Over the past month, through virtual events and a growing number of in-person meetings, former Vice President Joe Biden has carefully aligned himself with the protest movement over racial injustice unfolding across the nation — part of a delicate balancing act aimed at unifying a deeply divided country while also urging Black voters to turn out in force for him in November.
The presumptive Democratic nominee held a listening session with Black leaders at a church in Wilmington, Delaware, during the height of the protests in early June, one of his first trips since he suspended campaigning in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Two days later Biden delivered a speech in Philadelphia criticizing President Donald Trump’s response to the nationwide protests over police brutality set off by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month. The following afternoon, Biden discussed race relations at a virtual town hall hosted by The Shade Room, a celebrity news website that started on Instagram and has a largely Black audience.
The protests and the pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted the Black and Latino communities, brought racial inequality to the fore for many voters. Biden’s recent slate of events around race and policing — equal parts listening tour and call to action — is part of a targeted effort to win over Black voters, one that started last year but now comes at a critical moment in the 2020 presidential election.
In the weeks since Floyd’s death, Biden’s lead over Trump in national polls has widened, and surveys show nine in 10 Black voters prefer him to the president.
“The polls look good, but it’s all about turnout. [Biden] needs to get Black participation if he wants to win,” said Keith Williams, the head of the Michigan Democratic Party’s Black Caucus. “The Democatic Party cannot take Black folks for granted” in 2020, he added.
The polls leading up to the 2016 election also suggested Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee that year, was broadly popular with Black voters. But her support ended up being lower than expected. Black turnout dropped from 66.6 percent in 2012 to 59.6 percent in 2016 — the largest decline in voting among Black Americans from one presidential election to the next in decades, according to a report by the Pew Research Center.
Overall, 4.4 million people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 did not vote in 2016. Of those, 1.6 million were Black, according to an authoritative study on the election. The group included several hundred thousand Black voters under the age of 30.
The drop in Black turnout, especially among younger voters, contributed to Clinton’s losses in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, said Bernard Fraga, a political science professor at Emory University and one of the study’s authors.
Those three battleground states, which Obama won in 2008 and 2012, are widely believed to have cost Clinton the election. She lost the states by a combined total of just 77,744 votes, though she won the national popular vote with nearly 3 million more votes than Trump.
“The question for the Biden campaign is whether they can effectively bring in younger voters of color, especially younger African American voters who perhaps were not highly supportive of Biden in the primary and might have stayed home in 2016,” Fraga said.
Biden’s team is aware of the influence Black voters will have in determining the outcome of the general election. Last week, the campaign launched a $15 million advertising buy that included a six-figure investment in ads in Black media outlets.
“What we hear from folks all the time is that the Democratic Party and elected officials wait until a couple of weeks before an election to go into Black and Latino communities to organize and ask for their votes,” Symone Sanders, a senior Biden campaign adviser, said in an interview.
This cycle, the Biden campaign is already running ads targeted at Black voters in battleground states “because we know that they’re a critical part of success in November,” Sanders said. The ads are running in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona and North Carolina.
Some Democrats cautioned that focusing too much on Black turnout diminishes the role white voters played in electing Trump. Six million voters who backed Obama in 2012 voted for Trump four years later. Eighty-four percent of those voters were white. In most elections, it’s difficult to prove that any one slice of the electorate played a decisive role in shaping the outcome.
Trump also performed slightly better with Black voters than did Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee in 2012.
The ongoing protest movement has sparked a debate about whether the energy on display in the streets will translate to support for Biden at the ballot box in November. Biden relied on support from Black voters in primary races in the South to secure the nomination. He remains popular with many older Black voters, in part because of his close association with Obama, who endorsed Biden in April.
But Biden has also faced criticism, especially from younger Black voters, about his track record on race during his decades-long Senate career, and for speaking in generalities about race and politics that ignore the fact that the Black vote is not monolithic.
“I have no confidence that he will do anything progressive or that will help people in the Black community. In Philadelphia, a vote for him is just a vote for basic survival,” said Candace McKinley, an organizer with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund.
McKinley, who is 38, said she could not ignore Biden’s work on the 1994 crime bill. Many advocates for criminal justice reform blame the law — which Biden helped push through Congress — for a rise in mass incarceration in the U.S. and for strengthening a racially biased, tough-on-crime culture in police departments that contributes to police violence against people of color. Biden’s refusal recently to endorse calls by protesters to defund the police hasn’t helped, McKinley said.
“His whole campaign has been a threat of, ‘Vote for me or you’re going to get another four years of crazy,’” McKinley said.
But defeating Trump may prove to be one of the most important issues for many Black voters in November. A recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll found that 93 percent of Black adults disapprove of the job Trump is doing, with 88 percent strongly disapproving, while just 5 percent approve. That same poll found that, if the election were held now, 91 percent of Black adults would vote for Biden while 5 percent would vote for Trump.
If Clinton’s surprise loss in 2016 offers any lessons, though, it’s that strong polling among Black Americans doesn’t guarantee they’ll show up in November. The Biden campaign will still need to motivate potential voters.
In recent months, the Biden campaign has hosted events with Black clergy, union leaders and student groups across the country, as well as in key swing states. With financial support from the Democratic National Committee, the campaign has hired field organizers in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin who are focused on engaging with Black voters.
The campaign also has hired voting rights directors in several states. A voter ID law in Wisconsin deterred between 17,000 and 23,000 voters from participating in the 2016 election, according to a study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who concluded that the law disproportionately impacted minority voters. Trump carried the state by 22,748 votes.
