R. John Thomas, of Cincinnati, said he did not participate in a new NBC News poll indicating 20% of Black voters would consider voting for Donald Trump if the presidential election were held today. But if he had been polled, Thomas said, he is not sure what his response would have been.
This alarmed him. “It should be a no-brainer,” he said.
“I’m not a Trump supporter — let’s make that clear,” he said. “But I was concerned about President Biden. What has he done for Black people, who were a big reason for him winning? You hear that noise coming from the other side and you think, ‘It’s the same ol’, same old’: People begging for our votes, but not doing anything for us after they get it.”
“But I’m not panicking. The election is a year out,” Thomas, 37, added. “The picture will get focused over time. It’s all cloudy now. But it’s still concerning.”
The share of Black voters who have chosen Republican presidential candidates has been low since the 1960s, after President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, signed landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and was elected to a full term later that year. Since then, the Black electorate has overwhelmingly sided with Democrats, with candidates earning 70% or more of the Black vote.
In 2020, 12% of Black voters sided with Trump, according to NBC News exit polling. By contrast, 87% chose Biden, who has openly attributed much of his win to the power of the Black electorate. The win was so crucial to the Democrats that the party moved up the primary election for South Carolina, a nod to the Black voters in the state who helped secure Biden’s nomination in 2020.
But an October New York Times/ Siena poll of voters in six battleground states also indicates a potential shift from 2020. Seventy-one percent of Black voters said they would likely vote for Biden if they had to choose a candidate, and 22% said they would likely choose Trump. The voters were in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — six states considered the most crucial for a presidential win in 2024.
Meanwhile Biden’s job approval rating among all registered voters has slipped to its lowest, according to NBC News polling, with 40% approving of his job performance, and 57% saying they disapprove.
Some polling has shown Trump receiving a slighter rise in Black support over his 2020 performance, like a Suffolk/USA Today poll in October that showed 13% support, or a Quinnipiac poll published earlier this month, where he garnered 15% of Black voter interest. But Biden’s approval among Black voters has been sinking, hitting 63% in a September poll by NBC News.
This much is clear: The uncertainty among Black voters is palpable. All of this points to how important it is for Biden to secure overwhelming Black support, which likely will not come without some serious work to overcome the prevailing skepticism.
“Rightfully so, some Black voters are saying that in life there are some things they aren’t happy about,” said Washington state Rep. April Berg, a Democrat. “Maybe it’s a sense of hopelessness. And sometimes folks make choices feeling like there’s no hope, there is no difference and no good choice. And maybe through the polls they are sending us a message: ‘We might as well go with something else.’”
“But I really think Black voters are saying, ‘Biden, pay attention. Don’t take us for granted. We came through for you in 2020.’ And in the end, I just don’t believe the polls mean an affirmative vote for Trump and his core values. If it’s Trump versus Biden, it’s Biden all day for Black voters.”
Dean Howard, a Black voter from Milwaukee, feels the same way, but with a caveat. “After 2016, we should not take polls as the end-all, be-all,” he said. “I’m voting against Trump no matter what. But that doesn’t mean other Black people feel like I feel.”
Katrina Gamble of Sojourn Strategies, a social impact consulting firm, said the polls indicate an agitation among Black voters.
The polls do not “100% say that Black people are going to vote for Trump,” Gamble said. “But what Black people are saying through the poll is that they are frustrated with both sides and that they’re exploring their options, which could be not showing up at all. That’s my concern: How does that frustration translate into the level of engagement of the Black electorate in 2024?”
Sojourn Strategies focused on Ohio, a key battleground state, during a project aimed at understanding Black voters.
“We did this because the Black vote is treated as a monolith. But not every Black voter is the same,” Gamble said. “And we found that nearly a third, almost 30%, of Black voters fall into this category of what we call ‘rightfully cynical.’ That means they’re frustrated with both sides of the political spectrum, and that they are starting to lose trust in institutions. They are very close to checking out and not participating at all.”
Left-leaning groups attempt to buck the trends
With less than a year until the 2024 presidential election, left-leaning voter engagement groups see the ebbing numbers as a moment to act. Rise, an organization that galvanizes young Black voters, has entered full grind mode. Mary-Pat Hector, the group’s CEO, said it has focused its efforts on connecting with “hard-to-reach Black voters aged 18 to 29, the voters that have not been touched by civic engagement organizations or campaigns.”
By the end of the year, she said, Rise plans to have trained and hired more than 5,000 student organizers — “many in swing states,” Hector said — to begin building rapport with young voters early in 2024.
“We understand that most progressive candidates wait three or four months before the election to reach these voters or show up and show their face,” Hector, 25, said. “But we know it’s going to take us doing that work now to mobilize that particular voting bloc. The Gen Z kids know when something is inauthentic. They know when something seems performative, and it turns them off.”
The impact of early engagement can be decisive, Hector said.
“If these Black voters are talking to or hearing from individuals that look like them, that come from communities that they come from, that they trust, to share with them the importance of them to vote around issues that matter to them, then we believe they will show up to vote.”
But the work is intense, Hector said. Trump, oddly enough, has a certain appeal because of “the cases currently against him,” she said. “They have given him some form of popularity among young Black voters, particularly young Black men who see themselves as often being targeted by the criminal justice system, overcriminalized and oversentenced.”
“So there is a lot of concern for me,” Hector said, “because if we don’t show up, issues like climate, criminal justice reform, affirmative action, debt relief, people’s identities, reproductive rights, will be on the line. We saw in 2016 that elections have consequences. Not showing up has consequences.”
To engage disenchanted voters, the Biden administration has to implement more than engagement efforts, said Gamble of Sojourn Strategies. “We have to help Black voters understand their power in this election. The administration has to center the voter and tell the story of their power in how they put this administration in office through their vote and what that administration has delivered for them.”
Added Berg, the Washington state representative: “I don’t think we should be out there screaming the same way the Republicans are. But we have to do better at messaging, at stating how we value everyone. A lot of folks don’t understand that our party really is about shared prosperity.”
The Biden campaign insists it understands. Quentin Fulks, Biden’s principal deputy campaign manager, told NBC News that “hundreds of millions of dollars” have been committed to reaching Black voters. Much of it will be via radio and television ads and public service announcements between now and the election.
“For us to win this thing, we have to have long, sustained conversations with African Americans in their communities, in the ways in which they get their news about what we’re going to do for them and about what we have done for them as a whole,” Fulks said.
He cited the lowest Black unemployment rate in history, at 4.7% in April; marijuana reform through Biden’s pardon of all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession; the Child Tax Credit that has cut Black child poverty; lower prescription drug prices and energy costs for seniors through the Inflation Reduction Act; the investment of almost $7 billion in historically Black colleges and universities; 400,000 more Black people enrolled in health insurance coverage through HealthCare.gov; the appointment of Black judges to a third of open judicial seats around the country, and many other wins.
“My research showed me that Biden is working for us,” Jordan, the Black voter from Ohio, said. “Polls be damned, he’s working for us. That’s more than what we can expect from the other side.”
Fulks, who worked on Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock’s successful 2022 campaign, said the administration’s work is purposeful.
“Black voters know exactly how important their vote is. But what Black voters want in exchange for their vote is to be seen, heard and listened to,” Fulks said.
He added that the campaign will not “make the mistake of underestimating these voters. We’re not going to make the mistake of parachuting in around election time. They’re too smart for that — and deserve better.”