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It’s Time for Democrats to Treat Black Men As Swing Voters

This November, the votes of Black men will determine which party controls Congress, governors’ offices and state legislatures across the Country. In competitive states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Black men’s votes will swing elections—and their votes are increasingly up for grabs. 

Black men remain the second-most loyal voting bloc for Democrats. But, the erosion for Democrats among Black male voters is real. I’ve seen it show up in focus groups and in polling over the past decade. Black men’s support for Democratic candidates has declined in every election since Barack Obama exited the political stage. Just 10 years ago, President Obama won Black men’s votes by a 76-point margin against Mitt Romney. That advantage slipped to 67 points for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and just 60 points for Joe Biden in 2020.

And, the impact is not just felt in the presidential campaigns. The gender gap between Black men and Black women made the difference in key statewide elections in 2020. If Black men had turned out and voted like Black women in North Carolina, Cal Cunningham would have gained 242,000 votes – more than two times the margin of victory for Sen. Thom Tillis in 2020.

But this erosion among Black men has not hardened into political stone. Both parties would be wise to view Black men as a key target demographic for 2022 and beyond. 

Republicans are treating Black men like the swing voters they are. Now Democrats have to start courting them accordingly. To win big races this cycle, Democrats must be honest about the real reasons why Black male voters are moving away from the party– and they need to take action in the closing weeks to aggressively court Black men’s votes. 

Misperceptions About Black Men’s Democratic Erosion

Strategists and pundits are correct to highlight the important role that Black men will play in the 2022 election – but they often miss the true reasons why. Too often, strategists and political analysts chalk the erosion up to sexism. But this hot take is not backed up by data. 

Our firm does regular focus groups with Black men and a monthly Black Track poll, a large-sample nationally representative poll of Black voters. In this poll, we find a relatively small gender gap on issues related to gender and sexuality. Equal proportions of Black men and Black women support same-sex marriage and legal abortion. And in 2018, Black men in Georgia gave Stacey Abrams 88% of their vote, nearly identical to the 91% of Black men in Florida who supported Andrew Gillum for governor the same year. Black men are just as likely to vote for a Black woman as they are to vote for a Black man.

The Reasons for Black Men Democratic Erosion

So why are Black men’s votes more up for grabs than ever? 

Firstly, because they are hearing from Republicans more than ever – and in meaningful ways. Republicans have made investments in communicating with Black voters. Most notably, the Trump campaign used the 2020 Super Bowl stage to air a $5 million ad that was not about Making America Great Again or building a wall. The ad featured a Black woman, Alice Johnson, talking to Black men about criminal justice reform and thanking “President Donald John Trump” for her second chance. This was part of a deliberate attempt by Trump to reach Black voters. Trump saw a return on investment from those ads, as his Black male vote share went from 13% in 2016 to 19% in 2020.

And it wasn’t just Trump. Other GOP candidates made bigger state-level investments and saw significant ROI: North Carolina Republican Senator Thom Tillis went from 5% to 10% of the Black vote after spending on ads targeting Black voters. And in GA focus groups my firm conducted post-election in 2021, Black men reported being more likely to hear from Republican Sen. David Perdue than any other candidate.

Secondly, Black men’s votes are drifting away from Democrats because they are increasingly cynical about politics and the Democratic Party. According to our BlackTrack survey, Black men are 10 points more likely than Black women to say that Democrats take Black voters for granted. That cynicism created fertile soil for GOP candidates like Trump, Tillis and Perdue to plant these targeted investments. 

Thirdly, as James Carville famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  73% of Black men felt their lives have not improved under Biden, according to a poll that our firm did for the NAACP. Black men do align more with the Democratic Party on social issues, but increasingly, they find the Republican Party’s economic message intriguing. Among Black men, Democrats hold about a 60% advantage over Republicans on voting rights and racism – but they lead Republicans by just 20% on economic policies.

This is not a failure of accomplishment by Democrats, but a failure of communication. The Inflation Reduction Act addresses the cost of prescription drug prices and home utility bills and will significantly benefit communities of color. In an August focus group, we conducted with Black voters, zero of eight participants had heard of the recently-passed IRA. But after being given a brief prompt with information about the law, all eight participants said it made them feel more positively toward Congressional Democrats. 

How Democrats Can Win Black Men’s Votes in 2022 and Beyond

The good news for Democrats is that it’s not too late to win back Black men. Democrats can follow a 3-step strategy to win Black men’s votes in 2022 and build for the future: 

  1. Communicate to Black men on economic progress. Democrats should continue to talk about the Inflation Reduction Act and other economic accomplishments such as student loan forgiveness and child tax credits, not just in general terms, but specifically to Black men about what these investments benefit Black communities. Democrats don’t need more promises; we need to talk about what’s been done. 
  1. Talk about representation as power. Democrats have been the party driving the push to diversify our elected offices. Our poll with NAACP found that Black men were activated by an argument that highlighted the power of their vote to elect diverse representation. An argument that framed voting as a way to punish extreme Republicans was less effective than a message to empower a diverse slate of Democrats that looks more like our rapidly diversifying nation. 
  1. Spend money driving these messages specifically to Black men. Throughout his campaigns and presidency, Donald Trump was active on the airwaves and social media specifically reaching out to Black men. In October 2020, Trump’s campaign hit the airwaves with an eight-figure TV ad buy on the Platinum Plan. Democrats must make real investments that don’t just treat Black men as part of a broader GOTV universe that must be mobilized – but as swing voters that still must be convinced to vote, and then to vote for Democratic candidates. 

It is clear that Black men have joined other men of color as the most consequential swing voters in the electorate. But, their views have not hardened. It’s on Democrats to close out this campaign by making a proactive case for the vote of Black men. If they succeed, it will put them over the top in some of the most important races in the nation.

Terrance Woodbury is a founding partner and CEO of HIT Strategies, the leading millennial and minority-owned public opinion research firm in Washington, D.C.

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