The success of Biden’s campaign depends on mobilizing Black voters, but first the campaign needs to effectively engage with them

On a cold Sunday, a retired Milwaukee police sergeant approached a gray Mazda in a strip mall parking lot. The crowd, fresh from church, was gathering for lunch. Engaging in conversation, the sergeant leaned into the driver’s window and chatted for nearly 10 minutes.

President Joe Biden’s campaign is counting on people like Kimberlee Foster to play a crucial role in the outcome of the 2024 election.

As Wisconsin prepares for its primaries and local elections, the Biden campaign is implementing a unique approach to address the decline in Black voter turnout over the past decade. They have launched a live “relational organizing” pilot program, which aims to overcome the challenges posed by cultural shifts and technological advancements that have made it increasingly difficult to engage with disengaged individuals. Foster is actively involved in this program, working towards increasing voter participation within the Black community.

“When you go door-to-door, there are some individuals who simply accept the leaflet and promptly close the door, eager to resume watching their football game,” Foster expressed. “However, when you approach them in this manner, there is a higher likelihood of them responding with, ‘I haven’t considered voting before, but now I understand why it holds significance for you.’ It is our hope that such a response will ultimately lead them to a polling station.”

The program’s establishment in Wisconsin was not a coincidence. This state holds immense significance for both President Biden and former President Donald Trump, as it serves as a crucial pathway to victory. In the 2020 election, Biden secured a narrow victory with a margin of fewer than 21,000 votes, while Trump emerged victorious in 2016 with a margin of fewer than 23,000 votes. Interestingly, the Black vote in this state has consistently fallen short of expectations in both elections. The city of North Milwaukee, known for its high concentration of Black residents, has witnessed particularly low engagement. Democratic organizers have discovered that approximately half of the individuals they have reached out to were not even listed in their voter files. Consequently, these individuals never received any campaign outreach efforts aimed at mobilizing their votes in the 2020 election or previous elections.

The focus on Wisconsin is just one piece of the puzzle. According to CNN, discussions with numerous Biden campaign aides, elected officials, and voters in key states reveal a sense of urgency that extends beyond the situation in north Milwaukee. As crucial battleground states like Detroit, Philadelphia, Charlotte, and Atlanta hold significant importance for the president’s prospects, his ability to sway Black voters, particularly Black men, could ultimately determine his chances of victory.

Leading Black Democrats may mock and criticize Trump’s assertions that he is connecting with Black voters through his branded sneakers and referencing his mug shot. However, they also privately recognize that he has a strong chance of capitalizing on the dissatisfaction among these voters leading up to the November elections.

Polls have already indicated that the presumptive GOP nominee is gaining popularity among the Black community. However, when he arrives in Wisconsin on Tuesday, it will be his first visit in nearly two years, and he will be in the predominantly White city of Green Bay.

Foster and other volunteers are implementing a strategy that combines both traditional methods and adjustments to address the unique challenges of 2024. In this era of increased fragmentation of attention, declining trust in politicians, and the prevalence of ignoring calls and texts from unknown numbers due to scam concerns, reaching people has become more difficult than ever before.

The Biden campaign selected Milwaukee as its starting point to address what Democrats view as racially targeted voter suppression laws, including voter ID requirements and limited polling places. These laws have disproportionately affected Black voters, and the campaign aims to push back against them. According to Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler, Republicans have focused their efforts on Milwaukee to suppress voter turnout.

Vice President Kamala Harris plans to embark on a spring tour with a specific focus on promoting economic opportunities for Black men. This initiative aligns with her campaign’s primary objective of appealing to Black voters. President Biden has also taken deliberate steps to prioritize this issue, such as visiting the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, during his 2024 kick-off. During this visit, the local bishop addressed the crowd, posing thought-provoking questions about which candidate Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, Marcus Garvey, Ella Baker, Toni Morrison, and Fannie Lou Hamer would support in a race between President Biden and Donald Trump.

Biden’s travel schedule is now being strategically planned to prioritize his time in Black communities, with a particular focus on conducting interviews with Black media outlets. In addition, his campaign has already made significant investments in targeted advertising efforts. Notably, there are also new initiatives like the “Power to the Polls” group, led by Mandela Barnes, a 37-year-old Black man and former Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Despite his loss in the 2022 Senate race, Barnes has garnered praise from local leaders for spearheading door-to-door outreach activities in Black, brown, and working-class communities throughout the state, having already visited 50,000 homes this year.

But that’s just the beginning.

The campaign is currently in talks with various influential Black celebrities and other influencers. The goal is to engage them in the reelection effort by encouraging them to not only endorse the campaign but also create their own content in support of it.

The Biden campaign conducted a trial of “Aid to Persuade” online advertisements before the South Carolina primary. These ads aimed to encourage Black voters to participate in programs offered by the administration, such as student loan cancellation and assistance provided through the American Rescue Plan. The campaign hoped that by connecting voters with these benefits, it would attract their support.

Volunteer training sessions at campaign offices have shifted their focus from rehearsing scripts for cold calling voters to teaching volunteers how to effectively communicate through text messages and social media posts. Some training sessions even include instructions on how to create engaging content on platforms like TikTok to promote Joe Biden.

