In His Beloved Philadelphia, Biden Faces Wariness From Black Voters

In His Beloved Philadelphia, Biden Faces Wariness From Black Voters

In Milwaukee on Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris highlighted her work to close the racial wealth gap. In Atlanta on Sunday, President Biden will deliver the commencement address at Morehouse College, an all-male historically Black institution. And in Detroit the same day, he is expected to speak at an N.A.A.C.P. dinner.

But as Mr. Biden and his team intensify their efforts to engage Black voters, evidence keeps emerging that he faces serious challenges among that politically powerful, heavily Democratic group of Americans, threatening his ability to resurrect his victorious 2020 coalition.

And perhaps nowhere are those problems more striking than in Philadelphia, the largest city in Mr. Biden’s birth state and a place he visits seemingly constantly — pulled back by his roots, its proximity to his current homes and an awareness that Pennsylvania delivered him the presidency four years ago and could decide his re-election bid this fall.

In interviews with nearly two dozen voters in predominantly Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia this week, as well as with elected officials and strategists, signs of softness in Mr. Biden’s standing were palpable.

Just eight voters said they were committed to voting for Mr. Biden, while many others were debating staying home, or, in a few cases, supporting former President Donald J. Trump. They cited concerns about immigration, the cost of living and their sense that Mr. Biden was more focused on crises abroad than on fixing problems in their neighborhoods. And despite Mr. Biden’s robust policy accomplishments, some were unfamiliar with his record.

“I don’t care about what goes on overseas,” said Latasha Humphrey, 36, an infrequent voter who is considering supporting Mr. Trump, if she votes at all. “I care about where I live.”

Democrats have long banked on strong showings in Philadelphia — and more recently, its suburbs — to offset weakness in more conservative parts of this closely divided state. Their concern is not that the city’s Black voters will gravitate en masse toward Mr. Trump, but that too many of them, apathetic about their choices, might simply stay home.

But his specific struggles are evident in polling, which for months has shown erosion in Black support across battleground states.

In Pennsylvania, Mr. Biden is doing slightly worse with Black voters than four years ago, though he still wins the vast majority, according to a New York Times/Philadelphia Inquirer/Siena College survey released this past week. He was the choice of 69 percent of Black voters now, compared with 79 percent in June 2020. Mr. Trump was ahead in the state overall in the most recent poll.

For Democrats on the ground, the work to mobilize Black voters — colloquially described as a “battle against the couch” — is steep.

“It’s going to be easy to convince people not to vote for Trump,” said Isaiah Thomas, a Democratic at-large city councilman in Philadelphia who is helping lead an effort to encourage Black men to vote in November. “It’s going to be hard to convince people to vote for Biden. Those are two totally different fights.”

The Biden campaign is working on both fronts.

In a statement, Jasmine Harris, Mr. Biden’s Black media director, said the campaign was “treating Black voters as persuasion targets, pouring the same resources into reaching them that you do for traditional swing voters.” She added, “We’ll really see the results of our campaign’s outreach to Black voters closer to Election Day.”

Last August, the president’s team announced a $25 million advertising effort aimed at battleground states, which included what the campaign has said is the largest and earliest investment in Black media ever for a re-election bid.

The campaign has continued to spend on that front, including a seven-figure investment in Black media this month. Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris have taped interviews with Black radio personalities and community leaders in battleground states.

In a Wednesday interview with Big Tigger, a Black radio host in Atlanta, Mr. Biden described policies from his administration that have helped Black communities, like expanded health care affordability, investments in historically Black colleges and curbs on predatory lending.

He also made a blunt claim about his opponent’s relationship to Black Americans: “Trump hurt Black people every chance he got as president,” he said.

Ms. Harris has also participated in sit-down interviews and informal events meant to reach Black men. Polls show that Mr. Biden is doing better with Black women — whom Democrats often refer to as the “backbone” of their party — than with Black men.

And the Biden campaign is thinking through less traditional ways to reach Black voters in places including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

For example, early discussions are underway about using campaign offices in some neighborhoods as community hubs, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions, who was not authorized to speak about them publicly.

