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A pollster on what Democrats need to do to mobilize Black male voters

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

With just days to go before voting ends in the 2022 midterms, the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll is showing some warning signs for Democrats, specifically when it comes to who's more keen to vote this year. Across age, race, income, gender and other demographic groups, the survey shows Black voters are among the least enthusiastic to vote. And Black voters have historically voted for Democrats at a higher rate, with Black women among the most reliable Democratic voters. Now, we probably don't have to remind you - like with any voting bloc, there is still a vast array of diverging opinions, ideologies and issues that are important among Black voters.

AL HEARTLEY: It really comes down to abortion rights as well as voting rights.

SUMMERS: And that's why Al Heartley, a consultant in Smyrna, Ga., says he's voting for Democrat Stacey Abrams in his state's closely watched race for governor and incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock for U.S. Senate. And Heartley says his experiences as a Black man in this country should matter to politicians.

HEARTLEY: Black men have a voice and have a perspective. You have to acknowledge where I am as a Black person first. To me, that's what Warnock and Abrams really do.

SUMMERS: Relatability also matters to Donell Brunson, a voter in Fairless Hills, Pa., another state with a high-profile Senate race.

DONELL BRUNSON: Fetterman is like a everyday-looking guy. I like my politicians more, you know, of the people.

SUMMERS: Even though he's supporting Democrat John Fetterman over Republican candidate Mehmet Oz, Brunson doesn't feel like politicians across the country understand what it takes to win support from more Black men.

BRUNSON: It's clear to me that they don't have people of color advising them. They're assuming what we want. And we want the same things that other voters want - jobs, economics, education.

SUMMERS: Here to talk with us more about efforts to mobilize Black men in this year's midterms is Terrance Woodbury. He's a Democratic pollster and runs HIT Strategies, a polling firm that specializes in understanding young and minority voters. Terrance, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TERRANCE WOODBURY: Thank you so much for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So what are the historic trends you've seen with voter engagement among Black men?

WOODBURY: While there is a gender gap between Black men and Black women, it's important to point out that that gender gap is not unique to Black voters, that there is, in fact, a gender gap across all races, that white men and Black men, Latino men and AAPI men all vote a little more conservatively than their female counterparts. What's unique about Black male voters is that they were Democratic voters. They were supporting Barack Obama at 90%-plus margins. And so now that we have seen that decline to 79% or 80%, it is, in fact, enough to make the margin of difference in states like Georgia and Wisconsin and North Carolina, where they have diverse candidates at the top of the ticket.

SUMMERS: Earlier, we heard from that Pennsylvania voter Donell Brunson, who said that so many candidates just make assumptions about what Black men want. Based on your data, what issues would you say candidates from either party should focus on to close that enthusiasm gap, particularly when it comes to Black men?

WOODBURY: What we've found is that while this election cycle is being defined by Democrats, by the threat of the other side, the threat of losing democracy, that in fact, Black men are more motivated by the progress that Democrats have made. For example, when we asked them in a recent poll, 73% of Black men said that their lives had not improved since Joe Biden became president. But when we gave them a list of progress, of policies - the child tax credit, the George Floyd executive order, the infrastructure bill - 90% of Black men said that that progress would improve their lives. And so it's clear to me that we're dealing with a messaging problem in connecting Black men to the progress that's being made.

SUMMERS: I want to push back a little bit here because I think that a number of the issues that you talked about, progress has a long way to go. You mentioned the executive order which bans chokeholds and no-knock warrants, but Congress has failed to act significantly on police reform. There has been lagging progress on infrastructure. I guess I would love to know your take on those who say there's still quite a long way to go.

WOODBURY: Absolutely. I was in focus groups in Michigan just a few weeks ago, and a Black man reminded me that policy is not progress. And there's a process in place to rip up lead pipes, but his baby is still drinking dirty water, and that's not progress for him, right? When we needed Black men's votes, we delivered to the palm of their hand. Click here to access your mail-in ballot. Click here to find your polling place. Well, now they need to click here to see a map of those lead pipes and the progress map of every pipe that's been replaced. They want to see and be a part of that progress in order to know that it's real and know that it's affecting the communities that they care about.

SUMMERS: I'm hoping you can talk to us a little bit about the more specific fears or even barriers for Black voters here. I find myself wondering how changes to voting laws, more recent reports of voter intimidation in some states or other political factors come into play.

WOODBURY: Yeah, that is what is the single greatest concern to me going into this election. It is the changing access to voting - lines getting longer, being asked for more or different identification every time they go vote. It is up to us to communicate. This is the goal of these efforts - not to disenfranchise the entire Black community, but to create just enough friction that just enough Black voters turn around and go home. You know, in a recent BlackTrack poll that we conducted just last week amongst a thousand Black voters nationally, a majority, 51%, expect there to be political violence if Republicans lose this election. And a third, 33%, expect there to be political violence regardless of who wins this election. We cannot normalize that. Even the presence of ballistic gear and weapons at polling places continues to introduce violence into our body politic. And that was just not a hallmark of our democracy and our peaceful transfer of power.

SUMMERS: The White House might also be hearing the alarm bells on Black voter turnout. President Biden made this appeal on Tuesday in a conversation with radio host Rickey Smiley, who has a majority Black audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. It's important. Democracy is literally at stake here.

SUMMERS: And, Terrance, party leaders can urge voting all they want. But where do you see the onus on them, Democrats or Republicans, to be in the driver's seat here to push more engagement?

WOODBURY: Yeah, this is a part of where I would argue that there's a - that the White House has a messaging problem and not a governing problem. It's that they have to position Black voters as the hero of that story. We didn't reduce child poverty in the Black community because of the benevolence of Joe Biden or of Democrats. We did it because Black voters won the U.S. Senate in Georgia. And so when we start to point to the progress, it's important that we give voters credit for that progress and make them the heroes of the story.

SUMMERS: Terrance Woodbury, Democratic pollster and CEO of HIT Strategies. Thank you so much for your time and insights.

WOODBURY: Thank you so much. I'll come back anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.