Posted on October 25, 2022

Democrats Growing Anxious — Again — Over Black Turnout

Holly Otterbein and Elena Schneider, Politico, October 25, 2022

On a chilly afternoon last week, Pastor Melanie DeBouse stood on a small stage in a city park trying to fire up her neighbors, many of them Black, and encourage them to vote. Signs posted nearby read, “Vote! It’s An Act of Hope!” and “Every Vote Is Sacred.” Faith leaders working alongside her handed out free chips and water.


Tony Williams, a middle-aged Black man, stood a few feet away and listened politely. But even though he voted in past elections, he wasn’t convinced it was worthwhile this year: “We’re not going to benefit from it.”

Black voters form the backbone of the Democratic electorate, voting for Democrats at higher rates than any other racial group. But interviews with more than a dozen elected officials, strategists and activists in key swing states, most of them Black, suggest Democrats are increasingly concerned that Black turnout could sag this November — and with it, Democrats’ electoral chances.

If Black turnout were to fall this year, it would seriously complicate — if not eviscerate — Democrats’ path to victory in hotly contested gubernatorial and Senate races across the country, including Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin. In a poll by POLITICO-Morning Consult released last week, just 25 percent of Black registered voters described themselves as “extremely enthusiastic” about voting in this election, compared to about 37 percent of white voters and 35 percent of Hispanic voters.

Though they stressed that they have no doubt Black voters will continue to overwhelmingly support their party, Democratic strategists are worried in particular about a lack of enthusiasm this year among young Black people and Black men of all ages.

After Black voters played a pivotal role in electing President Joe Biden two years ago, the strategists said that some Black voters believe that not enough has changed since, especially when it comes to the economy, gun violence, voting rights and criminal justice reform. Sixty-nine percent of Black voters approve of Biden’s job performance, according to the POLITICO-Morning Consult survey, which they characterized as insufficient to guarantee a strong vote for Democratic candidates.


At the same time, for many Democrats, fearing a drop in Black turnout is a cyclical tradition that often doesn’t come to pass. Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of the liberal group BlackPAC, which is focused on getting Black voters to the polls, said, “It’s like Groundhog Day. Six weeks out, people stick their heads out of their holes, and say, ‘We might have a problem with Black voters.’”


Some Black Democrats are anxious that the party is relying too much on anger over the Supreme Court ending abortion rights to bring base voters to the polls. When Democrats “drive only on abortion for a number of months, that sounds tone-deaf to Black men who have other issues on the table,” said Cyrus Garrett, who served as the African American political director for the Democratic National Committee.

“Should Democrats be concerned about African American turnout going into this midterm? Hell yes, they should be,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster. “History shows there’s a pull back. We shouldn’t be surprised by this … [and] you can’t just count on Roe being overturned to change that fundamental dynamic.”

Belcher said that signs don’t currently point to a 2010-level drop off with this constituency, when Republicans swept into control of the U.S. House by flipping more than 60 seats. But it’s still “the big X factor” for campaigns, who should be asking themselves, “What are you doing about it because you know about it?” he said.

Democrats have deployed their biggest star, former President Barack Obama, to Wisconsin, Michigan and Georgia in the coming weeks in part to excite Black voters. He has cut digital and radio ads for statewide candidates, some of which are airing on radio stations that cater to Black audiences. Vice President Kamala Harris, the highest-ranking Black female office-holder in U.S. history, has stumped and fundraised for candidates across the country.

There are also a number of Black Democrats on the ticket in swing states this year, which could increase Black turnout in those states. They include Senate candidates like Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Rep. Val Demings in Florida, and former North Carolina state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. In Georgia, Sen. Raphael Warnock is seeking reelection, and Stacey Abrams is running for governor. In Pennsylvania, Austin Davis is vying for the lieutenant governor’s job.


In 2016, lower-than-expected turnout in Detroit and Milwaukee contributed to Hillary Clinton’s losses in Michigan and Wisconsin. Four years later, former President Donald Trump performed somewhat better in some big cities, including Philadelphia, where he received slightly more votes in many majority-Black wards than he had in 2016.

Though these shifts were often around the margins — and Clinton and Biden won urban areas and Black voters overwhelmingly — small changes can make a difference in razor-thin elections. In Biden’s case, he relied on the suburbs to put him over the top.

Chris Rabb, a Democratic state representative in Philadelphia, said his “fear” is that recent trends among Black voters will continue this year. He urged candidates to hire Black activists to canvass voters in the communities where they live.

“Trump did better in Philly his last time than he did in 2016,” he said. “And in 2021, we lost [most] judicial races statewide. If just a few more Black registered Democrats in Philly alone — just Black folk, just Democrats — came out every race, all the Democrats would have won statewide.”

Isaiah Thomas, a Philadelphia city councilman, said a rise in homicides in the area has made some Black voters “feel like government isn’t working for them.” Ahead of the election, he said, “I just think that we’re not doing a good enough job as it relates to outreach and advertising. We’ve just got to do a little bit more. We’ve got to do a little bit better. And that includes me, too.”