Democrats growing anxious — again — over Black turnout

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PHILADELPHIA — On a chilly afternoon last week, Pastor Melanie DeBouse stood on a small stage in a city park trying to fire up her neighbors, many of them Black, and encourage them to vote. Signs posted nearby read, “Vote! It’s An Act of Hope!” and “Every Vote Is Sacred.” Faith leaders working alongside her handed out free chips and water.

“We are here today to answer the question: ‘Voting? Why bother?’” DeBouse said into a megaphone. “And our answers will lead you to the reality that your life and your freedoms depend on it.”

Tony Williams, a middle-aged Black man, stood a few feet away and listened politely. But even though he voted in past elections, he wasn’t convinced it was worthwhile this year: “We’re not going to benefit from it.”

Black voters form the backbone of the Democratic electorate, voting for Democrats at higher rates than any other racial group. But interviews with more than a dozen elected officials, strategists and activists in key swing states, most of them Black, suggest Democrats are increasingly concerned that Black turnout could sag this November — and with it, Democrats’ electoral chances.

If Black turnout were to fall this year, it would seriously complicate — if not eviscerate — Democrats’ path to victory in hotly contested gubernatorial and Senate races across the country, including Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin. In a poll by POLITICO-Morning Consult released last week, just 25 percent of Black registered voters described themselves as “extremely enthusiastic” about voting in this election, compared to about 37 percent of white voters and 35 percent of Hispanic voters.

Though they stressed that they have no doubt Black voters will continue to overwhelmingly support their party, Democratic strategists are worried in particular about a lack of enthusiasm this year among young Black people and Black men of all ages.

After Black voters played a pivotal role in electing President Joe Biden two years ago, the strategists said that some Black voters believe that not enough has changed since, especially when it comes to the economy, gun violence, voting rights and criminal justice reform. Sixty-nine percent of Black voters approve of Biden’s job performance, according to the POLITICO-Morning Consult survey, which they characterized as insufficient to guarantee a strong vote for Democratic candidates.

“The polling says we should be concerned about Black turnout,” said Bishop Dwayne Royster, executive director of POWER Interfaith, the Pennsylvania-based progressive group that organized the voter registration drive in Philadelphia. “There’s a level of frustration that folk are experiencing right now, right? Let’s just be honest: For a lot of folk, they’re seeing incidents of gun violence that’s permeated their community. People are struggling with the economic conditions.”

At the same time, for many Democrats, fearing a drop in Black turnout is a cyclical tradition that often doesn’t come to pass. Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of the liberal group BlackPAC, which is focused on getting Black voters to the polls, said, “It’s like Groundhog Day. Six weeks out, people stick their heads out of their holes, and say, ‘We might have a problem with Black voters.’”

She added that Democrats need to intensify their communication efforts with Black voters now — but it “should’ve started a long time ago.”

Some Black Democrats are anxious that the party is relying too much on anger over the Supreme Court ending abortion rights to bring base voters to the polls. When Democrats “drive only on abortion for a number of months, that sounds tone-deaf to Black men who have other issues on the table,” said Cyrus Garrett, who served as the African American political director for the Democratic National Committee.

“Should Democrats be concerned about African American turnout going into this midterm? Hell yes, they should be,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster. “History shows there’s a pull back. We shouldn’t be surprised by this … [and] you can’t just count on Roe being overturned to change that fundamental dynamic.”

Belcher said that signs don’t currently point to a 2010-level drop off with this constituency, when Republicans swept into control of the U.S. House by flipping more than 60 seats. But it’s still “the big X factor” for campaigns, who should be asking themselves, “What are you doing about it because you know about it?” he said.

Democrats have deployed their biggest star, former President Barack Obama, to Wisconsin, Michigan and Georgia in the coming weeks in part to excite Black voters. He has cut digital and radio ads for statewide candidates, some of which are airing on radio stations that cater to Black audiences. Vice President Kamala Harris, the highest-ranking Black female office-holder in U.S. history, has stumped and fundraised for candidates across the country.

There are also a number of Black Democrats on the ticket in swing states this year, which could increase Black turnout in those states. They include Senate candidates like Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Rep. Val Demings in Florida, and former North Carolina state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. In Georgia, Sen. Raphael Warnock is seeking reelection, and Stacey Abrams is running for governor. In Pennsylvania, Austin Davis is vying for the lieutenant governor’s job.

Across the country, Democrats argued they have made Black voters a key part of their strategy — and are talking about issues such as the economy, Social Security and student loan forgiveness in addition to abortion. Warnock attended a half-dozen events focused on mobilizing Black voters in just the last week. Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro’s first stop on the trail following his launch rally was a Black church. Pennsylvania Senate hopeful John Fetterman’s team said it is dedicating millions of dollars targeting Black voters.

And with democracy itself under threat in these midterms, a handful of Democrats are actually predicting high Black turnout: “People are going to show up at record, handsome, historic form in this midterm election,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist who has joined the Democratic National Committee on its national bus tour to get out the vote.

But recent elections have heightened many Democrats’ distress about excitement among Black voters this year.

