A ‘Laundry List’ or a ‘Feel’: Biden and Trump’s Clashing Appeals to Black Voters

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As President Biden took the stage in Philadelphia on Wednesday to kick off his Black voter outreach program, he methodically ticked through more than a dozen accomplishments, executive orders, appointments, investments and economic statistics.

“The bottom line,” Mr. Biden said in summing up his pitch, “is we’ve invested more in Black America than any previous administration in history has.”

It was a compelling catalog that stood in contrast to the blunt appeal that his rival, former President Donald J. Trump, had made a week earlier about the economy at a rally in the Bronx designed to highlight his appeal to nonwhite voters.

“African Americans,” Mr. Trump had said, “are getting slaughtered.”

The two events captured a fundamental difference between the Black outreach that both camps see as crucial to winning in 2024.

Mr. Biden has a list. Mr. Trump has a vibe.

Black voters are at the very foundation of the Democratic coalition, pivotal electoral building blocks in cities across the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia and beyond. And while polls consistently show Mr. Biden winning strong majorities of Black voters, he is underperforming on past Democratic benchmarks to the deepening alarm of party loyalists and to the delight of G.O.P. operatives.

Mr. Trump has tried to brand his four years in the White House as a period of peace and prosperity, hoping voters — and Black voters in particular — will recall those pre-inflationary days fondly and look past the disruptions of a pandemic that ground American life to a halt for much of 2020.

“It’s a feel,” said Ja’Ron Smith, one of the highest-ranking Black officials in the Trump White House, in explaining the former president’s appeal to Black voters. “They know what it’s like to live under a Trump economy rather than a Biden economy.”

Mr. Trump has a long history of incendiary and racist remarks that the Biden campaign has increasingly highlighted, and that Mr. Trump hopes Black voters look past. On Wednesday, Mr. Biden recalled Mr. Trump’s spreading of the birtherism conspiracy theory about President Barack Obama, as well as his response to the killing of George Floyd four years ago.

“Let’s be clear what happens to you and your family when old ghosts in new garments seize power,” Mr. Biden said this month in a commencement speech at Morehouse College, a historically Black men’s college in Atlanta.

The Biden 2024 message for Black voters has so far been a blend of shaking loose memories of Mr. Trump’s divisive record and selling them on what he has accomplished. The list he outlined on Wednesday was substantial: helping reduce the racial wealth gap, investing in historically Black colleges and universities, appointing the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, expanding high-speed internet access and pushing policies to reconnect Black neighborhoods divided decades ago by highways.

“Promises made and promises kept,” Mr. Biden said, over and over.

Yet in the most recent poll of battleground states by The New York Times, Siena College and The Philadelphia Inquirer, Mr. Biden had only 49 percent support among Black registered voters in a race that included third-party candidates. He was at 63 percent in a one-on-one contest with Mr. Trump.

Ashley Etienne, who worked on the 2020 Biden campaign and later served as an aide to Vice President Kamala Harris, worried that the Biden campaign had yet to translate how the president’s agenda has actually improved the lives of most Black voters.

“What is the message beyond a laundry list of accomplishments?” Ms. Etienne said. “If people aren’t feeling it in your lives, you can say it all day — it doesn’t penetrate.”

Ms. Etienne attributed Mr. Biden’s early struggles among Black voters in part to the president’s inability to advance two signature promises in 2020: sweeping police reform in the wake of the killing of Mr. Floyd and voting-rights legislation. Both stalled in Congress, limiting Mr. Biden to executive orders that could prove temporary and to Justice Department actions that the public knows little about.

“They galvanized Black turnout based on those two issues, and on neither of those two issues have they compelled Congress to take action,” she said. “That is a vulnerability that they’ve not acknowledged and I don’t know that they’re solving for.”

Core to Mr. Trump’s pitch to both Black and Latino voters has been that they are suffering economically from an influx of migrants who are displacing them from jobs and opportunities, a variation on the theme that he used to rally so many white voters behind him in 2016.

“These millions and millions of people that are coming into our country, the biggest impact, and the biggest negative impact, is against our Black population and our Hispanic population,” Mr. Trump said in the Bronx last week.

Roland S. Martin, the former television commentator who hosts his own streaming program and oversees the Black Star Network, which produces and delivers programming for Black consumers, said the Biden team was not packaging its product compellingly.

“You have to make policy issues plain as to how they affect the average brother or sister around the country, and they still struggle with that,” Mr. Martin said. “Republicans have always used bumper stickers. Democrats use white papers. We are now living in a social media age where they’re not going to read white papers. We need memes.”

The two campaigns have different goals. Mr. Biden needs Black turnout to be high and to maximize his support among those voters. Mr. Trump can succeed either by reducing the number of Black voters overall or by flipping some into his column.

Mr. Biden’s recent calendar is a testament to the centrality and urgency of consolidating support in a community that helped deliver him the Democratic nomination and the White House in 2020. And his campaign has repeatedly said that no other Democratic candidate has ever invested so much time and money so early in mobilizing Black voters.

“I need you,” Mr. Biden said on Wednesday at Girard College, a boarding school in Philadelphia where desegregation battles ensued decades ago.

In May alone, Mr. Biden delivered the commencement address at Morehouse; he went to Detroit to speak at the nation’s largest N.A.A.C.P. dinner; he spoke at the National Museum of African American History and Culture celebrating the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education; and he made appearances on Black radio shows, such as V-103’s “The Big Tigger Show” in Atlanta and 101.7’s “The Truth with Sherwin Hughes” in Milwaukee.

Throughout these appearances, as well as in new ads, he has sharpened the contrast with his predecessor.

“Trump is trying to make the country forget just how dark and unsettling things were when he was president,” Mr. Biden said on Wednesday. At one point, the president crossed himself after repeating in disbelief Mr. Trump’s claim that he has been the best president for Black Americans since Abraham Lincoln.

In one of Mr. Biden’s new ads, the narrator says, “Donald Trump disrespecting Black folk is nothing new,” accusing Mr. Trump of standing with “violent white supremacists.” The ad, however, has been aired only minimally. The Biden campaign had paid for $32,127 in airings, as of late Wednesday, in a single market in Georgia, according to data from the ad-tracking firm AdImpact.

Mr. Trump, of course, had some data points of his own as he marketed his presidency as having “the greatest economy in history,” a bygone utopia of low inflation and cheap gasoline.

“Everybody was better off under a man named President Donald J. Trump,” he said last week. “Have you ever heard of him?”

He claimed that he “had a record low poverty rate for Black Americans.” In fact, the rate’s low point occurred in 2022 under Mr. Biden, according to U.S. census data.

Cornell Belcher, a veteran pollster who worked for both of Mr. Obama’s presidential campaigns, said Mr. Biden had “from a policy standpoint a fantastic story to tell” to Black America.

“In many ways, Biden has a better story to tell than Obama did going into 2012,” Mr. Belcher said. “The problem is they haven’t heard it, and they have no idea.”

Mr. Trump, he added, faces a very different political calculus. “He wins not by addition,” he said, “but by subtraction.”

Maya King contributed reporting.



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