There are also plans to try to enlist local celebrities including actors, rappers and other musicians, this person said.

Many Democrats argue that, to the extent there are signs of softness, it is because voters simply have not yet tuned in to an election rematch between two well-known figures. Some are also deeply skeptical of polls showing a drastic shift among Black voters.

Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, a close and important Biden ally, campaigned for him recently in the Philadelphia area.

Mr. Clyburn said in an interview that he was “not experiencing, anywhere I go, what these polls are reflecting.”

“These people are upbeat, looking forward to this campaign, and they are all in for Joe Biden,” he said.

He was incredulous at the idea that Black Americans would support Mr. Trump, noting the former president’s long history of racist comments. Asked if he believed Americans remembered that record, as memories of the Trump era fade for some, Mr. Clyburn replied, “We ain’t going to let them forget.”

Some Black voters in Philadelphia said they remembered all too well.

“If we don’t vote for Biden, we could be back in Civil War days,” said Gwen Ragsdale, 72, who spoke as MSNBC played on her car radio. She said she would vote for the president and would encourage all of her family members to do the same.

The Republican Party, for its part, has not made a concerted effort to garner Black support. This year, the party shuttered minority outreach centers in several battleground states. And while Mr. Trump has courted Black voters, his efforts have often relied on stereotypes.

Democrats are betting that as more Americans come to terms with the prospect of a Biden-Trump matchup, and as the stakes of the election come into focus for them — sped along, they hope, by a June debate Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden agreed to this past week — their base voters will grow more energized.

A democracy-focused message was effective in the 2022 midterms for some Democrats. But in Philadelphia, some of Mr. Biden’s supporters don’t see the race in such urgent terms, even as Mr. Trump and his allies make plans that would upend core elements of American democracy and the rule of law if he returns to the White House.

“We’re not going to get a dictator,” said Andrea Barnes, 49, a ninth-grade history teacher who plans to vote for Mr. Biden in November. She has faith in America’s checks and balances, she added, saying, “As dumb as Trump is, he can go as far as he can.”

In Philadelphia, other Black voters said they saw little difference between the two major political parties, associating Democrats with empty promises and Republicans with racism and support for the wealthy.

“They’re all the same,” said Folayemi Wilson, 69, who added that as of now, she did not back Mr. Biden, angered by his support for Israel in the war in Gaza. Democrats, she said, “come around to our churches when it’s time to vote, and then we don’t see them again.”

Clinton Geary III, 41, an entrepreneur and organizer who works to end community violence in Philadelphia, said he would support Mr. Trump in November, his first time casting a ballot. He saw Mr. Biden as more focused on wars abroad than low-income communities domestically.

“How are you going to help go to war and you can’t help feed people?” he said.

He also said he was worried about the country’s influx of migrants, a theme echoed by several voters, including anti-Trump ones.

The Biden campaign and its Democratic allies argue that Mr. Biden has a strong story to tell, citing policy achievements like lowering the cost of insulin for seniors, signing a major infrastructure measure into law — with tangible results for Philadelphia — and presiding over historically low levels of Black unemployment.

In an interview, Mayor Cherelle Parker of Philadelphia noted that polls had been wrong before and implicitly warned against reading too deeply into survey results six months before Election Day.

“But I’ll tell you, I read them, every bit of data that can indicate how things are going, and I’m not satisfied with the margins that I’ve heard about,” added Ms. Parker, the city’s first female mayor. “We need to connect the service and the investment that the Biden-Harris administration has made and its impact on people.”

Shanice Ellison, 29, said she planned to support Mr. Biden this year, seeing a vote for him as a vote to preserve the country. But she will do so reluctantly, she said, amid worries about the job market and global affairs, and the sense that “everything just feels really bleak.”

“I don’t feel, as a Black female voter, as a priority for either party,” she said. “We have been touted as the backbone, but what are you guys doing for us?”

Ruth Igielnik contributed reporting.

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