Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Meet the African-American Voters Joe Biden Desperately Needs

Inside a focus group with African-American voters who stayed home or went for a third-party in 2016.
by Rich Thau
September 26, 2020
Meet the African-American Voters Joe Biden Desperately Needs

It’s widely assumed Joe Biden appeals to African-American voters in part because he was Barack Obama’s vice president.

But what if a key group of African-American voters in a major swing state don’t associate Biden with Obama? Or even recall that Biden was Obama’s veep? Or, if they do recall, think it doesn’t matter?

Those unexpected reactions provided moments of stark clarity during a pair of focus groups I moderated via Zoom on September 22. Over a total of three hours I heard from a group of African-Americans in Philadelphia who were one-time Obama voters, but who had either sat out 2016, or voted for someone other than Trump or Clinton.

For 18 straight months I’ve been conducting focus groups with “Obama-Trump” voters across the upper Midwest and Florida, with the majority of respondents being caucasian. This week I turned my sights to this other important category of persuadable voters.

These African-Americans matter a lot because in the city of Philadelphia alone, Hillary Clinton got 4,781 fewer votes in 2016 than Barack Obama did in 2012. One analysis published shortly after the 2016 election indicated lower voter participation numbers were concentrated in predominantly African-American neighborhoods in the city.

If Biden is going to flip Pennsylvania, a state Trump won by just over 44,000 votes, he needs to engage these voters more effectively than Clinton did.

In my group, six of these voters didn’t vote in 2016, two voted for Jill Stein, and one wrote in Bernie Sanders.

Several themes emerged.

  • Casting a vote in 2016 wouldn’t have improved the quality of life in their community, they said.
  • They believed that after eight years of Obama, there was no way a Democrat would get elected, so why bother voting.
  • They argued neither Trump nor Clinton could be trusted.
  • Misogyny also played a role: One man said he disliked Trump, but could not vote for a woman; another man who similarly disliked Trump complained that Clinton sounded “angry.”

So what are the voting plans of these nine voters for November? Five said they’re definitely voting for Biden. Two more, who are likelier to vote than not, said they will also vote for Biden. And the final two are completely torn, and may not vote this year.

The ones who are likely to vote said things such as:

  • “It’s definitely for Biden. And I can’t, you know, [vote for Trump]. I have a mom, I have a grandma…messing with healthcare, the way [Trump] has….”
  • Also: “I’m voting for Biden because of Kamala.”

One somewhat-likely voter suggested he might be susceptible to peer pressure from friends to vote. Another said if she votes, it will be because of Sen. Harris—but for now she remains non-committal.

The remaining two respondents seemed unlikely to vote, though one was leaning slightly towards Trump due to antipathy towards Biden and Harris rooted in criminal justice issues. The other, who wrote-in Bernie Sanders in 2016, relies heavily on her family’s opinion, and she suggested her whole family may not vote. She said she would never choose Trump, but reported she has not heard from Biden on the issues that matter to her, such as student loan debt and healthcare.

Biden struggles with this woman for the same reason he struggles with so many of the upper Midwest “Obama-Trump” voters I’ve interviewed: They don’t seem to know where he stands on issues.

And some in the Philadelphia group didn’t know much about Sen. Harris. Others, though, knew all about her, and called the Sen. Harris selection a shrewd political move. But immediately they added that they saw right through it. They wanted to know, beyond which people Biden would choose for his administration, what he would do for them. As one respondent put it bluntly: “If I’m going to give you my vote, I want something in return.”

One thing they are clearly not getting from Biden is inspiration. When I asked each person what emotion he or she feels when seeing Biden on TV or their device, responses included: “disappointment,” “neutral,” “scared,” “irritated,” “hatred,” and “oh my God.”

With one possible exception, everyone in this group remains out of reach for President Trump. Respondents called him a racist throughout the sessions. Yet the challenges for Biden remain significant, as it’s clear any candidate who is not part of their community has his work cut out for him.

It is rooted in the issue of trust. One respondent observed, “We have a hard time trusting people, and we definitely have a hard time trusting people that don’t look like us.”

This man offered some pointed advice to Joe Biden: “Don’t just say, ‘You should vote for me because I like black people. I went to the black barbecue. I got this black woman running with me, and you don’t like Donald Trump, so why wouldn’t you vote for me?’”

Rich Thau

Rich Thau is the president of the research firm Engagious, which specializes in message testing and message refinement for trade associations and advocacy groups. He is also the moderator of the Swing Voter Project, conducted in partnership with Schlesinger Group.