Black Voters Critical to Democrats in Midwestern Battlegrounds

Woman holding voting signage
Black voter in the Midwest

Damian Pruitt saw “a lot of pandering” and a lack of accountability from the 2016 presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. He feels little has changed this year.

Analyah Schlaeger Dos Santos doesn’t have much faith in Joe Biden. But she can’t envision another Trump term, so she will pick the alternative.

Maia Weatherspoon wants a candidate to “show and prove” or she won’t turn out in November.

As the Democratic National Convention got underway this week, all three voters of color were gathered at the George Floyd memorial in Minneapolis, where a young speaker with a bullhorn urged the crowd to vote.

With Floyd’s family leading a moment of silence, the convention is intended to showcase the party’s commitment to racial justice in word and deed. Former President Barack Obama, the first Black president, and California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who is running to become the first Black vice president, headed Wednesday’s program. Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police intensified a political reckoning around race that many in the party have long demanded.

In key Midwestern states where the 2016 election was decided by a margin of less than 2%, Black voter enthusiasm is a critical factor in 2020. Four years ago, the national turnout rate for Black voters — who have overwhelmingly supported Democrats — fell for the first time in a presidential election in two decades. Meanwhile, more white voters showed up.

Husniyah Dent Bradley supported Clinton in 2016 and recalls people telling her they didn’t like either candidate and were sitting out the race. But voters have seen the changes Trump’s presidency has wrought, said Dent Bradley, who is African American and attending the virtual Democratic National Convention this week as a Minnesota delegate for Biden.

Things feel different when she talks to people this time. “There are more people that are seeing the urgency and the need to make sure their voices are heard on Election Day,” she said. “People are taking it more personal.”

Black voters helped fuel Biden’s presidential primary success, though some his comments have frustrated people who feel he takes their support for granted. His choice of Harris, who is Black and Indian-American, is a needed signal that he will prioritize Black Americans, Dent Bradley said.

Isaac Russell, another Biden delegate, hopes Harris can build inroads in African American communities across the country, despite criticism of her record as a tough-on-crime prosecutor. But while vice presidential picks can break a presidential bid, they rarely help deliver a win, he noted.

Biden’s record as Obama’s vice president could help. “Much of this is going to remain at the top of the ticket,” Russell said, noting that Biden is seen by many African Americans as “someone who had Barack Obama’s back.”

It will take “a lot of the nitty-gritty kind of groundwork” to drive turnout in Black communities, Russell said. Normally that would involve Biden and his surrogates talking at churches and community hubs, but COVID-19 has hampered the campaign’s ability to get out into those places.

“The very few opportunities that he gets, such as debates, such as any public speeches that he gives, he needs to speak to some of those real feelings that the African American community has,” Russell said.

The Biden campaign has hired two African American engagement directors around the Twin Cities as well as organizing friend-to-friend outreach in the Black community and making media buys in African American press.

Democrats are also up against active GOP efforts to reach out to Black voters, or at least dampen their enthusiasm for the Biden-Harris ticket.

Trump campaign adviser Katrina Pierson, who is part of the Black Voices for Trump effort that started last year, visited St. Paul on Tuesday. While Trump has come under fire for attacking the Black Lives Matter movement and protecting Confederate statues, Pierson counters that Biden helped write the 1994 crime bill that contributed to an increase of Black men in prison. “That message is being received,” she said.

In Milwaukee, where low Black voter turnout helped swing Wisconsin to Trump in 2016, state GOP Party Chairman Andrew Hitt said Republicans have increased outreach to Black and Hispanic voters and are talking about school choice, record low unemployment for Black Americans, efforts to reduce some mandatory minimum sentences and funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“If we don’t reach out and meet people where they are, we have no chance of getting their vote,” Hitt said. “That’s something that we in Wisconsin haven’t done a great job at.”

Hitt said Democrats also have missed a big opportunity to court Black voters in Wisconsin since the pandemic forced them to all but eliminate downsize their convention in Milwaukee.

Dakota Hall, director of Leaders Igniting Transformation, a nonprofit led by youth of color in Milwaukee, says Democrats still need to step up their efforts to win over young men of color. He drives by the city’s Trump office on his way to work every day and was shocked by how busy it was before COVID-19.

“They are in the heart of the African American community here,” he said. “They know what they’re doing over there in the Trump campaign.”

In Detroit, where tepid Black support for Clinton helped Trump win Michigan in 2016, the Trump campaign has been active with digital outreach to young Black men, said Branden Snyder of the nonprofit Detroit Action. Much of that effort, Snyder believes, is directed at discouraging Biden support rather than getting people to back Trump. Either way, he believes the gravity of the 2020 election will draw more Black voters than 2016, despite mixed opinions about the Biden-Harris ticket.

“One thing is for certain,” Snyder said, “Trump has not been a president who has had the best interest of Black folks.”

Minnesota, which has not voted for a Republican for president since Richard Nixon, stuck with Clinton in 2016, but the margin was only 1.5%, or less than 45,000 votes. The state has fewer Black voters than Michigan or Wisconsin, though East Africans have become a significant voter group in the state.

Somali immigrants will feel compelled to vote in part because they are concerned about Trump targeting their community, said Rage Ali, a Biden alternate to the convention. The president fueled fears during a Minneapolis rally last year when he called U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar a “disgrace” and talked about limiting refugee resettlement. The Trump crowd booed at his first mention of Somali refugees.

“Every Somali will be standing for Joe Biden,” said Ali, who is Somali American. He said Biden’s centrist appeal makes him the strongest option to take on the president.

Josiah McFadden was at the Floyd memorial Monday in Minneapolis. He said while young people post political things on Instagram and go to rallies, he’s not sure that will translate to votes.

“The most important thing for the 2020 election is to get those people … that didn’t vote in 2016, but did vote in 2012 and 2008,” McFadden said. “If not, then we’re in trouble.”


(Article written by Jessie Van Berkel)