Biden grapples with concerns over young Black voter support

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The Biden administration is looking to ramp up support among young Black voters as polls show his approval rating with the demographic slipping ahead of 2024. 

Earlier this month, a poll by The Highland Project found that 69 percent of millennial and Gen Z Black women are dissatisfied with the direction the country is going. Another poll by AEI’s Survey Center on American Life found that only 21 percent of Black voters between 18 and 49 years old want Biden to be the Democratic nominee.

Now, in a sign the Biden campaign recognizes this worrying trend, Vice President Harris is spending the month touring historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as part of a nationwide “Fight For Our Freedoms College Tour.”

“This generation is critical to the urgent issues that are at stake right now for our future,” Harris said in a statement earlier this month. “It is young leaders throughout America who know what the solutions look like and are organizing in their communities to make them a reality. My message to students is clear: We are counting on you, we need you, you are everything.”

Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of the left-leaning BlackPAC, said young Black voters have become a critical electorate for Democrats, who cannot win an election without their support.

“Their energy drives the electorate,” Shropshire said. “Young Black voters tie their activism and their participation to culture. There’s a cultural element to political engagement and political activation in the Black community and that energy that young people bring really sends a message about when is the moment for the Black community to come together and act in unison around protecting the Black community and the Black community’s interest and the Black community’s future.”

But some argue the administration hasn’t been successful at messaging when it comes to what it’s accomplished for Black Americans.

Since taking office, Biden has invested $5.8 billion in HBCUs, addressed the Black maternal health crisis with Black Maternal Health Week and its Blueprint for Addressing the Maternal Health Crisis, as well as forgiven some student loan debt, though not for as many borrowers as originally promised.

For those who know of these successes, the efforts are working. 

Kyshan Nichols-Smith, a junior at Morehouse College, a historically Black college, said one of his top issues going into 2024 is the protection of voting rights. 

Nichols-Smith told The Hill he has always been politically active, something he thinks is becoming more common among young Black voters, but he adds that more voter education is needed to encourage the continuation of this engagement. 

“I think what we’re seeing more and more is a lot of young Black voters becoming more politically engaged and furthermore deepening their understanding of the political process,” Nichols-Smith said. “Obviously, there’s two very sharp narratives about the left and the right and that means that voter education is really beneficial.”

Shropshire said many of those surveyed by BlackPAC were not well-informed of what the Biden administration has done for Black voters — and it has impacted their support for the president. 

“We hear criticism about issues that the administration actually has addressed and that people are just unaware of,” she said. “When we’ve done focus groups and said to people actually, here are the things that the administration has done, the level of support for the Biden-Harris administration significantly increases and people’s response was essentially ‘I didn’t know that and now that I do, I’m actually going to give him a B instead of the D that I gave him when you first asked me that question.’”

Still, Nichols-Smith said he is pleased to see Harris heading to HBCUs, where the work of the administration can be spread to young voters. 

“The Biden-Harris administration are reaching out to young Black voters, in particular HBCU voters,” he said. “Hearing about their concerns, things like student loan debt, race and racism, things of that nature, has been beneficial as far as just creating a more open dialogue between our politicians.”

Shropshire added that the White House should really lean into Harris’s work now as they work to build a young Black coalition. 

“She is very much kind of the secret weapon,” Shropshire said. “Young Black voters, they identify with her … so I think getting her out there speaking to these issues more and more is going to be really important.”

But Biden has something else working in his favor: Young voters trend more progressive. 

A poll from Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of American adults younger than 30 would rather have the popular vote determine presidential winners, and 58 percent want to expand the Supreme Court. 

Black voters in particular have repeatedly identified their top issues as addressing white supremacy and racism, student loan forgiveness and education and police reform and accountability. 

These issues mean that, despite what appears to be waning support, Black voters are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans.

Ariana Levin, a junior at Spelman College, identifies as a Democrat because she knows these aren’t issues the Republican Party is likely to address.

“I feel like the liberal agenda is something that I gravitate more towards because they tend to focus on the issues that I care about myself,” Levin told The Hill. 

Levin’s parents instilled in her the importance of voting at a young age, and she spends time now sharing that message with her peers. 

“Older generations kind of left us a mess and so we as young people need to start paying it off,” Levin said. “We need to make sure that the legislation that’s getting passed is going to put us in the right direction. We need to just come together. I find that it’s really important to have those conversations with my friends.”

Some of Levin’s top priorities driving her toward supporting Democrats include access to reproductive health, ending the Black maternal health crisis and addressing police brutality. 

“When it came to the Black Lives Matter movement, every Republican you heard talking about it was talking negatively about it, whereas the Democrats who were talking about it, were trying to uplift the Black community at that time,” Levin said. “Things like that, it just kind of made me lean towards the Democratic Party versus the Republican Party.”

Despite Republican attempts to draw in a more diverse electorate over the past few years, the party’s rhetoric on race seems to be pushing nonwhite voters away.

In March, more than two dozen Republicans on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee refused to join Democrats in signing a letter denouncing white supremacy. 

Then, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) sparked outrage when he said that white supremacists are not inherently racist, though those comments did draw pushback from GOP leaders. 

Meanwhile, Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy has faced an onslaught of criticism for comments that some have called racially charged. And former President Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, has been accused of racist rhetoric. 

But while these incidents may be pushing Black voters away from Republicans, Democrats have also struggled to encourage Black voters to back them. 

The 2022 midterms saw a significant drop in Black voter turnout. According to an analysis by The Washington Post, Black voter turnout fell nearly 10 percentage points, from 51.7 percent in 2018 to 42 percent in 2022. 

“A part of what is contributing to the dropout amongst Black voters we’ve seen in the 2022 cycle was the cynicism and frustration that the system isn’t working for them,” Terrence Woodbury, Democratic strategist and founder of HIT Strategies, told The Hill. 

Woodbury said there’s been too many politicians making promises they can’t keep, and Democrats including Biden need to avoid this in 2024. 

“I would strongly, strongly advise against leading with promises about the future, specifically with Black voters,” Woodbury said. “The voters we are losing, the reason we’re losing them is cynicism. We’re not losing them because they don’t like Joe Biden, we’re losing them because the system doesn’t work.”

As for the voters themselves, Levin plans to do what she can to encourage her friends to hit the polls next year.

“It’s our future,” Levin said. “It’s our now, it’s what we’re currently going through and I kind of have a motto: if other people aren’t going to do it, then you have to do it for yourself.” 

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