In 2016, lower-than-expected turnout in Detroit and Milwaukee contributed to Hillary Clinton’s losses in Michigan and Wisconsin. Four years later, former President Donald Trump performed somewhat better in some big cities, including Philadelphia, where he received slightly more votes in many majority-Black wards than he had in 2016.

Though these shifts were often around the margins — and Clinton and Biden won urban areas and Black voters overwhelmingly — small changes can make a difference in razor-thin elections. In Biden’s case, he relied on the suburbs to put him over the top.

Chris Rabb, a Democratic state representative in Philadelphia, said his “fear” is that recent trends among Black voters will continue this year. He urged candidates to hire Black activists to canvass voters in the communities where they live.

“Trump did better in Philly his last time than he did in 2016,” he said. “And in 2021, we lost [most] judicial races statewide. If just a few more Black registered Democrats in Philly alone — just Black folk, just Democrats — came out every race, all the Democrats would have won statewide.”

Isaiah Thomas, a Philadelphia city councilman, said a rise in homicides in the area has made some Black voters “feel like government isn’t working for them.” Ahead of the election, he said, “I just think that we’re not doing a good enough job as it relates to outreach and advertising. We’ve just got to do a little bit more. We’ve got to do a little bit better. And that includes me, too.”

A bright spot for the party could come in Georgia, where early voting totals show the Black share of the electorate surpassing 2020, according to an analysis by Catalist, a Democratic data firm. At this point in 2020, Black voters made up 33 percent of the share of the electorate, and in 2022, they’re up to 35 percent.

But Georgia Democrats warned against reading too much into these early results: “If you look at the percentages of what Democrats need to win a race statewide and you do the same thing with Republicans, everyone’s hitting their marks,” said one Georgia Democratic operative, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. “But no one knows who the non-voters [or first-time voters] coming into this cycle will look like.”

In other states, the Catalist analysis showed Black voters represent a smaller share of voters prior to Election Day this year as compared to the same time in 2020, like in Pennsylvania, where they made up nearly 13 percent of the share of the electorate at this point compared to 7 percent now. But in Michigan, Black voters’ share of the electorate mirrors 2018, the last midterm cycle.

Former Michigan state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, who previously chaired the Democrats’ Detroit caucus, said that “what I’m concerned about is there doesn’t seem to be a lot of energy.” She argued that the state’s ballot initiative to enshrine the right to an abortion could be a motivating force for Black voters, but some liberal groups have not promoted it effectively within her community.

“That is a signature issue to get African American engagement, but we can’t take it for granted. I’m a woman of faith. And so sometimes if the message is not presented properly by the right surrogates, they might just take what the commercial is saying and run with it,” she said. “This is not just about abortion. This is about a woman’s right to choose. And more than that, the criminalization of a policy that’s on the books from 1931 that will adversely impact African Americans more than anyone else.”

In Wisconsin, Black voters make up a smaller percentage of the population than in Pennsylvania or Michigan, but they will still be key to the Democratic coalition. “We’re glad we’re talking about the Black vote because everyone doesn’t invest in [that constituency] as early or as often as we tell people they should,” said Angela Lang, who leads Black Leaders Organizing Communities, a group based in the state. “But when we have these conversations about Black turnout, it’s important to understand the challenges and obstacles our community has to deal with.”

Democrats have gone all in on the issue of abortion this cycle, investing tens of millions of dollars into TV ads across the country about the issue. In a speech last week, Biden made clear that preserving abortion rights was his closing message: If Democrats keep the House and elect more senators, he promised that the first bill he’d send to Congress next year would codify Roe v. Wade.

But some Democrats said the laser focus on abortion should not mean that candidates should neglect other issues that also excite Black voters.

“The threat from the other side is very real — on voting rights, on abortion rights — but that isn’t translating to young Black men, in particular,” said Terrance Woodbury, a Democratic pollster who is working on races in Georgia. “[Black voters] are beginning to circle the wagons, but returning to 2020 levels of support is not enough if we have not reversed the erosion with Black men. And I’m not confident that we have.”

In recent weeks, signs have emerged that abortion is not as motivating today as it was a few months ago among all demographic groups.

Molly Murphy, president of the Democratic polling firm Impact Research, which was Biden’s pollster in 2020, said “Black voters, prior to Dobbs and after getting Trump out of office, were not indicating that they were motivated to vote in the midterms. And Dobbs did change that across the board. But now … it is unclear whether the sort of high-water mark enthusiasm that we saw over the summer is going to endure into November.”

Murphy conducted polling in Pennsylvania that included an oversampling of Black voters who are reluctant to vote. Messages that stressed that Trump tried to overturn the election — and voting for Republicans would signal to Trump that the “rule of law means nothing” and “he can ignore our votes” — registered as the most motivating to them.

“So I think we have to push not just on abortion, which is an important motivator, but also give lower-propensity voters multiple reasons to show up,” Murphy said. “Trump is a powerful motivator … so to just completely ignore that or other ways of motivating voters going into the midterms, I think, is shortsighted.”

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