Black voter turnout was down in 2022. Democratic operatives are panicking about what it could mean for 2024

By Edward-Isaac Dovere

An informal group of Black elected officials has lit up over phone calls and texts since Election Day. They’re worried about Black turnout that continues to underperform and talking ideas about how to turn it around before the next presidential election.

Black voters didn’t go for Republicans in significant numbers, but in many places, they just didn’t show up to vote at the rate they used to, underperforming when compared to other voter groups in this year’s midterms.

If former President Donald Trump and extremist candidates aren’t on the ballot in two years driving suburban and independent voters to vote for Democrats again, top Democratic operatives and Black leaders told CNN they worry they will need big changes, and quickly, to get more Black voters showing up to win in swing states and tough districts.

One operative anxiously and bluntly said that this is “how we lose in 2024.”

It’s why a number of top Democratic operatives are already chattering about Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock as a national candidate when they think of politicians beyond President Joe Biden who have proven able to get strong Black support in the South, where they’re hoping to keep building in Georgia and eventually flip North Carolina again.

Multiple Democratic leaders said they’re not even sure where to start.

Analysts at Democrats’ House and Senate campaign arms have been poring over the numbers, cross referencing precinct-by-precinct results with data about who moved and who died to gauge how deep the problem really is. Plans are already underway to expand for 2024 what was a $30 million Black voter outreach effort in the midterms at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, funding dedicated staff and targeted advertising, according to data provided by staff.

The Democratic National Committee is digging in on focus groups around the country with Black voters who haven’t been showing up to the polls.

DNC chair Jaime Harrison, a Black man and former South Carolina state Democratic chair, has prioritized those efforts and has been scheduling one-on-one conversations with Black members of Congress to build out plans, including how to adjust their own targeted advertising and staffing efforts, according to people involved.

Several are clamoring for President Joe Biden to convene Black political leaders in the spring, long before the campaign ads and usual outreach starts.

“This is not just about the traditional civil rights organizations, the traditional infrastructures like the Black church. We’ve already got them,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman, who has made a few trips beyond his New York district to talk to groups of Black men about his story of getting into politics and what he’s been able to do by being involved. “This is about the bus driver, the teacher, the formerly incarcerated. It’s about people who have never been to the Capitol, never thought about it.”

Feeling ‘literally attacked to vote’

Footage of long lines to vote in predominantly Black neighborhoods and what they’ve heard about new voting laws, leaders say, has had a reverberating effect.

“It’s hard for people to vote when they literally feel attacked to vote,” said Rep. Steve Horsford, the incoming Congressional Black Caucus chair, fresh off quarterbacking an intense turnout effort across many races in his home state of Nevada. “It’s not about the voters being a problem. It’s about the political system needing to adapt to where our country is and where we want it to go.”

Take Mondale Robinson, the mayor of Enfield, North Carolina, and founder of the Black Male Voter Project, which runs small programs in 17 states across the South, as well as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Through the organization, Robinson is hoping to build connections through programs like coding schools and hospice worker trainings. The group is also focused on canvassing, which prioritizes reaching out to Black men who aren’t registered or haven’t been voting.

At the end of August, Robinson was livestreaming another Black man driving a bulldozer into the Confederate monument in his town to knock it down. Two months later, surrounding Halifax County went for Cheri Beasley, the Democrat who was hoping to become the first Black woman elected to the Senate from North Carolina. Despite that, she did not win the county by as much as Democrats had in the last two Senate elections; the Democratic vote dropped at a steeper rate than the Republican vote (Beasley ultimately lost the Senate race to Rep. Ted Budd). On the same day, several Black legislators in neighboring counties, including a state senator whose career started during the civil rights movement, lost their seats in the state that is expected to again be a key battleground in 2024.

“People will say Black men are apathetic, or they’re apolitical. There are no apolitical Black men in America. There are no apathetic Black men,” Robinson said. “It’s antipathy. Black men hate the way the Democratic Party and politics overall plays out.”

Part of the issue, said North Carolina state Sen. Natalie Murdock, is that nearly 15 years after being excited to elect the first Black president and two years after turning out to vote out Trump, they haven’t seen enough change in their own lives and neighborhoods, whether on policing reform or targeted economic development. A point person for the Beasley campaign’s Black outreach, Murdock helped convene elected officials, community groups and activists in Durham this past Saturday to talk about how to tackle a core complaint: “Folks felt like they showed up in 2020, and they didn’t get enough. They thought, ‘We voted, we showed up, we got rid of Trump’ – there was a lag with policies being implemented,” she said.

