard to exercise the franchise that previous generations fought so hard to obtain."