When Michelle Smith voted for President Biden in 2020, she thought he would help people like her, a Black mother working two jobs and raising three teenage boys in North Philadelphia. Now she says she won’t vote for him again, citing higher prices, skyrocketing rent and a feeling she has been left behind.
“I really did think he was going to help people in my situation,” said Smith, 46 years old, who earns $12.50 an hour working as a home health aide and makes Instacart
deliveries for extra money. “It’s like all of them talk a good game until they get elected.”
Heading into 2024, Democrats are sounding alarms about losing voters like Smith. Black voter turnout fell during the 2022 midterm elections compared with the previous midterms, and polling and interviews with voters show growing dissatisfaction over the economy and Biden’s leadership.
Any decline with these voters could be fatal for the re-election of Biden, whose path to victory depends on building a diverse coalition of voters in six or so closely fought battleground states.
Wage gains have cooled more dramatically for Black workers than other Americans. Median weekly earnings for Black workers employed full time rose 4.2% in the third quarter from a year earlier, versus a 10.3% gain the prior year. Overall wages rose 4.5% last quarter, down from a 6.9% increase in the third quarter of 2022.
Party leaders are chiefly concerned about diminished Black voter turnout, but are also worried that some of these voters will instead back Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, who is the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.
Hoping to prevent a drop-off, Democrats are pumping money into voter canvassing, education and advertising in battleground states.
Smith said it may be too late to convince her. “I think I’m not going to vote, period,” she said.
Black voters have long been a pillar of the Democratic Party, particularly in the 58 years following the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which banned racial discrimination at the ballot box. In 2020, they helped lift Biden to the nomination and overwhelmingly backed him over Trump, 92% to 8%.
But recent polling from the New York Times and Siena College showed that in a hypothetical matchup between Biden and Trump, 22% of Black voters would support Trump. One-quarter said they were only somewhat likely or not likely to vote.
“The risk is that people stay home,” said Alicia Garza, an activist and founder of Black Futures Lab, a group focused on engaging Black communities politically. “I think the problem is Black voters are consistently underinvested in.”
The unemployment rate for Black workers touched a record-low 4.7% in April. The rate rose to 5.8% in October, outpacing the increase for Americans overall.
Privately some battleground state Democrats are blunt about their concerns over turnout among Black voters. “I am absolutely concerned. Frankly I am extremely concerned,” said one elected Democrat. “This is a huge problem.”
Democratic National Committee officials say they started investing in Black and Latino communities in battleground states in spring 2021, including voter registration, outreach and advertising.
The DNC and the Biden campaign have made ad buys in cities with large Black populations, including $25 million the campaign spent in August on television advertising in areas such as Phoenix, Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Recently, the Biden campaign and the DNC launched a pilot organizing program focused on targeted outreach to certain groups, including voters in predominantly Black neighborhoods in Milwaukee.
“This is earlier investment into these communities than [has] ever been done before,” said Biden’s deputy campaign manager Quentin Fulks, who managed Sen. Raphael Warnock’s 2022 re-election campaign. He also stressed the campaign was focused on persuading Black voters to choose Biden, not just getting them to turn out to vote.
Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black vice president and first of Indian descent, is also reaching out to Black audiences, visiting historically Black colleges and gatherings of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically Black sorority. She also has been a leading advocate for abortion access, a powerful motivator for Democrats in midterm and special elections.
Harris was in South Carolina on Friday to formally submit Biden’s paperwork for the primary.
Trump pursued Black voters in 2020 and exit polls suggest he made some inroads with Black men. The NYT/Siena poll showed an overwhelming 80% of Black voters saying the current economic conditions were fair or poor.
Trump adviser Jason Miller said that outreach to the Black community was a priority. He cited Trump’s support of bipartisan legislation to overhaul criminal justice laws and the strong pre-Covid economy during his presidency as selling points for these voters. Longtime Trump adviser Bruce LeVell, who headed a diversity council for Trump’s 2016 campaign, said Trump can pitch voters on his efforts to cut taxes and an opportunity-zone program for tax-favored investments in low-income areas.
Camilla Moore, chairman of the Georgia Black Republican Council, part of the Georgia Republican Party, said that inflation, including the price of groceries, is hitting hard in the Black community, giving Trump an opening with Democratic voters. “I’m telling you what I’m hearing on the ground. They are just so frustrated and they’ll say: What do I have to lose?” she said.
Some Black Americans have faced higher inflation than the national average, likely because they spend a greater share of their income on items like transportation and housing that have seen especially steep price increases, according to research last year from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Mahamadou Diallo, 60, of southwest Philadelphia is a Democrat who voted for Biden in 2020 but says he would vote for Trump in another Biden-Trump contest. “He’s a weak man. He’s an old man,” he said of Biden. “He didn’t change anything.”
Democrats note that Trump was accused of repeatedly inflaming racial divisions as president. Following a violent clash between white nationalists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, he declared there was blame and “very fine people, on both sides.” He fought with minority lawmakers and insulted four progressive congresswomen of color. He opposed the removal of Confederate statues.
The sagging support for Biden could also present an opportunity for third-party candidates including academic Cornel West, who is running as an independent and could be a spoiler for Democrats in a close contest. West, who is Black, has criticized Biden and accused him of overlooking the needs of poor and working people.
Since taking office, Biden has appointed Black judges, including Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, and has pursued economic policies to increase job creation. He has also tried to cancel student loan debt, which weighs particularly heavily on minority borrowers, though his main plan was blocked by the Supreme Court. His efforts to pass a policing overhaul and voting legislation were stymied in Congress.
“This administration has to be much more aggressive about telling what they did accomplish but also the unfinished business yet to be done,” said Melanie Campbell, president of the nonpartisan National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.
Satori Shakoor, 67, of Detroit, who works as a performer and storyteller, said that in 2020 she voted for Biden because she opposed Trump and that she would do it again. She said she liked Biden’s efforts to tackle student debt and that he met with striking auto workers, but said Biden’s team needs to sell his accomplishments better.
“They don’t know how to tell a good story,” she said. “He’s been shaped as old and doddering.”
Mandela Barnes, former lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, is familiar with the razor-thin margins of battleground states. He lost a bid for Senate last year by just under 27,000 votes to incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. One likely factor in his defeat was lower turnout in heavily Black Milwaukee, where about 36,000 fewer people voted than in the previous midterm election.
Barnes, who stresses he was also outspent in the race, is now leading Power to the Polls Wisconsin, a voter turnout group focused on organizing in diverse communities. “The organizing work starts now,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s our responsibility to give people a reason to show up.”
Some Democrats are trying to figure out the root of Black voters’ drift from the party and voting in general. Longtime Pennsylvania state Sen. Vincent Hughes, whose district includes parts of West Philadelphia, has started a canvassing effort through his political office, targeting 25,000 low turnout voters to determine why they don’t participate.
“There’s this decline in participation that may be rooted in a whole lot of different things,” he said. “People feel crummy just in general, not just with voting. Part of my responsibility is to be more encouraging to the folks that feel like the glass is half empty, when in many respects, the glass is half full.”
Hughes said that instead of pressing voters to back certain candidates, he is trying to understand what ails them and asking a key question: “What is it that would make you vote?”
This article is a repost by the Wall Street Journal: Black Voters Show Signs of Slipping Away From Biden in 2024