During the first presidential debate of the 2020 campaign, moderator Chris Wallace pushed Donald Trump to condemn white supremacists; instead of doing so, the incumbent seemed to give a nod to the far-Right Proud Boys group. In the final debate, moderator Kristen Welker grilled Trump on several apparently racists incidents, including one in which the President shared a video of a supporter screaming “white power!” When Trump compared his record with black Americans to that of President Abraham Lincoln, who proclaimed an end to slavery during the Civil War, Biden mocked him: “Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history.”
The Democrats expected non-white voters to be outraged by Trump’s often-racist rhetoric — and worked hard to mobilise them, in the hopes of a landslide victory for Biden. The data so far suggests they succeeded in boosting black turnout; and yet the Democrat party failed to increase its margins with black voters. The election was won on a knife-edge, and Trump performed far better than expected with black Americans (and even more so with Latino voters).
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Some pundits believe that Trump’s stronger than expected showing is a repudiation by white voters (who still make up the majority of the electorate) against this summer’s BLM movement. Though research has shown that the vast majority of Black Lives Matter protestors were peaceful — and that much of the worst violence during this year’s racial unrest was committed by white actors — white Americans are less likely to recognise the difference between the protests and the riots. Trump has regularly conflated them in his rhetoric.
Meanwhile, Trump has played up his pre-Covid economic performance while downplaying the need to address racial issues, and a plurality of voters seem to have ranked the economy as their number one issue according to exit polls. These polls show that 80% of those for whom the economy was the most pressing issue went for Donald Trump, while 90% who viewed racial injustice as the most important issue went for Joe Biden.
Nevertheless, Biden’s advantage on race did not lead to higher margins of support from black voters compared to four years ago. Black women voted almost uniformly for Democrats, as they have done for some time; the major surprise in this election concerns black men, especially younger black men who were targeted by both campaigns. Washington Post exit polls indicate that Trump won 18% of black men. Although possibly within the margin of error, this is an apparent increase from the 14% of the black male vote that he won in 2016 according to the Pew Research Center.
Even if the increase in black male supporters is a polling error, just the fact that Trump appears to have at least held steady among this demographic represents a victory for the Republicans. The President’s appeals to white nationalists such as the far-Right Proud Boys group, and his use of racially-coded language that plays upon suburban white fears, could have easily alienated black men.
The Democratic candidate is part of the explanation. Despite being Obama’s Vice President for eight years, Biden came in to the election with racial baggage, most notably his cosponsoring of the 1994 tough on crime bill that contributed significantly to the subsequent mass incarceration of black Americans. The Trump campaign was able to capitalise on actual Biden gaffes, as when he told a famous black radio host that “you ain’t black” if you support Trump. The Republicans were also able to invent false accusations, claiming that Biden once referred to young Black men as “super predators” (it was actually Hillary Clinton who made that remark in the 1990s).
While attacking Biden on race, Trump’s more effective tactic was to claim credit for tangible improvements that black Americans experienced during his presidency. The President highlighted record-low pre-Covid unemployment rates for black people, as well as criminal justice reform, support for historically black colleges and universities, support from conservative black clergy, and so on. Trump’s consistent message that he has done more for black voters than any president since Abraham Lincoln, hyperbolic as it may be, seems to have actually affected a non-trivial number of black voters.
In the final weeks of the election, Trump touted a $500 billion dollar economic plan for black Americans — labelled, in a bit of Trump-style branding, the Platinum Plan. The plan was vague on specifics and unlikely to match what Republicans in Congress would actually be willing to support, but the economic promise was appealing to black celebrities such as rappers Ice Cube and Lil Wayne and to ordinary black men looking to improve their prospects.
Princeton politics professor and race scholar Omar Wasow (an old friend) commented on Twitter that “maybe, next time, instead of campaigning on ‘Stronger together’ or ‘A battle for the soul of the nation’, Democrats could try a novel slogan like ‘Jobs.’” During the pandemic, layoffs have disproportionately affected black communities. And even though the Biden campaign did have a detailed economic recovery plan, the Build Back Better plan, which both focused on job growth and incorporated policies to address racial inequities. But Biden and his camp did a poor job publicising it, rarely emphasising it in major speeches or during the debates.
Nevertheless, while Biden lost black men at the margins, his campaign appears to have won the turnout game. For a number of reasons, black men have long voted in significantly lower numbers than Black women; the gender gap among black voters is higher than the male-female difference of any other demographic, and getting more black men to vote became a key goal of Democrats this year (Republicans, by contrast, have been accused of suppressing black turnout, knowing that higher numbers of black voters will benefit Democrats overall).
The Biden campaign was particularly focused on increasing turnout in swing states with significant black urban populations: for months, the Democrats conducted voter education campaigns and provided resources to promote absentee voting among black people, who had previously been sceptical of mail-in voting. The team especially targeted black men; for example, the Biden campaign put out a series of “Shop Talk” advertisements that featured young black men meeting in black-owned barbershops to discuss issues most relevant to them.
During the last weeks of the campaign, Biden and running mate Kamala Harris, who will be the first black vice president, made high profile appearances to drum up in-person black votes for Election Day. They framed black turnout as a justice issue, denouncing suppression efforts and appealing to the legacy of recently-deceased Congressman John Lewis, a Civil Rights Movement icon who championed black voting rights.
Biden’s efforts to bring in high numbers of black voters appears to have paid off. Because mail-in ballots are processed last in many American states, we only started to see their effect days after the vote. Biden seems to have won overwhelming support from mail-in votes coming out of heavily black urban areas such as Atlanta and Philadelphia. These numbers could well have pushed him to his narrow win in Pennsylvania, which secured his overall victory.
So, yes, the Democratic Party does still have an edge with black voters. But if it doesn’t want to continue losing ground among black men in particular, it would do well to pair its mobilisation efforts and justice agenda with the type of economic appeals that were effective for Donald Trump. Perhaps it really is as simple as a slogan like, “Jobs”.