Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a Hispanic Heritage Month event, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, at Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, Fla. | AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
It was a huddle to marshal the faithful, featuring dozens of Black luminaries, from hip hop mogul Jay-Z to radio personality Charlamagne tha God to civil rights attorney Ben Crump. Vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris presided over the virtual meeting, which grappled with a nagging question for Joe Biden’s campaign: How to woo more Black men?
Last week’s call was the second in as many weeks focusing on Biden’s appeals to Black male voters. The mood, Crump said, was upbeat. But callers were frank about their concerns, urging Biden to deliver a positive message, so “it’s not just about anti-Trump but what we’re going to do on our side.”
“We know Black women are the backbone of the party,” said one participant, who asked not to be identified. “But Black men are going to have to overperform.”
But right now, they’re underperforming. And, according to a spate of recent polling, so are Latino men, a subject Harris tackled recently in Zoom meetings with Hispanic influencers.
Black and Latino men still need to be convinced that Biden represents their interests, Crump said. Black men want to hear more about opportunities to build businesses and fixes for the economy, in addition to talk about criminal justice and policing reform.
Over the years, the Democratic Party has not always prioritized Latino men, which has left some disillusioned about politics altogether, Democrats said. Some Hispanic men with roots in Latin American countries that have a long history of strongmen leaders are drawn to Donald Trump’s braggadocio, particularly in Florida, Democrats told POLITICO. And some young Black or Latino men could protest by voting third party —or simply sit out the election. A few holdouts among that population in battleground states like Arizona and Michigan could determine the election.
“That’s not to say they’re breaking for Donald Trump,” said veteran pollster Cornell Belcher, who worked on Barack Obama’s campaigns and is African American.
But, Belcher said, “they don’t see a great deal of difference between Democrats and Republicans.”
Black women and Latinas are two of Biden’s most reliable constituencies, and he’s expected to still win big majorities of both Black and Latino men, too. But as Biden aims to replicate Obama-era levels of support among voters of color, POLITICO interviews with more than 20 Democratic strategists, lawmakers, pollsters and activists reveal ambivalence on the part of Black and Latino men. And President Donald Trump’s campaign is working to exploit that ambivalence.
Republicans are aggressively courting Black and Latino voters, outspending Democrats on social media outlets like Facebook. Last week, the Trump campaign spent six figures on ads in urban radio markets featuring former NFL player Herschel Walker and Georgia state Democratic Rep. Vernon Jones. And one week after Biden picked Harris as his running mate, the campaign opened a joint Black and Latino “community center” in Philadelphia. They also opened a field office earlier this year in Milwaukee on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive — a first for a Republican presidential candidate.
In rallying the Latino community, Biden’s campaign needs to reach beyond establishment Democrats to grass-roots Latino leaders who are in contact with young people and their communities, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former Biden rival, told POLITICO in a recent interview.
“But I think there is a likelihood that if that is not done, turnout in the Latino community could be lower than we would like and it could result in Biden losing some very key states,” he said.
Rev. Al Sharpton said he frequently gets calls to his radio show from Black men asking what Democrats plan to do for them: “I’ve had Black men call up and say, ‘Well, what about us?‘”
Super PACs are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on ads that “talk to white people,” said Chuck Rocha, a former senior adviser to Sanders’ presidential campaign. By contrast, Latino-run PACs have raised roughly $6 million.
“They’re leaving no stone unturned with white people, but there are rocks all over the field that aren’t being turned over for brown people,” Rocha said. “Black and Brown voters, especially Latino men, are being left out of the equation.”
Following a playbook that worked for them in 2018, Republicans and Trump have courted these voters by hammering away at socialism. That’s a message which has resonance for voters hailing from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, countries with a complicated relationship to both communism and socialism.
Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) said he thinks Biden, who has repeatedly said he’s not a socialist, needs to drive the message home in South Florida on his next visit.
Soto, who became the first person of Puerto Rican descent in the state to win a congressional seat, said Biden has another dynamic working against him as well with some Latino men.
“There is some machismo in our community, unfortunately,” said Soto.
“There’s good machismo,” Soto said, and there is “caudillo machismo,” referring to henchman-style leaders, whose style sometimes appeals to Latino men. For fans of caudillo machismo, he said, Trump’s aggressiveness appeals.
Josh Ulibarri, a Democratic pollster, said the party’s failure to secure overwhelming Latino support is long in the making. “We’re in this position because we haven’t worked [to win over] Latino men in the last decade.”
Biden is clearly trying to remedy that. On Tuesday, he visited Florida to court Latinos after a number of polls showed his weakness with the state’s unique mix of pan-Latin American voters. Though he’s ahead overall among Florida Latino voters, Biden’s margins lag behind those of Hillary Clinton in 2016, when she narrowly lost the state.
The campaign is sensitive about the perceived wariness among Black and Brown men. Reporters were not invited to listen in to the two calls with Harris — one last week, another on Aug. 29 — and the campaign refused to discuss details or provide comment to POLITICO. The calls included Black men who had previously signed a letter urging the selection of a Black woman running mate. And sources said they were told not to talk to reporters about the virtual meetings.
The difficulty of reaching young Black and Latino men — many of whom don’t get their information from traditional channels — has been complicated by the pandemic. But the Zoom meetups with Harris, as well as ad buys and Latino outreach stops in Florida, are aimed specifically at these crucial voters.
Trump’s play at the margins
As the election nears, Democrats are inclined to replay everything that went wrong in 2016. But the two election cycles are dramatically different. There’s the coronavirus, for one. What’s more, the incumbent remains unpopular and the country is in the midst of a national debate about systemic racism and police brutality.
The nation’s state of chaos brings a particular urgency to Trump’s push for voters at the margins.
