Detroit – When Democrats lost the presidency to Donald Trump four years ago, their biggest vote drop-offs were centered on a trio of Midwestern Rust Belt cities with large Black populations – Detroit, Milwaukee and Cleveland.
This year, all three anchor battleground states that Democratic nominee Joe Biden hopes to reclaim for his party, and recent polls show him in the lead.
But in 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton led some of the same October polls in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio only to lose them all, thanks largely to blue-collar white voters turning to Trump and some African Americans turning away from the election altogether.
Biden has tried to win back non-college educated white voters, and his candidacy has been buoyed by a shift in support from seniors and suburban women who historically have voted for Republicans. But Biden’s campaign and top party officials in all three states point to rebuilding Black voter turnout – a bedrock of Democratic victories for decades – as key to shoring up the Midwestern battlegrounds the party lost four years ago.
So far, party leaders and Biden’s African American surrogates in the three cities are projecting confidence that their voter outreach efforts will deliver – despite much of it being relegated to the virtual realm amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The work, they said, only has been energized by Biden’s running mate selection of California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, the first Black woman and Asian American named to a major presidential ticket.
“The Trump presidency was a theory in 2016, and the deadly nature of the Trump presidency is a reality in 2020,” said Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, a Detroit native and top Biden surrogate. “In our Black communities, we realize how urgent this moment is and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris know how urgent this moment is, and that’s why they’ve been speaking with such moral clarity about what the stakes are, and I think that’s ultimately going to be what drives that turnout up.”
But interviews with more than 60 Black local elected officials, religious leaders, grassroots organizers and voters in visits to all three cities reflect a shakier situation – one where there is often little enthusiasm among African American voters for Biden and prevalent concerns that the campaign has to do more to improve turnout.
The dozens of interviews found Black voters driven most, not by Biden’s candidacy, but by an animus for Trump and concerns over systemic racism and police brutality laid bare by the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville and the shooting that left Jacob Blake paralyzed in Kenosha.
Many voters had little familiarity with Biden or his campaign platform. Some who did expressed concerns about his record on criminal justice and his comments this year that painted Black voters as a monolithic bloc that should back him without question, for which he later apologized.
Detroit City Council member Mary Sheffield said “there is a disconnect” between the Biden campaign’s optimism on Black turnout and the “lack of excitement, lack of enthusiasm” she’s seeing in her ward on the city’s East Side.
“A lot of people have had their eyes opened to the importance of voting, with the death of George Floyd and the civil unrest, but they don’t believe Joe Biden would be the person who would really do anything different,” she said. “A lot of voters I talk to – the younger ones especially – aren’t just going to go out and vote for Biden because he says, ‘If you’re Black, you vote for me.’”
Taken for granted
Among the more than 3,000 counties nationwide, the three with the largest drop in Democratic votes between Barack Obama’s reelection win in 2012 and Clinton’s 2016 loss were Wayne County, Michigan (home to Detroit), Cuyahoga County, Ohio (home to Cleveland), and Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, according to certified election results compiled by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All three counties include the largest Black populations in their states.
In Wayne County, Clinton collected 76,000 fewer votes than Obama did, with 47,000 of those votes coming in Detroit, which is 80% Black. She lost the entire state of Michigan by just 10,704 votes.
In Cuyahoga County, Clinton collected about 49,000 fewer votes than Obama, which contributed to a 10% drop in Black turnout statewide. The drop cost Clinton two points in a race she lost by eight, but polls have shown a tighter race in 2020.
In Milwaukee County, home to 70% of Wisconsin’s Black population, Clinton won 43,000 fewer votes than Obama, part of a staggering 19% drop in African American turnout statewide. Clinton lost Wisconsin by just 22,748 votes.
Cleveland City Councilman Basheer Jones worked as a regional field director in his city for Obama’s 2012 campaign and as a consultant for Clinton’s 2016 campaign, organizing events to engage Black voters. He described Obama’s campaign as a “well-oiled machine” that sent “waves of people who never considered voting” to the polls while “Hillary Clinton took that vote for granted.”
“They just believed there was no way Black people would support Donald Trump,” said Jones, the first Muslim elected to Cleveland’s council who represents a ward on the city’s predominantly Black East Side. “But they never made the case on why we needed to support Hillary Clinton. There wasn’t a sense of urgency.”
Jones said he’s seeing slightly more energy around this election – mostly because of deep opposition to Trump.
“I’m not seeing a lot of excitement on the ground here in Cleveland for Joe Biden, unfortunately,” Jones said. “So, at least if you’re not pro-Biden, I’m hoping you’re anti-Trump and that will be enough to bring you out, but I’m just not sure.”
The pandemic has complicated the Biden campaign’s efforts.
From March until late August, the former vice president canceled campaign travel. Plans for campaign offices, phone banks and door-knocking were shelved in favor of virtual events.
The result has been often low visibility in Black communities where a physical presence in church congregations, corner campaign offices and knocking on doors historically have been viewed as key in connecting with voters who may be harder to reach.