Biden released a plan in May aimed at reducing racial inequality. The “Lift Every Voice” plan includes policies to close the racial wealth gap, eliminate health and educational disparities, and protect voting rights for Black Americans, among other initiatives.
In reaching out to Black voters, the Biden campaign has also relied heavily on the groundwork laid by state Democratic Party organizations in the years since Trump took office.
Democratic parties in key swing states began reaching out to Black voters in the first months of Trump’s presidency, with the goal of establishing long-term relationships in communities of color that were frequently overlooked in the run-up to the 2016 presidential race.
“We just hadn’t been in those communities as much as we should have been ahead of the 2016 election,” said Lavora Barnes, the chair of Michigan’s Democratic Party.
The party began courting Black voters in Michigan the year after Trump won, said Barnes, who served as the Michigan state director for Obama’s 2012 campaign. The 2012 race is being used as a model for 2020, with a focus on building teams of local organizers who can recruit other volunteers from their neighborhoods to help get out the vote.
Without a similar groundwork in place in 2016, she said, it should not have come as a shock that Clinton fell short of the record Black turnout Obama achieved in his two victories. “Nobody is Barack Obama except Barack Obama,” Barnes said.
The invest-early-and-often framework has taken root in other states as well, giving Democrats hope that it could pay dividends for Biden this fall.
In June 2016 the Democratic Party in Wisconsin still did not have any field organizers who were focused on Black voters, said Ben Wilker, the state party chair. The effort didn’t get under way until August of that year — just three months before the general election. Clinton skipped over Wisconsin entirely during that cycle in favor of making campaign stops in other states thought to be more competitive. Democratic presidential nominees had not lost Wisconsin or Michigan — where Clinton did make some late campaign stops — since the 1980s, and the campaign considered the states to be reliably blue in 2016.
“This time we’ve had staff on the ground since the spring of 2017,” Wilker said. “There’s been a night and day transformation in the approach to engaging with African American voters.”
The Biden campaign has bought into this strategy, based on a belief that neighborhood leaders are better suited to spreading the former vice president’s message than high-profile surrogates from outside the community.
Clinton’s team brought in “organizers from other parts of the country and it wasn’t as effective,” said Sharif Street, a state senator who represents Philadelphia and was one of a handful of Pennsylvania Democrats invited to attend Biden’s speech there earlier this month. “The Biden campaign has learned some of those lessons and is more focused on integrating local leaders into the process.”
Biden will need a diverse team of surrogates for the strategy to work, said David Crowley, a rising star in Wisconsin politics who in April became the first Black person elected to the position of executive of Milwaukee County. Black community leaders can connect with Black voters in ways that a white 77-year-old former vice president simply cannot, said Crowley, who is 34 and supporting Biden.
For some in the Black community, “it may be hard to relate to Biden, but it’s not hard to relate to the people that Biden empowers. When you look at the leadership team, people are watching to see what’s the makeup,” Crowley said.
Biden’s campaign told the PBS NewsHour that 35 percent of its full-time staff are people of color. The campaign said 36 percent of its senior staff were people of color, and 53 percent of its full staff were women.
Biden’s choice of a running mate could make a difference in how voters view his commitment to advancing diversity on his campaign and in the White House. Biden is reportedly seriously considering five women for the role, four of whom are non-white. Crowley predicted a high level of enthusiasm for Biden among Democrats this fall, regardless of the pick.
“Folks are going to come out,” Crowley said. When the choice is “Joe Biden or Donald Trump, we have a clear winner.”
For others, there is nothing Biden can do to get them excited about his White House run.
“I’m not excited about Biden at all. I’m going to go and vote for him [in November] because I want things to be a little less bad,” said McKinley, the community activist in Philadelphia.
Besides a few pieces of campaign literature that came in the mail, McKinley said she hasn’t seen any signs of Biden’s campaign in Carroll Park, the low-income, predominantly Black neighborhood in West Philadelphia where she lives. The neighborhood is a 15-minute drive from downtown Philadelphia, where Biden set up his campaign headquarters last year.
In her circle of younger, progressive activists, “I’m hearing from a lot of people who don’t plan to vote” in the presidential election, she said, and are instead focusing on state and local races that they think have a bigger impact on their daily lives.
“We’re at this age where some of us are like, ‘Let’s burn it down and start over,’” said Angela Lang, 30, the executive director of a community organization in Milwaukee. “But incremental change is still better than no change, as frustrating as that is.”
Even before the protests, Biden struggled to appeal to younger and more progressive voters of all races and ethnicities. That included young Black voters. During the primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders outperformed Biden with Black voters under the age of 30 in South Carolina and Texas, two states in which data on age and race was collected. But Biden dominated with older Black voters, who tend to vote in higher numbers.
The campaign knows it needs to do well among the youngest Black voters, said Symone Sanders, the senior Biden campaign adviser. Biden is going after those voters, she said, as well as a broad group of “disaffected” voters who the campaign believes include large numbers of Black American men of all ages.
But Biden’s attempts to connect with Black voters have sometimes gotten him into trouble. He drew heavy criticism in May, for instance, for telling a Black host of The Breakfast Club radio show that voters who can’t figure out whether to support him or Trump “ain’t black.”
The episode took place three days before Floyd’s death touched off weeks of unrest. But it foreshadowed the challenge Biden now faces as the leader of the Democratic Party during a nationwide reckoning on race.
“Putting on a performance is transparent. People will see right through that and he will lose credibility,” said Linda Little, a community leader in Detroit. Little said Biden can lead by example by confronting “any biases he may have, like the rest of America, so that when he shows up he can show up authentically.”