“We’ve seen many of our freedoms and opportunities get rolled back, not at the hands of Democrats, but while Democrats are either in the White House or have control of either chamber of Congress,” said Illinois Rep. Lauren Underwood, who two weeks ago was elected to a the House Democratic leadership position to help shape how the caucus talks about what they’ll be doing over the next two years in the minority. “I think that we have to be real.”

Warnock as a model for what might work

Even as turnout among Black voters lagged nationwide, they made up 28% of the electorate in Georgia in November, backing Warnock by an overwhelming margin in the first truly competitive Senate race ever featuring two Black major party nominees.

Asked the day after his run-off win about what other Democrats around the country could learn from his success in turning out African-Americans, Warnock gave the kind of simple but not at all easy to execute assessment that these conversations tend to produce.

“I think all of us need to build broader coalitions of candidates and we need to build coalitions that look like America,” he said just before he walked back on to the Senate floor.

In the White House, where nearly everyone has shifted to expecting Biden to run for reelection, they’re already looking at Warnock, who, after four elections in two years, isn’t up again until 2028, to be a key surrogate for 2024. Among those who still doubt that Biden will indeed run, Warnock is seen as a potentially powerful sleeper candidate.

His campaign heavily invested in direct voter outreach, among African-Americans, from an intense, in-person effort to knock on doors and connect with voters through conversations, to a celebrated closing ad which featured videos of voters reacting to clips of GOP nominee Herschel Walker speaking, ending with a gray haired Black man calling the comments “embarrassing.”

Still, Black turnout wasn’t where many Democrats had hoped it would be. According to CNN exit polls, Warnock’s support among Black voters was about the same as the support for gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who lost by over 7 points while lagging behind the senator among suburban, White and independent voters. Of the Black men who showed up to vote in Georgia, Warnock was supported by 85 percent of them – similar to their level of support for Democratic House candidates nationwide at 82 percent.

“It’s not for money not being spent, and it’s not for us not getting a ridiculous amount of ads and a ridiculous amount of text messages,” said Georgia state Rep. Jasmine Clark. “You say something enough times, people start to believe it. This whole repetitive rhetoric that ‘Black people are just not excited.’ Then all of a sudden, there are a bunch of people who say, ‘You know what? This isn’t exciting.’”

Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of the organizing group BlackPAC said with the trust deficit so deep, Democrats need to approach outreach completely differently from a traditional campaign canvassing operation.

“This should not simply be a conversation about voting. This is: we are in a moment of crisis in this country where the conversation is fundamentally about the kind of democracy we want to have, the kind of country we want to live in,” said Shropshire, whose organization, knocked on over 2 million doors in key states during the midterms. “The stakes in this country for Black people are as high as they have ever been. If you don’t get the formula right, you will lose—but more importantly, the implications for Black people and other people of color in this country are drastic.”

Gauging Biden’s Black appeal in 2024

In Wisconsin, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes lost his Senate race by almost the same number of votes as the drop off compared to the 2018 midterms in Democratic votes in Milwaukee, home to the state’s highest concentration of Black voters.

Barnes declined to comment to CNN.

But New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker called those Wisconsin numbers “painful.”

If Biden does indeed run for reelection as expected, Booker said the president will have the fundamental connection to Black voters he demonstrated throughout his 2020 campaign and reinforced in recent weeks among Black leaders who support his proposed changes to the presidential primary calendar, but his aides should look to Warnock’s campaign for how to appeal to Black voters everywhere.

Warnock “did a good job of branding himself as delivering real things because he did deliver,” Booker said.

“Biden has a story to tell for African-Americans,” Booker continued, “from getting lead pipes out of the ground to extend and expand into tackling the issue of maternal mortality, and he has an African-American woman on the ballot, and he put an African-American woman on the Supreme Court.”

That may not be enough for other Democrats: Part of the reason the 2024 Senate map looks so tough for the party is that several of the states where they’ll be protecting seats – most notably, West Virginia and Montana – are states without large Black populations for Democrats to lean on.

Many Black Democrats agree that the answer over the next two years is going to require uncomfortable conversations with the party’s elite operative class to redirect money from advertising contracts and into the much less lucrative work of knocking on doors and organizing for months to rebuild trust. They must not only talk about both jobs but also create jobs programs, these Democrats said, and not only talk about maternal health bills but also facilitate health care.

Cornell Belcher, who has conducted polls for several groups focused on Black voters, said the worries about the Black vote are overblown, since by the numbers he’s run, Black voters made up just as big a share of the Democratic votes in the 2022 midterms as they did in the 2018 midterms.

Change is needed, Belcher said, but he’s skeptical how much change Democrats are really ready for.

“It is about a power and economic shift that needs to happen in progressive politics,” Belcher said. “If you shift how the money is spent, you’re shifting who has power. And let’s not be naïve: power concedes nothing.”