Trump’s campaign believes he needs to siphon a few more percentage points from voters of color, building on his successes in 2016, when relatively low Black and Latino turnout compared to white voters helped him squeak by in battleground states. To that end, his campaign is spending millions, particularly on digital ads, and focusing on the economy and criminal justice — two top policy priorities for these groups.
As Trump made swings through Nevada and Arizona this week, he held Latino-focused events with local officials.
“It is getting a lot easier to be Republican … whether you’re Hispanic or anything else,” Trump said at a Phoenix event.
Florida could be one of Trump’s biggest plays to win over Latinos. The diversity of the state’s population makes it fertile ground. And QAnon conspiracy theories — which lie about the Black Lives Matter movement and falsely accuse Biden of being a pedophile — are infiltrating Spanish-language radio, online conservative news sites and social media feeds, likely boosting Trump’s profile.
Florida, a must-win state for Trump, has a sizable population of Republican-leaning Cuban Americans, who wield political power and could account for at least 30 percent of the Latino vote there. They’ve found common cause with other members of the Latin American diaspora fleeing left-wing revolutions in their home countries.
“In Florida, it’s extraordinary, the reversal of trends,” said former Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Republican.
“The Republican [is] gaining ground with minorities and the Democrat [is] gaining ground with … white voters and seniors,” said Curbelo.
Still, Trump is trying to cram his election-year appeals to Black and Latino men into a career and presidency spent extolling police power, chanting “build the wall,” and furthering birther conspiracies about the country’s first Black president. (And more recently, Harris.) At the same time, he’s hoping to drum up support among white voters with ominous warnings of suburbia on fire.
The week after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Trump started running a flurry of ads about law enforcement and crime on Facebook, according to an analysis by New York University’s Online Political Ads Transparency Project.
Prior to Floyd’s killing, the campaign spent only $50,000 on Facebook ads about criminal justice, according to data from Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic firm. In the months following, Trump pumped $6 million into Facebook ads touting his record on criminal justice.
Terrance Woodbury, a Democratic pollster with HIT Strategies, thinks Trump’s tactic on social media is having an effect. In 2016, Trump won 8 percent of Black voters under the age of 35; he’s now at 16 percent with that demographic, Woodbury said.
During recent focus groups with Black voters in Wisconsin, Georgia and Florida, Woodbury asked participants what Trump has done to make their life better. When Trump’s messaging about pre-Covid-19 Black employment and investments in historically black colleges came up, young men could “recite it verbatim.”
Democrats go on the offensive
In an attempt to address the relative lack of enthusiasm among Black men, Biden’s team launched ads this week directly aimed at the demographic. Two of the spots feature mask-wearing Black men hanging out at a barbershop, cracking jokes about Trump and chatting about the economy and the havoc wreaked by coronavirus.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, in partnership with the Congressional Black Caucus, the Biden campaign announced a virtual bus tour in more than a dozen battleground states to activate the Black vote.
The campaign also expanded its polling of Latinos to states including Pennsylvania and North Carolina, which it said is a first for a Democratic candidate.
“The Latino vote is a legitimate part of the discussion in Pennsylvania now,” said Matt Barreto, a pollster for the Biden campaign.
On Thursday, Harris met with Latino elected officials and community advocates at a Puerto Rican and Latino nonprofit in Philadelphia. Harris told reporters she and Biden would earn Latino support by talking about “relevant policy,” such as the disparity among Latinos and whites when it comes to contracting Covid-19.
This week, the progressive group United We Dream Action and its PAC launched two voter engagement programs aimed at mobilizing 6 million voters on the margins, including undecided or unmotivated Latino voters, as well as young and first-time voters. The effort by the immigrant youth group will encompass states such as Arizona, Florida and Minnesota.
Similarly, billionaire Mike Bloomberg announced he would spend as much as $100 million in Florida, much of it specifically targeted toward Latinos.
The Collective PAC, a group focused on growing Black political power, is working with a range of groups to target Black male voters, including Unite the Country. It intends to spend at least $7 million on mobilization efforts focused on Black men in Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia and Charlotte, including micro-targeting on digital, social and radio, said Quentin James, the group’s founder.
Despite the recent push by Biden’s campaign and Democratic outside groups to court Black and brown voters, the Democratic nominee is still dogged by aspects of his long record in Congress, said Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
He pointed to Biden’s refusal to clearly apologize for his authorship of the 1994 crime bill. Trump’s signing of the First Step Act in 2018, which expanded early release for certain felony offenders in federal prison, has prompted some Black men to give the Republican a second look, Meade said.
“As a returning citizen, I had to admit the error of my ways and make amends for what I did. Joe Biden hasn’t owned up to his mistake,” said Meade, who helped lead Florida’s voter-approved effort to give people with felony convictions the right to vote.
Even so, he said, Trump hasn’t said enough to condemn police brutality and abuse, which Biden has done.
The issue came up on the conference call with Harris last week.
A lot of people still have issues with the 1994 crime bill, said Crump, the civil rights lawyer. “You have to go ahead and own that and talk about how it was a mistake.”
Democrats working to mobilize voters said the most effective tack is persistent communication. In Philadelphia, former Mayor Michael Nutter is assembling an independent effort to reach out to Black voters in battleground states, especially men. It features family members of those killed by police violence.
“In 2016, we ignored this as a problem,” Nutter said. “We’re not now.”
During the virtual meeting last week, Harris, who served as California attorney general before being elected to the Senate, talked about the need to manage expectations. She said she couldn’t get all the reforms she wanted in her home state. But, repeating a favorite talking point, she said she tried to change the system from the inside.
“I don’t have all the answers,” Harris told the group, according to Crump and another source. But “together,” she said, “we can figure out solutions.”
Holly Otterbein contributed to this report.