Both Biden and Trump camps see young Black men as key to their chances

By Chelsea Janes,

Cornell Watson

for The Washington Post

Michael Scott waits in line to vote at his alma mater North Carolina Central University on the first day of early voting in Durham, N.C. on Oct. 15.

A recent Biden campaign ad began with Black female mayors urging Black women to vote for Joe Biden. Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot, Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms and San Francisco’s London Breed each made their pitch.

Just as the ad seemed to be ending, it pivoted. “Your turn, fellas,” Lance Bottoms said — and Black male mayors from around the country took over.

“Black women vote more than Black men,” St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said.

“It’s time we change that,” added Mayor Randall Woodfin of Birmingham, Ala. Others joined in urging Black men to “show up.”

The ad highlights Democrats’ concerns this year about turnout among young Black men — a group that is more likely to stay home, and more likely to vote Republican if they do show up, than other parts of the Black electorate.

Although they are still expected to favor Biden by a wide majority, they have become an unexpected target for both sides in the closing stretch. The Trump campaign sees young Black men as a potential soft spot in Biden’s coalition, while Democrats are scrambling to keep them in the fold.

President Trump’s long history as a media figure has made him a familiar figure to many Black men, said Terrence K. Williams, a sometimes inflammatory comedian who is a longtime Trump supporter.

“People don’t realize that before President Trump became president, the Black community loved President Trump,” said Williams, who is Black. “You would hear his name in rap songs. He used to hang with 50 Cent and Puff Daddy and all these guys. Everybody wanted to be like President Trump, because he was a successful businessman.”

A Washington Post-ABC News poll in June found that 81 percent of Black men under 40 were expected to vote for Biden — a high number, but considerably lower than the 94 percent of younger Black women favoring him. And in 2016, exit polling showed that 13 percent of Black men supported Trump, compared to 4 percent of Black women.

Those numbers could matter in a race where swing states may hinge on a handful of votes. Some Black and Democratic leaders are aghast that even a minority of Black men support a president they feel is racist. While some attribute the support in part to Trump’s economic policies, such as low taxes, which they say empowers the Black community, others cite his image as a wealthy and traditionally masculine figure.

Demetrius Freeman

The Washington Post

Supporters listen to Joe Biden during a drive-in event in Dallas, Penn. on Oct. 24.

Cornell Belcher, a former pollster for President Barack Obama, stressed that 85 to 90 percent of Black men still support Biden. But he said he does worry about whether “those five million Obama voters who sat out 2016 show up,” noting that “they were mostly African American.”

Jewell Jones, a 25-year-old member of the Michigan House of Representatives, said he thinks young Black men often vote at lower rates because they don’t see their votes leading to change in their lives.

“There are just so many myths, I think, about the impact of participating in politics that I think it bars people mentally from thinking that they need to participate and that they can guarantee any particular outcome,” said Jones, a Democrat, who was elected at 21 as the youngest-ever member of the Michigan House.

In 2016, of the roughly 137 million total votes cast for president, about 10 million came from Black women and 7 million from Black men — a bigger turnout gap than for any other group, according the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

The Trump campaign is doing what it can to capitalize on that disparity. It has deployed prominent Black men like football great Herschel Walker to campaign for the president, starting with appearances at the Republican National Convention.

Trump supporters argue that a vote for Biden is just another vote for a Democrat who talks grandly of helping the Black community but fails to deliver. Trump, they say, orchestrated a sizable rise in Black employment, though that glosses over the coronavirus pandemic’s disproportionate toll on minority communities. (The Black employment level is down 11 percent from February — far more than the White employment level, which is down 6.2 percent, according to Labor Department figures.)

But the Trump campaign’s efforts have sometimes been rocky. Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, asked in a recent interview about the president’s plans for the Black community, echoed the racial stereotype that Black people lack drive.

Kushner said Trump’s policies “can help people break out of the problems that they’re complaining about, but he can’t want them to be successful more than they want to be successful.”

Jabin Botsford

The Washington Post

Supporters listen as President Trump speaks to supporters during an event at the White House on Oct. 10.

Black leaders fired back. Everett B. Ward, president of Alpha Phi Alpha, a Black fraternity, called Kushner’s comments “condescending and patronizing” and added, “What Jared Kushner intentionally fails to articulate is the legal and systemic practices that have derailed the economic and political successes of the African American community.”

A pair of famous Black rappers who have offered Trump support, meanwhile, have raised concerns among Democrats while also sparking a backlash.

Hip-hop artist Ice Cube said earlier this month he’d helped the Trump campaign develop its “Platinum Plan for Black America.” Ice Cube said he had reached out to both the Trump and Biden campaigns, but that only the Trump campaign had immediately engaged.

Biden’s camp strongly denied that, saying they had responded as well. “Let me be crystal clear — that did not happen,” Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), a Biden campaign co-chair, told radio host Joe Madison.

Ice Cube’s proposal was “a skeleton plan,” Richmond said. He added, “It’s not as comprehensive as our plan, and so that’s what we told him. The offer to stay engaged was not, ‘We’ll talk to you after the election.’ It went like this: ‘Here’s my cell number, anything else you want to talk about on this plan or anything you think we need to talk about further, just pick up the phone and call.’ ”

Another rapper, 50 Cent, came out in favor of Trump’s tax cut plan (“yeah, i don’t want to be 20cent” he tweeted), before retracting his support in the face of criticism.

Yet another rapper, Lil Wayne, tweeted Thursday that he’d met with Trump. “He listened to what we had to say today and assured he will and can get it done,” he said.

The Trump campaign is not trying to win a majority of Black men, which is likely out of reach, but simply to make a dent in Biden’s broad support. Its “Platinum Plan” promises to increase access to capital for Black-owned businesses by almost $500 billion, create 3 million jobs for the Black community and achieve other economic milestones, though details are scarce in the two-page document.

