Democrats are worried about a potential drop next year in turnout among Black voters, the party’s most loyal constituency, who played a consequential role in delivering the White House to President Biden in 2020 and will be crucial in his bid for reelection.
Their concern stems from a 10 percentage-point decline in Black voter turnout in last year’s midterms compared with 2018, a bigger drop than among any other racial or ethnic group, according to a Washington Post analysis of the Census Bureau’s turnout survey. Such warning signals were initially papered over by other Democratic successes in 2022: The party picked up a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, Sen. Raphael G. Warnock won reelection in Georgia and anticipated losses in the House were minimal.
But in key states like Georgia, the center of Democrats’ plans to mobilize Black voters in large margins for Biden in 2024, turnout in last year’s midterms was much lower among younger and male Black voters, according to internal party analysis.
The drop in Black turnout has become a focus for Democratic leaders as the party reorients to next year’s presidential contest. Biden’s election in 2020 hinged on narrow victories in states like Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that former president Donald Trump had won in 2016. Democratic activists are cautioning that the party can’t afford to let support from Black voters slip.
W. Mondale Robinson, founder of the Black Male Voter Project, shared a dire assessment of Democrats’ potential turnout problems with Black men. In many of the battleground states, he said many Black men are “sporadic or non-voters,” meaning they are registered, but have voted in one or none of the past three presidential elections. Robinson said Democrats spend too much time focused on converting “conservative-leaning White women” in the suburbs who they see as swing voters. Instead, he said, they should focus more on turning out Black men, viewing them as swing voters who are debating whether to vote or stay home.
“The Democratic Party has been failing epically at reaching this demographic of Black men — and that’s sad to say,” Robinson said. “Black men are your second-most stable base overwhelmingly, and yet you can’t reach them in a way that makes your work easier.”
Biden’s political team says it has received the message and is taking action, especially among younger Black men.
“We have to meet them where they are and we have to show them why the political process matters and what we have accomplished that benefits them,” said Cedric L. Richmond, a former Biden adviser who is now a senior adviser at the Democratic National Committee. He said there will be a clear focus on making Black voters aware of how they have benefited from Biden administration policies, learning from the errors of past Democratic efforts that fell short.
“We will not make the mistake that others made of not drawing all the connections,” he said.
Black voter advocates say the challenge is particularly acute among Black men, many of whom say they feel alienated from the political process and were hurt by policies pushed by both parties that led to increased incarceration and a decline in manufacturing jobs decades ago. Many say their lives haven’t improved regardless of which party was in power, and are dispirited after the country elected Trump, life was upended by a global pandemic and violence worsened in urban areas.
Many Democrats interviewed said they were less worried about Black women, whose voting enthusiasm has historically been more robust than that of Black men. Black women were a huge factor in Biden’s victory in 2020. Advocates expect that trend to continue, particularly with Vice President Harris on the ticket and the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who both made history as the first Black women in their roles.
Terrance Woodbury, chief executive of HIT Strategies, a polling firm focused on young, non-White voters, has been shopping around a PowerPoint presentation to liberal groups warning of the need to act soon to convince Black voters that they have benefited from Biden’s time in office.
Part of the problem, he argues, is that the party’s focus on Trump and Republican extremism is less likely to motivate younger Black men than arguments focused on policy benefits. The messaging, he has argued, must focus on how Black communities have benefited from specific policies.
His own polling has shown that voters’ belief that their vote doesn’t matter is the greatest barrier to voting among Black Americans.
A Washington Post/Ipsos poll of Black Americans in May found a tepid reaction to Biden’s reelection. Just 17 percent said they would be enthusiastic if he wins another term, 48 percent said they’d be satisfied but not enthusiastic, 25 percent said they’d be dissatisfied but not angry and 8 percent said they’d be angry about another Biden term. The poll also found that nearly 8 in 10 Black Americans say they would not consider voting for Trump over Biden and that 54 percent would be “angry” if Trump were to become president again.
Brittany Smith, the executive director of the Philadelphia-based Black Leadership PAC (BLP), which is working to turn out Black voters, said she has noticed a change in how Black people respond to her get-out-the vote efforts in recent years. In the past, she simply needed to remind people of where and when to vote. Now, she said, many express a cynicism about politics that requires a deeper level of persuasion.
