Raleigh, N.C. — Historically high turnout by black voters helped President Barack Obama win North Carolina in 2008 by 14,000 votes, which was his narrowest margin of victory nationwide.
Polls show Obama's support among black voters this year is weaker, which only heightens North Carolina's status as a swing state in next month's presidential election.
A WRAL News poll from October 2008 showed 92 percent of black voters in North Carolina supported Obama, while only 3 percent backed Republican nominee John McCain. In a WRAL News poll released two weeks ago, Obama's support among black voters has fallen to 87 percent, with 12 percent saying they plan to back Republican Mitt Romney.
Those results are moving in the opposite direction from overall Democratic support for Obama, which is higher this year.
David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University in Raleigh, said the weaker support among blacks in North Carolina is probably due in part to the economy.
The nationwide jobless rate among blacks in September was 13.4 percent, which was almost double the overall rate. The Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, projects that 19.4 percent of blacks in North Carolina will be unemployed at the end of this year, which is more than double the statewide rate.
"It's also some social issues, like gay marriage," McLennan said of Obama's waning support. "That's a very divisive kind of issue, particularly in the black churches."
The day after North Carolina voted in May to amend the state constitution to define marriage as being solely between one man and one woman, Obama announced his support for gay marriage.
That angered some amendment supporters, including Rev. Patrick Wooden of Raleigh's Upper Room Church of God in Christ. He recorded an ad accusing Obama of turning his back on black values.
"If some say, 'No more' by not voting for him, then that's their prerogative," Wooden said recently, adding that he isn't surprised that the president has lost some black support.
Social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion should sway voters, he said.
"I think what drives people should be their ideology – what they believe and what they think – versus color or something like that, because what if everybody in America did the color game?" he said.
Rev. William Barber, state president of the NAACP, said critics like Wooden are trying to distract voters from other issues, including the economy, education and civil rights.
"There were people, even ministers, who stood up against Dr. (Martin Luther) King and tried to stop the civil rights movement. It didn't work," Barber said, adding that he believes black voters will turn out in force this election.
"The black community is not monolithic," he said. "You may have one or two pastors that may say, 'Don't vote' or 'Vote for this person on one issue,' but even in their own churches, people are not going to just listen to them. They're going to evaluate the candidates very intellectually, very thoroughly."