The television ad “Shop Talk” shows a group of African American men — masked up, socially distanced — seated inside a Black-owned barbershop in Durham, North Carolina. “Good governance counts,” asserts one. “We need to have individuals in office like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,” says another.
In a radio spot airing on Black radio stations across the country, listeners hear from former NFL star Herschel Walker. “I’ve known Donald Trump for 37 years,” he says. “He keeps right on fighting to improve the lives of Black Americans. He works night and day. He never stops. He leaves nothing on the field.”
Move over, soccer mom. America’s presidential campaigns have a new coveted voter: Black men. Both Republicans and Democrats are courting this demographic, for reasons that seem tied to recent voting patterns. According to Pew Research Center, 64 percent of eligible Black women and 54 percent of eligible Black men voted in 2016. Black women overwhelmingly (98 percent) favored Hillary Clinton, but among Black men, she won 81 percent. Trump got 14 percent — still a relatively small percentage, yet an improvement on the 11 percent that, according to NBC exit poll data, Mitt Romney won in 2012.
In addition, Pew found that Black men (77 percent) are less likely than Black women (87 percent) to identify as Democrats. And according to Gallup, Trump’s approval rating is 8 points higher (19 percent vs. 11 percent) among Black men than it is among Black women.
Terrance Woodbury, a partner at HIT Strategies, whose clients include Democrats, told me the firm’s focus groups and polling show Republican appeals to some Black men — especially younger ones — are effective. According to his data, Black men “are not confident that Democrats can and will improve race relations. They also believe Democrats take their votes for granted.”
Leo Terrell, 65, a civil rights lawyer in Los Angeles who’s appeared on Fox News, is a case in point. Democrats have “given in to the left wing, even violent extremists, and abandoned [their] civil rights and equality-for-all roots,” he says. “Joe Biden made the assumption that if you’re Black you have to vote Democrat. I find that insulting to every African American because we don’t vote as one group.”
Paris Dennard, RNC senior communications adviser for Black media affairs, told me: “Trump Victory is appealing to all Black voters and we know that Black men will see all of the Black men at our events, on staff at the White House, the RNC, the Trump campaign, and on our Black Voices for Trump Advisory Board and feel included especially when they see, read and hear President Trump’s record and his new Platinum Plan” — a set of proposals meant to appeal to Black voters — “from all of our Black male surrogates all over the country.” (Neither the Trump nor Biden campaigns could say how much they’re spending on outreach to Black voters.) The Black Voices for Trump coalition kicked off in late 2019 at a rally in Atlanta where the president appeared. Dennard says more than 100 events have taken place at venues including churches and Black-owned businesses, as well as virtually. Black Voices also hosts “Real Talk Online!,” a YouTube show featuring such topics as entrepreneurship. Dennard cites criminal justice reform, funding for HBCUs and school choice as issues on which Trump policies have benefited the Black community.
Trump has, however, faced more allegations of racism than any recent president — a situation that could help Democrats to solidify the Black male vote. In August, the Biden campaign kicked off “Shop Talk,” a series of discussions for Black men that has welcomed community leaders and celebrities. The program is a cousin of sorts to “Chop It Up,” which the Democratic National Committee, together with the DNC Black Caucus, launched in May 2019. “Chop It Up” consists of a series of barbershop-style conversations that are designed to center Black men and their concerns, and to empower individuals to organize and build political networks.
“The guiding principles of our strategy to engage and mobilize Black men this election cycle [were] to start early and to meet them where they are,” says Brandon Gassaway, DNC national press secretary. “There is no one type of Black male experience, so it’s critical that we spend more time listening than anything else, so brothers from all walks of life feel our party is accountable to them.”
Quentin James, co-founder of the Collective PAC, which supports progressive Black candidates, thinks 12 to 17 percent of Black men “might” vote for Trump, but he hopes it will be fewer. Black men, he says, are seeing “police officers shoot us in the back, knee us, and kill our wives and girlfriends. I am concerned if he is reelected it will unleash an avalanche of white supremacists in our communities.”
In recent weeks, my interviews with Black male voters yielded a range of thinking about the campaign. James L. Walker III, 25, is a D.C. resident who worked his way through Howard University Law School as an airline baggage handler. He often gets election news via social media. “A lot of times, the [political] rhetoric infuriates me,” he says, “but I want the perspective of both sides.” He hopes to see issues such as student loan debt and mass incarceration addressed. “I don’t think people realize the true power a president has. These decisions will affect our kids’ kids. I definitely plan to vote.”
John Verdejo, 41, of Raleigh, N.C., calls himself a “super-voter” who casts ballots in every election. “Black men are a demographic that has often been ignored and, worse, made to look like a threat,” says Verdejo, a contract administrator. “Yet we are fathers, educators, scientists, business owners, religious leaders, [company] presidents and media moguls, cultural influencers and athletes at the top of our fields. We have plenty to say.” His say? Biden.
Marc T. Little, 55, is a lawyer and pastor. He is board chairman of the Center for Urban Renewal and Education, a conservative think tank in D.C. He’s backing Trump. An evangelical Christian, Little is antiabortion, favors limited government and wants conservative justices appointed to the Supreme Court. “My inclination is to first apply a biblical worldview to my vote,” he says. “I do not believe any Christian has the option to leave their values at home.”
Notwithstanding voters like Little, the reality is that Black men are overwhelmingly registered Democrats — and if decades of voting patterns hold true, the majority could vote by a wide margin for Biden. Still, how wide that margin proves to be and how many Black men turn out are among the factors that could affect the final result.
For now, it’s clear that Black men — who have often been overlooked by the political establishment — are having their say. “This is a very important election for Black men,” says Vernard L. Alsberry Jr., 65, mayor of Hazel Crest in the Chicago suburbs. The killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests have weighed heavily on him, and he wants Trump out of the White House. “We must go to the polls,” he says, “and carry our sons too.”
Donna M. Owens is a writer in Baltimore.