“There’s not a night I don’t go to sleep thinking about what turnout will look like in 2024,” Smith said.
““When you think about election cycle to election cycle, [Black voters] have been telling us for a long time what matters,” Smith added. “They want to put food on the table, a roof over their head, send kids to good schools, live in neighborhoods that are safe. I don’t think the issues are new, it’s the way we talk about them and the way we’re centering the voice of the people who live in these communities.”
Some Republicans say they see an opportunity to siphon off some of those disenchanted Black voters in next year’s presidential election with messaging on some key issues. Jay Williams, a longtime GOP strategist in Georgia and founder of the Stoneridge Group, a Republican firm, said school choice and transgender and LGBTQ+ issues, especially as they relate to children and schools, could harm Democrats among their reliable base.
“My guess is Democrats for the foreseeable future will continue to do well [with Black voters], but I think there’s some cultural issues that don’t typically resonate with the Black community as a whole and frankly a lot of minority communities,” Williams said. “Republicans will be able to peel some folks off based on that, depending on the area. It could be a real wedge issue for us.”
Williams acknowledged any growth in support among Black voters could be harder for the GOP if Trump is the nominee — and there will be many other groups, including suburban White women, that the party will have to worry about in that case. He added that he expects Republicans to have a better return on investment with other minority voting blocs, such as Latinos and Asian Americans, “because I don’t think they’re as in lockstep with the Democrats as the Black voter bloc is.”
Meanwhile, Democrats say they are significantly more worried that Black voters will sit it out rather than defect to the Republicans.
Sharif Street, a Pennsylvania state senator and the chairman of the state Democratic Party, said it’s incumbent on the party to give people not just something to vote against, like Trump, but something to vote for.
“Ultimately, the Democratic Party is in the right place substantively on all of those issues,” he said. “But we’ve got to understand that people don’t just know that. We have to message to people so that they know where we are, and being better than the Republicans is not always enough to get people motivated to vote.”
In Detroit, liberal organizers targeting Black turnout have made education about how politics work a centerpiece of their pitch, along with concrete examples of policies that have benefited people from state and federal legislation.
“There is a slow leaking of Black men from the base because the issues that they care about aren’t being addressed,” said Branden Snyder, executive director of Detroit Action, whose organizers tell people the exercise is more like writing a Yelp review to spur change. “We have politics that were created by both Democrats and Republicans that don’t get to the heart of what our community cares about.”
But Malcolm Kenyatta, a Black Pennsylvania state representative who is an official surrogate for the Biden reelection campaign, said that Black voters will come out for Biden next year if Democrats can articulate Biden’s successes.
“This is like being married. You have to spend just as much time, maybe even more time, on the people who show up for you every time as you do for the people who don’t,” Kenyatta said. “What Black folks care about is what everybody cares about, to be able to take care of their community, to be able to live in a community that is safe … If the president is able to do what he is doing now, which is tout his record, I think we are going to be fine.”
Many advocates say that work needs to start early and be consistent. Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Votes Matter, said the resources needed to successfully mobilize Black voters and fight voter suppression in key states were too little and came too late in 2022. He pointed to places like North Carolina and Wisconsin, which had Black Democratic Senate candidates, but said the party didn’t prioritize investments there.
“Everybody knows that there’s no path, whether it’s President Biden or any other Democrat, federal or state, there’s no path to win that does not involve massive turnout from Black voters,” Albright said. “But they can’t just think that it’s just going to happen on its own. They’ve got to invest in making that happen.”
It’s a message also stressed by Mandela Barnes, the first Black lieutenant governor in Wisconsin, who ran for the Senate in 2022 and lost by only 26,000 votes, much of which could be attributed to depressed turnout in the heavily Black city of Milwaukee. He is working now to help organizations invest in and engage voters year-round and not just show up in October of an election year and tell people to vote. He’s also trying to support diverse candidates who might be overlooked by the national Democratic establishment.
“In a swing state like Wisconsin, we could very well be the tipping point … If we show up, we win,” Barnes said. “This country, and that power, is in the hands of Black voters, and we have to take that power seriously.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.