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‘Cousin Pookie’ problem still unsolved by Democrats as Biden tries on midterm coattails

'Democrats need to show how Black men's votes made a tangible improvement to their lives,' strategist says

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., speaks with students from Morehouse College after casting his ballot on the first day of early voting on Oct. 17, 2022 in Atlanta.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., speaks with students from Morehouse College after casting his ballot on the first day of early voting on Oct. 17, 2022 in Atlanta. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Barack Obama knew in November 2016 that Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates had a problem. It was — and still is — the “Cousin Pookie” problem.

The Thursday before Election Day that year, the then-president talked to predominantly Black audiences about a fictitious couch-dwelling family member who was much more interested in other activities than casting a ballot.

Evidence suggested then, and does again with just 17 days until this cycle’s midterm elections, “Pookie” is again not very fired up about the party’s slate of candidates. And just like in 2016, it is creating more than a little angst for Democratic candidates and strategists.

“Democrats should do more to empower Black male voters,” Jermaine House, senior director of communications at HIT Strategies, a consulting firm that works with underrepresented communities, told Roll Call. “It is not just about giving them more reasons to vote but also about showing them the progress from their prior support and votes for Dems. If they believe their vote created change in their community, then they will believe their vote has power, and they are more likely to vote again.”

Keisha Lance Bottoms, a former Atlanta mayor who now is a senior advisor to President Joe Biden, said recently of swing state Georgia that she is also “very concerned [about] the lack of enthusiasm in our state right now.”

“I don’t feel and see the enthusiasm that I think voters across Georgia should have right now. And I know that, oftentimes, in midterm elections, people don’t turn out to vote. I hope that won’t be the case this year in Georgia,” she said.

“No, and, I mean, I think she’s sounding the alarm, just as many people have been doing. But it ain’t just Atlanta,” Bakari Sellers, a Democratic former member of the South Carolina state House, told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Oct.9, responding to Bottoms’ assessment. “I mean, it’s Philadelphia in the race in Pennsylvania. It’s Cleveland in the [Senate] race with Tim Ryan and J.D. Vance. It’s Orlando and Miami in Val Demings’s race [with GOP Sen. Marco Rubio].”

“And so Democrats have to do a better job, particularly — and I can’t wait for my phone to blow up after I say this — but particularly with Black men,” Sellers added. “Like, you just can’t come to Black men after Labor Day and say, ‘Come vote for us every two years.’”

Sound familiar? It should.

Here was Obama at a Nov. 3, 2016, campaign rally in Jacksonville, Fla.: “So you’ve got to do everything you can this week. I know if you’re here, you probably voted. That means you’ve got to get your friends to vote. You’ve got to get your family to vote. You’ve got to talk to Cousin Pookie.”

There is good reason Democratic officials and strategists want the party to do more courting of Black men. Since 2014, individuals in that group who are over the age of 18 and also are U.S. citizens have lagged behind Black women when it comes to actually casting ballots.

In 2014, 35.6 percent of Black men in this category voted, compared to 43 percent of Black women, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. With Trump on the ballot in 2016, both groups’ voting participation increased (54.2 percent for men to 63.7 percent for women). During Trump’s midterm elections in 2018, 54.9 percent of Black women voted, while Black men saw a drop to 46.4 percent. Trump’s 2020 race against Biden saw both jump again — but Black men (58.3 percent) still trailed Black women (66.3 percent), according to the Census Bureau data.

’Do not believe Democrats’

“One-third of Black men registered in Georgia haven’t voted in the past several elections, with pollsters saying these disaffected voters just don’t think the outcome will improve their lives,” Bloomberg reported recently.

HIT Strategies’ House noted that “[B]lack male voters are more likely than [B]lack women voters to trust the GOP on economic issues and increasingly do not believe Democrats are speaking to the issues that matter to them.”

Amid mounting warnings, Biden — who rode to the party’s 2020 presidential nomination by capturing an overwhelming percentage of Black voters in southern Democratic primaries — was in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania on Thursday. The Keystone State has competitive Senate and gubernatorial races.

But he only spoke publicly in the Steel City, suggesting the White House and party strategists are trying to reach out to independents in the more conservative western part of the commonwealth. In the City of Brotherly Love, Biden spoke mostly behind closed doors, headlining a fundraiser for Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s Senate campaign. And he, notably, has no weekend campaign events on his schedule.

Biden and his White House aides are attempting to staple some late-cycle coattails, and the president is justified in taking some credit for legislation he has signed into law. He spiked the football Monday afternoon over a beta test of the online system his administration is using to take applications for his student loan debt relief program.

But presidents usually suffer in congressional midterms. Just look at the last three.

Trump got hit with a blue tidal wave in 2018. Obama called his first midterms in 2010 a “shellacking.” And while George W. Bush and Republicans did OK in 2002, a little more than one year removed from 9/11, the midterms dynamic reasserted itself in 2006, when Bush said his party suffered a “thumping” in his second midterm election.

A New York Times-Siena College poll released this week found 45 percent of those surveyed “strongly disapprove” of Biden’s job performance. Gallup has put his approval rating in the low 40s for a few weeks — better than in most of this year, but not likely enough to push Democrats to victory with an Air Force One visit.

That does not mean the White House has not tried to clip some coattails to the president’s JoS. A. Bank (where Biden paid a visit near his Wilmington, Del., home on Sunday) suit jackets.

“As I said at the groundbreaking of Intel’s Ohio factory last month: it’s time to bury the label ‘Rust Belt.’ Just as my CHIPS and Science Act is spurring record investments in communities across the country, my Inflation Reduction Act is driving a manufacturing boom for electric vehicles,” Biden said in an Oct. 11 statement announcing Honda and LG would spend $5 billion on electric vehicle battery manufacturing in Ohio.

Operative word: “My.”

‘Drives me crazy’

The White House is eager to sell voters on a president who lived up to his campaign trail promises to cut deals on Capitol Hill. Though Republicans often describe Biden as not in control of his own presidency, Democrats describe a hands-on chief executive — but only when he needs to be.

“It has been my experience with a number of administrations that you have that interplay between, we have an initiative that we’re working on here in the Senate and what they can do with the scope of their executive authority,” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said. “I don’t think it’s anything new. I do think it’s helpful when there’s a lot of collaboration between the two branches.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said that “it really depends on the issue, the level of the president’s interest.” But have the hands-on Biden and other Democrats passed legislation and signed executive orders that convince Black men to turn out in big numbers in places like Atlanta and Philadelphia in a few weeks?

There is a growing sense the answer is no, with just 22 percent of Black voters surveyed this month by The Grio and the Kaiser Family Foundation saying Democrats have done little to help them.

“There has to be a more direct, engaged approach with Black male voters, who, by all intents and purposes, after African-American women, are the second largest turnout base” among registered Democratic voters, Sellers told CNN. “And that’s just something that we haven’t done forever. And it drives me crazy.”

House agreed, saying this week that “Democrats need to show how Black men’s votes made a tangible improvement to their lives. Black voters’ perception of vote power nearly directly correlates to voter turnout. Democrats need to show how Black men’s past votes have made a difference in their lives instead of just making promises for the future.”

Call it the “Cousin Pookie” problem. Same as it ever was.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-only, and newly rebranded, CQ Afternoon Briefing newsletter.

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