Jabin Botsford

The Washington Post

A young supporter attends a Make America Great Again rally where President Trump was speqaking in Greenville, N.C. on Oct. 15.

The Trump team has also opened what it calls “Black Voices for Trump Community Centers,” hubs for organizing in 15 locations where Black turnout could make a difference in a swing state.

Williams, the comedian and actor, said some Black men are attracted to Trump’s defiance of his critics.

“Barack Obama, when he became president, he showed the world that no matter what color you are, you can become president,” Williams said. “But President Trump, he showed the world that you can be you. You can talk how you want to talk, walk how you want to walk. You don’t have to fit in a box and you can still be the president of the United States of America.”

Trump has praised Williams and invited him to the White House for a “young Black leadership summit.” He also retweeted a post from Williams advancing a groundless conspiracy theory that sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s death was somehow connected with Bill Clinton, despite the death being ruled a suicide.

The Trump and Biden campaigns are keenly aware that Black voters form a pivotal voting bloc in states that Trump narrowly won in 2016. He captured Wisconsin by less than 30,000 votes, Michigan by just over 10,000 and Pennsylvania by around 45,000. In each case the Black turnout fell below Democratic hopes.

Some Democrats worry that could happen again. Adrianne Shropshire, head of BlackPAC, which works to mobilize Black voters in battleground states, said Black men have been “underperforming” White men by about five percentage points in Florida’s early voting.

In 2016, 64 percent of Black men registered to vote in Florida cast a ballot as compared to 75 percent of registered White men, according to an analysis by Hawkfish.

Shropshire said many Black voters prefer to vote in person on Election Day, so early voting might not reflect the ultimate turnout of Black men, but “there’s a whole set of Black men we’re not trying to persuade, we’re just trying to mobilize them.”

Melina Mara

The Washington Post

Nevadans listen to Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris during an early voting mobilization event in Las Vegas on Oct. 27.

Biden and his supporters have voiced frustration, even disbelief, that any Black people would support Trump, given his history of targeting the community — from suggesting Obama was not born in the U.S. to saying four congresswomen of color should go back to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

Biden told a radio host in May that “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black,” a comment for which he later apologized.

The Democratic nominee has spoken repeatedly of Trump’s racial divisiveness, and he launched his campaign with a fiery critique of Trump’s reference to “very fine people on both sides” after a 2017 white supremacist march and counter-demonstration in Charlottesville.

The Biden campaign ad featuring Black mayors is part of a broader courtship of Black men. It includes a series of “shop talks” in local barbershops, led by such figures as rapper Common and retired basketball star Magic Johnson, as well as videos with NBA stars emphasizing what’s at stake in the election.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which spearheads the party’s House campaigns, has chipped in with a seven-figure advertising push mostly targeting Black men, and Obama has traveled to Florida and Philadelphia to mobilize support.

The “shop talk” sessions are aimed at meeting Black men in comfortable settings where they can dig in on important issues, aides say. “Those conversations in a barbershop are the kind of things going on that people don’t hear about, the kind of conversations Black men don’t discuss out loud,” said Kamau Marshall, Biden’s director of strategic communications.

But Terrance Woodbury, a Democratic pollster, said the party has not done a enough to persuade these voters it will help them. Woodbury said his conversations with young Black men often yield the same few Trump talking points — a sign that Trump’s messaging has penetrated more effectively than the Democrats’.

“When you ask young Black men how their lives will be better, or how their lives have improved from them voting, and they don’t have an answer . . . To me, that means that Democrats have not made the argument clear enough,” Woodbury said.

Julia Robinson

For the Washington Post

Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris makes a campaign stop at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg, Texas on Oct. 30.

Much of the Biden outreach, in-person as well as virtual, is handled by Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, the first Black woman on a major party ticket.

Harris sat in a barbershop chair in a parking lot in Detroit; traveled to Milwaukee and met with the family of Jacob Blake, who was shot by a police officer; and talked with Black and Puerto Rican leaders in Philadelphia. During a recent trip to Las Vegas, she visited the city’s mostly Black west side.

Harris has also held events at historically Black colleges and universities and hosted private calls with dozens of Black leaders and activists, including those from Black fraternities.

Ben Crump, a civil rights lawyer who represents the families of several Black people victimized by police, said he texts with Harris regularly. He acknowledged that some activists were initially skeptical of Harris, in part because they felt she did not do enough for the Black community during her tenure as attorney general of California.

But Crump said Harris has built up her credibility since joining the Democratic ticket. “I think she understands she has to earn the votes,” he said. “I believe she tried to change things from the inside, and sometimes that leaves you with some big battle scars. Politics is the art of compromise.”

As the Trump team is quick to point out, Biden himself inspires skepticism from some Black voters because of his central role in passing the 1994 crime bill, which many experts say led to the mass incarceration of Black men. Crump called that a “hurdle” for the Biden campaign.

In his first presidential race, Trump famously appealed to Black voters by arguing that Democrats had done little for them over the decades. “What do you have to lose?” he asked.

This time, the Biden campaign argues that Trump’s first term shows exactly how much the Black community, including young Black men, have to lose. And a lot of that involves the pandemic.

Sitting in another barbershop chair in a Detroit parking lot during one of the “shop talk” events last month, Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist told Harris, the crowd and those watching the live stream that he had lost 23 people in his life to the coronavirus.

“The stakes are so high. We’ve said goodbye to 1 out of every 1,000 Black people in the country this year because of coronavirus,” Gilchrist said in an interview. “Black men have something to vote for, not just to vote against. We are voting for our futures.”

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