“If you want this community to support you, you need to touch down in a lot of ways in this community,” said Rev. Gregory Lewis, executive director of Souls to the Polls, a faith-based grassroots organization that is aiming to boost Milwaukee’s Black turnout by 100,000 voters.
“I know it’s a pandemic, but get people out here with a ton of free yard signs, door hangers, put up some billboards – do something that shows us you want our vote,” Lewis said. “I could go down the street right now and ask someone if they know who Joe Biden is, and they probably won’t know.”
‘He’s not Trump’
In Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee there have been various voter outreach efforts underway independent of the Biden campaign and Democratic Party.
Souls to the Polls has been organizing some 500 faith leaders in Milwaukee to run voter registration drives in their congregations while canvassing to register and educate voters.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Kathie Walker and a handful of volunteers gathered in a church parking lot and split into four teams to knock on doors in the McGovern Park neighborhood on Milwaukee’s North Side.
During two hours of canvassing, Walker kept the conversations focused on whether the person had registered to vote and knew how to vote by mail or early vote. She didn’t mention the candidates. Asked if she sensed a lot of excitement about the election, Walker compared it to dirty laundry.
“Eventually you get sick and tired about wearing the same pants or the same socks over and over and you change them,” said Walker, 68, a former IT worker who supervises the mentoring program at the local Boys and Girls Club. “I sense that people know it’s time to change.”
As she hit the pavement on a stretch of 54th Street, Walker had her two grandchildren in tow, one of them pulling a wagon full of Souls to the Polls “VOTE” yard signs. By the time Walker and her teammate had hit the 38 houses on the two-block stretch, they had placed 14 signs in front yards. There were no Biden or Trump ones in sight.
Ronnie Thomas took a sign. The 50-year-old construction worker said he would vote to “get Trump out of office” and cited concerns about police brutality, systemic racism and the president’s divisive rhetoric.
“We’re on the brink of a race war and have all kinds of crap going on with Trump,” he said. “We definitely need change.”
What does Thomas think of Biden? “He’s not Trump.”
What about the former vice president’s campaign platform? “He’s not Trump,” Thomas repeated. “That’s all that matters.”
Across the street, Deborah Kaye, a 63-year-old state social worker, called Trump “terrible” and said she considered Biden “compassionate,” someone who understands people and would “listen to the scientists” on the pandemic.
“This is election is about three things: getting rid of Trump, getting control of this virus so people can go back to work and getting people to stop hating each other,” Kaye said as Walker planted a sign in her yard. “I tell people all the time, if a person likes Trump, they don’t like me, because he doesn’t like Black people, he doesn’t like brown people. We need to end all that.”
On a recent Saturday afternoon in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood, Arthur Fayne helped organize a “check-in and check-up” event at his grocery store, offering free food distribution, free COVID-19 testing and drives to register voters and complete Census forms.
Fayne said it’s important for such community organizing to carry on through the pandemic, and said he thought Black turnout would be higher than 2016 but doubted it would return to 2012 levels because he hadn’t sensed a lot of energy in the community.
“I don’t hear people saying they are excited about Biden, but I do hear people being sick and tired of Trump. But the question becomes, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ “ said Fayne, 57, seated near the produce aisle of his New Eastside Market. “We shouldn’t need to hear another speech from Biden, no need to hear from Kamala. We shouldn’t need an alarm clock to wake us up and say it’s Election Day. Trump should be enough.”
Outside in the parking lot, Michael Davis and Michael Adams held clipboards and registered voters. The members of the Iota Phi Theta fraternity said they believed the killings of Floyd and Taylor and Trump’s rhetoric on race would motivate Black voters the most.
“I think with everything that is going on, police brutality, systemic racism – people are tired of seeing the same story over and over,” said Davis, 31. “This is the most we’ve protested in a long time, and people are just fed up.”
Adams said he didn’t like Biden’s track record and said a “leopard doesn’t change his spots,” citing the former vice president’s support of the 1994 crime bill that helped lead to the mass incarceration of African Americans. He said that will be enough for some voters to stay home, but not him.
“Voting is like catching a bus. Sometimes the person is not going to get you exactly where you want to be, but you’ve got to take the bus that gets you the closest to your destination,” said Adams, a 31-year-old nurse at the local Veterans Affairs hospital. “That’s what Biden’s going to do. He’s not going to give us all we want, but he’ll get us a lot closer than Trump ever will.”
A virtual campaign
Biden’s top surrogates in all three cities argue that what’s lacking on the ground in Black neighborhoods has been made up for online.
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, the first African American elected to the post, said he’s encouraged by all the virtual organizing work undertaken by the Biden campaign, citing good attendance for Zoom calls and virtual phone banks.
“Because you aren’t being bombarded with as many knocks on the doors and aren’t seeing as many bodies on the street, it might feel like there is a void,” said Cuyahoga County Democratic Party Chairwoman Shontel Brown. “But in the numbers and activity we’re seeing, we’re making an impact.”
Still, Biden’s campaign recently reintroduced door-knocking in some battleground states, including in Michigan but not yet in Ohio or Wisconsin.
