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Gun violence, white supremacy and the economy: What Black voters want Democrats to fix

'They're looking for a return on their investment, but they just don't see one,' strategist says

A student protests as President Joe Biden addresses the graduating class of Howard University in Washington on Saturday.
A student protests as President Joe Biden addresses the graduating class of Howard University in Washington on Saturday. (Getty Images)

It’s no wonder President Joe Biden was at Howard University last week. He has work to do to convince Black voters he deserves a second term.

Biden and congressional Democrats are focused on swinging public opinion to their side as they try to strike a debt ceiling deal with Republicans, just as Biden departed Wednesday for a G-7 summit in Japan.

But as he deals with record-low approval ratings and stubbornly high inflation, Black voters — a key bloc loyal to Democrats — remain restless after fewer among them voted in November.

Black voters posted a 51.7 percent participation rate in the 2018 election, but only 42 percent cast a ballot in 2022, according to data released earlier this month by the U.S. Census Bureau. A key part of the so-called Obama coalition, analysts and strategists say Biden cannot win a second term unless he can convince more Black voters to head to their local polling station in a year-and-a-half.

“We’ve been asking black voters, ‘Has your life gotten better under President Biden?’ and 6o to 70 percent say no,” Jermaine House, senior director of communications at HIT Strategies, a consulting firm that works with underrepresented communities, said during a phone interview.

“Clearly, many Black voters understand in 2018 and 2020 … they delivered Congress and the White House to Democrats,” he added. “They’re looking for a return on their investment, but they just don’t see one.”

Biden tried to convince some members of that community on Saturday that he has done things that benefit them — and that he hears their concerns. “Your generation will not be ignored, will not be shunned, will not be silenced,” he said during a commencement address at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

The president used one phrase several times during one part of his remarks — “because of you” — to drive home to students at the historically Black research university that he again needs their support in 2024.

“With your voices and votes, I was able to fill my commitment to put the first Black woman on the Supreme Court of the United States of America,” he said. “Because of you, more Black women have been appointed to the federal appellate courts … than under every other president in American history — combined.

“And, by the way, I mean it. I mean it. Because of you. Because of you. You turned out. You spoke up. You knew. You showed up, and the votes counted,” Biden added. “You feel the promise and the peril of climate change. Because of you, we’re making the biggest investment ever in the history of the world in climate change. Don’t ever think your voice doesn’t matter.”

Top priorities

Climate change is an issue that resonates most with the most progressive and youngest parts of the Democratic base. But what about Black voters? “Gun control legislation, white supremacy and economy top priorities for Black voters,” read the headline of a press release from HIT Strategies and the Black to the Future Action Fund that summarized a poll released March 15.

Forty-four percent of respondents told the organizations they want Washington to enact some kind of gun control legislation, while 42 percent said they want white supremacy declared a national security threat, according to the survey of 1,200 Black voters in Georgia, North Carolina and California.

The March poll also hit on a lack of motivation among some Black voters in last November’s midterm elections, with 18 percent saying they did not cast a ballot. North Carolina had the highest rate among respondents (22 percent), followed by Georgia (14 percent) and California (18 percent).

Paradoxically, many Black voters during focus groups say they support the policies Biden and congressional Democrats have made law since January 2021. They may not be “connecting the dots” between that view and the president’s job performance, House said, and that is “a messaging challenge that the White House and many Democrats have.”

Diving deeper into the Census Bureau data shows the decline in Black voter participation in 2022 is driven by younger voters in that group.

“Many voters haven’t been keen on Joe Biden since he ran. Young voters had other motivations than just Joe Biden. They had a strong aversion to Trump, who was in office in 2018. They also felt strongly about the racial justice issue in 2020,” House said. “Without those two factors, a lot more work has to be done to make sure young voters come back in 2024.”

An ABC News-Washington Post poll released this month also highlighted what could be a problem for Biden in 2024. On his job performance, the president is underwater with “non-white” voters: 42 percent approve of his performance, while 48 percent disapprove. On the economy, 48 percent of the key-for-Democrats voting bloc think Donald Trump handled economic issue more competently during his term, compared to 41 percent who sided with Biden’s economic stewardship.

When asked about a hypothetical 2024 Biden-Trump rematch, 45 percent chose the incumbent. But the number of “non-whites” who said they would vote right now for Trump is higher than one might think: 33 percent — with another 17 percent undecided. That’s 50 percent of “non-whites” not in Biden’s camp. At the moment, at least.

“Black men are on the margins; we have seen them voting more and more for Republicans since Barack Obama left office … and that has led to a number down-ballot wins,” House said. “Every year, we see a marginal jump in Black men voting Republican. These voters need to be treated like swing voters. … For Democrats to win in 2024, they have to have close to what Barack Obama achieved with Black voters. Democrats have to treat them with the same respect as white swing voters.”

Kingmaker Clyburn

So even though Vice President Kamala Harris is a proud Howard University graduate, it is no surprise that Biden himself turned up there to address graduates. Nor was it a surprise Harris this week huddled with what her office described as “more than 35 young men of color who are entrepreneurs and business owners.”

And it’s no coincidence that early in his remarks, Biden gave a shout out to an icon in Democratic circles: Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, a leading Black voice on Capitol Hill who also delivered Biden a boost in the 2020 Democratic primary with an endorsement that sent Biden on a delegate run.

“To my friend — and he is my friend — Congressman Jim Clyburn, the thing that I admire most about you, Jim, is your absolute integrity in everything you do — in everything you do. This is a man of honor,” Biden said to applause. “Jim, it’s an honor to join you here today and receive an honorary degree from this great university.”

Biden’s campaign plans remain murky, but the Howard speech was the kind of outreach House said is needed if the president hopes to retain this part of his winning 2020 coalition. Democrats need “year-round engagement” with this bloc rather than trying to reach them a few months before Election Day, he said.

House is not alone in that view.

“There’s a legitimacy … to the Biden reelection campaign, but he has to tap into it. He also needs to turn all of those Democratic governors and senators and others into real strong surrogates to get out there and hit the road,” former Democratic National Committee Chair Donna Brazile, told ABC News on May 7.

“Because I’m telling you, when you see that number with Black voters, let me just tell you … had our ex-ex-ex-President [Bill] Clinton saw those numbers,” she said, “he would have called us at 12:01 [a.m.] and said: ‘Get out there and start working.'”

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett, a former White House correspondent, writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter.

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