Another factor making 2012 politically historic? It marks the first presidential election with super PACs. Given free rein by a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, super PACs are independent committees allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support, or skewer, a political candidate.
They're already shaping the election. After a pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, spent nearly $3 million on attack ads in Iowa targeting Newt Gingrich, his lead in the state swiftly plummeted. But a new pro-Obama super PAC, 1911 United, has a different strategy in mind: to mobilize an "army of Obama supporters."
Backed by members of Kappa Alpha Psi and Omega Psi Phi, historically black fraternities that both celebrated their centennials last year, 1911 United aims to raise $1.5 million toward training and organizing African-American voters in key battleground states to re-elect President Obama. Members of the two fraternities joined forces last year, officially forming the committee in December, after seeing that both organizations were running their own campaign volunteer-recruitment efforts at college homecoming events.
"We were thinking about how we could really honor the legacy of those brothers who got together 100 years ago, and we thought perhaps the best thing we could do is help re-elect our president," Sinclair Skinner, committee treasurer, told The Root.
To achieve this goal, 1911 United plans to organize and deploy 10,000 volunteers to register at least 100 voters each and activate them to hit the polls. The PAC is focusing its efforts in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Colorado.
"When it comes to putting down dollars, energy and effort, these are the critical battleground states," said Skinner, 42. "We also chose states where the black electorate represents a percentage of the population that will make a difference in the election's outcome if we don't come out. We're not fighting Republicans; we're fighting apathy."
Skinner, a mechanical engineer who served as field director for former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty's first mayoral campaign, says that he understands criticism of super PACs in general, for allowing corporations to dominate the political process. But he's unapologetic about forming one.
"I am conscious of how money impacts campaigns, and how it's used to control and strangle the process. That being said, we want to make sure that every resource available is being used to empower our people go out and vote," he said.
And yes, that possibly includes the attack ads for which super PACs are so notorious.
"We're going to be able to have advertisements that support Obama, and some might consider them attack ads. But I think it's about time black folks had their own attack ads," said Skinner. "We've borne the brunt of most of them whenever someone's running for office, from the time of Willie Horton. If this vehicle gives us a voice and an opportunity to put forth our agenda, then, in that context, I think it's a good thing."
Another critical aspect of 1911 United's approach is organizing early, instead of the typical model of rushing a last-minute push in the fall. Starting now will be especially important in combating possible disenfranchisement of black voters in the form of photo-ID laws, cuts to early voting and other rule changes in the 2012 election.
"Some of this is about our people maturing in the electoral process," said Skinner, who added that too often, African Americans mistakenly view elections as a one-day event. "The issue of voter suppression is not new to us as a people. But getting involved in the process in January will ensure that we're more prepared come November for whatever they try to throw at us. That involvement means making sure that people are aware of all the laws, all the rules, and in a position to address them."
Despite 1911 United's emphasis on racially diverse swing states, the organization intends to work in as many areas as possible. For example, the committee will send a delegation to New Hampshire next week to campaign for Obama during the primaries.
"In every place we can be, we're going to do our best to battle for our president," said Skinner. "We're not struggling. We're a powerful people. We can do anything. And we're going to fight to make sure our president gets re-elected."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.