Rob Flaherty, the Biden deputy campaign manager who is overseeing many of these efforts, expressed optimism about using this approach to reach communities that are typically difficult to engage with through organizing programs. He emphasized the importance of not compelling individuals to follow a path they are not willing to take.

Democratic operatives and community leaders have expressed concerns about the deterioration for a long time. Numerous Black voters who supported Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012 observed his presidency with a sense of pride, but without experiencing significant improvements in their own lives. Political leaders and activists frequently recount hearing the same refrain: they were urged to stand by Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020, yet the outcomes of these elections did not seem to have a tangible impact on their daily lives.

Some were drawn towards Trump due to his direct approach and his pitch to Black voters, asking, “What the hell do you have to lose?” Others, on the other hand, simply stopped participating altogether.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson believes that there will be individuals who, regardless of their opinions on Joe Biden or Donald Trump, feel disconnected from the political process and may choose not to vote. However, he is determined to ensure that even those in his own family and friends network who may have otherwise abstained from voting will participate in this election. He plans to actively engage with them and encourage their involvement leading up to November.

According to CNN exit polls from both the 2016 and 2020 elections, Trump’s share of the Black vote increased from 8% to 12%. In a New York Times-Siena College poll conducted in October, it was found that 22% of Black voters in six battleground states, including Michigan, expressed their intention to support Trump in the 2024 election.

Local Black leaders are making efforts to address the decline in support for Democrats by actively engaging with individuals in their communities.

Representative Don Davis, a freshman Democrat, is determined to convey a message of resilience and determination to his constituents. He believes that it is crucial for them to understand that giving up is not an option. In his efforts to rally support and secure a victory for Joe Biden in Eastern North Carolina, Davis emphasizes the importance of not losing hope and feeling neglected. He is committed to ensuring that his constituents are aware of their significance in the political process.

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, a 37-year old Black Democrat whom Biden invited to ride with him during his trip there in March, believes that Trump is effectively tapping into the indifference among Black voters, even if he is unable to clearly articulate the reasons why they should vote against Biden.

Crowley emphasized the importance of connecting the dots at the local and grassroots level, as they are the ones who are currently trusted the most.

Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore sat at a trendy bar in her Milwaukee district, feeling the need for a refreshing glass of water. She described herself as “burning up” due to the thoughts that lingered in her mind. She often encounters voters who express their dissatisfaction, claiming that they don’t perceive any noticeable change since President Biden took office.

During her address to the volunteers, Moore expressed her appreciation for the presence of “BMWs” in their vicinity, which stood for “Black men working.” She elaborated on how these men were actively engaged in initiatives such as the replacement of lead pipes. Ultimately, their efforts were aimed at ensuring cleaner water for children within their communities, with funding derived from Biden’s infrastructure bill.

She highlighted the growth of Obamacare, the alleviation of debt, and the availability of affordable housing. Additionally, she pledged to reinstate the childcare tax credit, emphasizing Joe’s commitment to ensuring people have faith and gratitude.

According to Moore, there is a genuine sense of dissatisfaction among the Black voters she engages with. They are also deeply affected by the ongoing events in Gaza. This includes younger Black voters who are angry about Biden’s approach to Israel’s conflict with Hamas, as well as a growing number of Black voters who draw parallels between the experiences of Palestinians and their own lives. As a result, activists who oppose Biden’s policies are encouraging people to vote “Uninstructed” in the Wisconsin primary, in order to amplify the message that a significant portion of Democratic voters in other states have already been conveying.

Moore expressed her concerns about the impact of the Democratic Party’s strong rhetoric this year on Black voter turnout. She worries that the Republicans will use this rhetoric to manipulate and decrease the support from the Black community.

According to Moore, Republicans are aware that they cannot secure the majority of Black voters. However, they believe that by using rhetoric such as labeling them as “abortionists” and appealing to certain individuals within the Black community who share anti-choice or other culture war views, they can effectively suppress the vote. The strategy is to sway a small number of people away from their usual voting base.

According to leaders of various Black grassroots organizations, they have not observed significant changes from the president and his aides thus far.

According to Krysta Jones, co-convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable Virginia chapter, one of the challenges they face in their organizing efforts is engaging individuals who are not registered or unlikely to vote. She emphasizes the importance of investing time in registering these individuals and maintaining ongoing conversations with them.

W. Mondale Robinson, the founder of the Black Male Voter Project, expressed his frustration with the Biden campaign, stating that they are still approaching Black men as if it were the 1960s.

Robinson emphasized that targeting middle-aged or older Black men with stable jobs who can afford expensive haircuts is not addressing the root of the voting problem. Instead, the focus should be on those individuals who are living on the corner, facing adversity, and experiencing financial hardships.

After Biden announced his decision to run for reelection, his team organized two meetings dedicated to reaching out to Black men. Attendees of these meetings have reported that they were highly productive, and the Biden campaign acknowledges the importance of further engaging this demographic to regain their support.

Harold Love, an incoming president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and a Tennessee state representative, expressed his satisfaction after attending one of these meetings, describing it as a productive gathering.

When it comes to reaching out to Black male voters, the campaign should shift its focus from what’s at stake if Biden loses to highlighting what the administration has already accomplished for them.

According to Love, in this campaign, it is crucial to discuss the ongoing issues that will persist if people choose not to vote, such as the cancellation of student loan debt.

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