Campaign chairwoman Jen O’Malley Dillon said in a statement that the practice would be used in “targeted” communities to “help us mobilize voters who are harder to reach by phone.” In Michigan, the door-to-door effort started in Wayne and Oakland counties – home to the state’s two largest populations of Black voters.
National polling has shown Biden is on track to win about 90% of the Black vote with Trump netting about 10%. Four years ago, Trump won 8% to 89% for Clinton.
The president’s campaign has spent millions on a Black Voices for Trump outreach program, but there has been little evidence in polling that the effort is gaining traction. The work also has been undercut by Trump’s history of inflammatory remarks surrounding race, his divisive response to national protests over systemic racism and his refusal to clearly condemn white supremacist groups during the candidates’ first debate.
Both the Biden campaign and Democratic leaders – particularly in Wisconsin and Michigan – point to overhauled state party structures and improved outreach efforts in the 2018 midterm election as reason to be optimistic this November. In Wayne County, for example, Black turnout rose to 54% in 2018, up from 38% in the 2014 midterm as Democrats won back two congressional seats and the governor’s office.
Gilchrist, Michigan Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes and Biden’s Michigan senior adviser Eddie McDonald all stressed that rebuilding the party’s Black outreach efforts for 2018 and keeping it in place proved crucial when the pandemic struck.
As an example, McDonald said the party’s interactions with thousands of churches in Detroit moved online with ease with each congregation running their own voter drives. The Biden campaign also has emphasized its “Shop Talk” program aimed at owners and patrons of barbershops and beauty salons as an innovative way to engage Black voters.
“Folks still listen to their beauticians, they listen to their barbers,” McDonald said. “We have to meet people where they are.”
In a recent visit to Detroit, Harris sat in a barber chair in the parking lot of Headliners Barbershop with a small, socially-distanced group of Black community leaders to highlight the Biden campaign’s “Lift Every Voice” plan to increase funding and grants for Black-owned businesses.
“There’s a big difference between equality and equity. Equality suggests everybody should get the same thing, but that often assumes everyone started out in the same place,” Harris said. “Equity is everyone should end up in the same place, and if you understand not everybody started out in the same place, you understand some people need more.”
One place where the Biden campaign decidedly was not present: New Era Detroit’s recent Meet in the Streetz “Hood Politics” event.
The daylong event was held in a vacant lot at the intersection of Mack Avenue and Bewick Street in Detroit’s East Village neighborhood, long referenced as one of the most dangerous intersections in the city. Local businesses sold their clothing and food from trucks while the community organization held a grocery giveaway.
New Era was founded by Zeek Williams with the goal of empowering Black communities through ardent grassroots organizing in the spirit of Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and Huey P. Newton, a co-founder of the Black Panthers.
For four hours, various speakers took to the stage in front of a video board and spoke to a crowd of more than 300 people about various ways to hold their communities accountable.
Michigan state Rep. Jewell Jones, a Democrat who represents parts of Inkster and Detroit, gave a tutorial on voting. Jones backs Biden, but didn’t mention him.
Asked in an interview afterward if he thought many in the young crowd were eager to vote for Biden, the 25-year-old lawmaker replied, “When you go vote, it’s not about being excited, it’s about being strategic. Sometimes you have to put emotions aside and do your civic duty.”
A few minutes later, former NBA star Stephen Jackson gave a speech, recalling his childhood relationship with Floyd while wearing a black hooded sweatshirt bearing his likeness. He spoke of the need for justice against police brutality and to end violent crime in Black neighborhoods before turning to voting.
“I’m going to keep it real with y’all. We vote for a system that was built to keep us in the same f––– position. Until this whole system comes down, we’re voting for nothing,” Jackson said to applause. “A lot of people died to vote and we should vote, but we need to get something for our f––– vote this time. Enough voting for the hell of it.”
Williams waited until after dark to take the stage – to send a message to the nearby drug dealers and teenage gangbangers that “these are our streets.”
During an obscenity-laden speech about the need to improve their community from the inside-out, Williams talked about political accountability and became the first and only speaker all day to mention Biden. He mocked the former vice president for making a brief retail campaign stop last month at the Detroit clothing store Three Thirteen in between events with union workers.
“Just because Joe Biden brings his raggedy ass to the city of Detroit and goes and shops at a black-owned store … I don’t give a f–-,” Williams said to laughs. “That don’t make you no different. That’s nothing. What are you talking about?”
In an interview, Williams said Biden stopping for a photo opportunity “may have worked 10 years ago, but it’s so cliche. The same old politics like that aren’t gonna last much longer. The younger generation is fed up.”
Williams emphasized the need for groups like his to start organizing from the ground up with the smallest political offices. He said he voted for Obama twice, but has since become disenchanted with national politics. He said he didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential race and isn’t sure if he will this year.
“These candidates all campaign, and the only time they come to the door is when they want something. They spend millions upon millions of dollars on TV, billboards, flyers, door hangers, yard signs, all for the illusion of voting for a particular candidate,” said Williams, 35, who runs real estate businesses. “At the end of the day, everybody tells you, ‘Just go vote, just go vote, just go vote,’ but nobody actually wants to educate you.”
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