Listen and show up.
For presidential candidates working to avoid a repeat of Democratic missteps in 2016, ensuring turnout rebounds among African-American voters is key.
Listen and show up.
Sounds easy, right? Even with three simple words, questions instantly come to mind. Who are you listening to? Where are you showing up? If you’re looking to woo black voters, do you attend a church service and call it good? Do you talk to an African-American elected official and think you’ve learned all you need to know about that community?
The 2020 presidential election is more than a year away, but many voters of all races, ages and socioeconomic backgrounds already are paying attention. They want to be excited by a candidate, and some are. But for the majority, with 24 candidates in the race, Democrats largely are relying on identifiable names (think, former Vice President Joe Biden and 2016 candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont) and those they’ve seen at events.
Some candidates have learned more quickly than others that voters aren’t easily put into demographic boxes.
Even though Sen. Kamala Harris is from California, in a May trip to Detroit, Michigan, she spoke to the frustration black Midwesterners feel when “pundits” talk about winning back a region that is thought of as largely white and rural.
“There has been a conversation by pundits about ‘electability’ and ‘who can speak to the Midwest,'” said Harris at an NAACP dinner. “But when they say that, they usually put the Midwest in a simplistic box and a narrow narrative. And too often their definition of the Midwest leaves people out.”
While specific efforts are made to attract a variety of minority groups every election cycle, many presidential campaigns in 2020 are working to include African-American outreach in every aspect of their voter contact, not just in targeted ads or events.
African-American voters and those who work for presidential campaigns want the candidates to know they aren’t monolithic — what interests a black voter in a South Carolina city might not be relevant to someone in small-town Iowa.
“Of course it’s going to depend on who the candidate is, but I don’t think — whoever the nominee is — they’re not going to forget the African-American community,” said Paul Gandy, a 63-year-old attorney from Fairfield, in southeast Iowa. “They’ve seen how devastating that can be if they do.”
According to the Pew Research Center, black voter turnout declined in 2016 for the first time in 20 years in a presidential election, falling to 59.6% after reaching a record-high 66.6% in 2012.
Among the many reasons Democrats came up short for the White House three years ago, an inability to excite African-American voters is considered a strong contributor.
Gandy, a member of the Fairfield City Council and an active Democrat, in a recent conversation with Starting Line, ticked off a list of candidates that already had made an impression on him, ranging from the widely-known Sanders to self-help author Marianne Williamson.
Despite their different backgrounds and standing in the polls, they all had one thing in common — they had campaigned in Fairfield.
“I think it really makes a difference … the candidates who actually come to the community and give you an opportunity to meet them, to ask questions, to see them up close. That makes a huge difference,” Gandy said. “That’s one way to show that you care enough. That’s one way to stand out.”
Some Tune In, Others Tune Out
At this point in the race, eight months away from the Iowa caucuses, every candidate — except former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak, who entered the race Sunday— has visited the state multiple times. But many have yet to visit southeast Iowa, a corner of the state lacking in large cities that sometimes goes unnoticed by politicians.
Because the population centers are small — about 25,000— the African-American contingent is even smaller.
The region’s largest cities, Burlington and Ottumwa, only are 8.8% and 4% African-American, respectively, according to 2017 census data. There are other Iowa cities with larger percentages, but those are still noteworthy populations for Democrats’ most loyal base of voter.
Tom Courtney, chair of the Des Moines County Democrats, has been involved in local and state politics since the 1970s. Throughout his campaigns and those at the national level, Courtney said he has struggled to get Burlington’s African-American population politically involved.
“I’m missing something here, and I’d love to figure it out before I die,” said Courtney, a 71-year-old former state senator from Burlington. “They’re good people, I just can’t seem to get them involved in politics.”
African-Americans in Burlington may not be as politically active as others, said local resident Chandre Willers, but they involve themselves in the community in different ways.
“The South Hill Neighborhood Association cares,” said Willers, a 50-year-old home health care nurse, as she walked her dog on a recent weekday afternoon. “But they’re most interested in local politics and things that affect our neighborhood, and so am I.”
Willers said she voted twice for Barack Obama and supported the 2016 Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, but had yet to tune in to the candidates this cycle.
“When I watch the news, I like what I hear from a lot of them,” she said. “I have young kids who I hope I can send to college one day, but I don’t want them to be buried in debt. That’s one of my biggest concerns, that my kids will be okay and succeed.”
Two black U.S. senators and a mayor are running for president — Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Wayne Messam of Florida — but for Gandy, a successful candidate does not have to look like the voter to get people to the polls on Election Day.
“Right now, Joe Biden has a high favorability with African-American voters, I think because of his association with Barack Obama, and he’s not going to let you forget that,” Gandy, of Fairfield, said. “No, I don’t think it’s going to have to be an African-American candidate, but it’s going to have to be somebody that can connect with, engage, bring out, the African-American vote. That’s critical, and I think every candidate realizes that.”
Deidre DeJear, chair of Harris’ campaign in Iowa, expressed a similar sentiment.
“It doesn’t take a woman to get a woman’s vote, it doesn’t take a black person to get a black person to vote, it doesn’t take a Latino to get a Latino to vote, it takes a person that’s willing to build a relationship and willing to listen,” said DeJear, Democrats’ 2018 candidate for secretary of state.
DeJear worked statewide in 2012 “to mobilize low-propensity voters” for then-president Obama’s reelection campaign, a campaign she said taught her the importance of engaging directly with the voters you want to reach.
“Contrary to what people think, African-Americans are interested in this realm. They’re interested in politics, mainly in part due to the fact that they’re interested in their families surviving in this climate, in this country,” she said.
When discussing the hardships many black families in Iowa face, DeJear referenced an April 2017 One Economy report shedding light on the stark wage disparities for African-Americans in the state’s largest county.
According to the report, the median household income for African-Americans in Polk County is $26,725 and $59,844 for the county at-large.
“There’s so much work to be done as it relates to just getting African-Americans on a level playing field in the state,” DeJear said, “and these are the conversations that people are having and this is what leadership is working to address.”
Meet Voters Where They Are
As part of her African-American outreach, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has met with pastors in Des Moines and Waterloo, including a sermon she gave in May at a Baptist church.
Booker has made an effort to talk with Iowa news outlets and visit public places that are popular in black communities around the state. He also has secured endorsements from African-American members of the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids city councils.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke also has visited the Baptist church in Waterloo and met with the executive board of Des Moines’ NAACP chapter. On Tuesday, The Root, a site focused on African-American stories, published a lengthy interview with O’Rourke.
“Beto and our campaign have been meeting with African-American leaders across America and Iowa, to listen and learn from them,” said Geoff Burgan, O’Rourke’s Iowa communications director. “And he’s continuing to roll out policy proposals that will lift up, support, and empower the African-American community.”
At Amy Klobuchar’s campaign, the Minnesota senator tapped Jamie Woods as her Iowa political director, who also serves as chair of the Iowa Black Caucus.
“As a woman of color, I’ve seen firsthand how important it is to be involved early with communities of color,” said Woods in a statement. “We want to make sure everyone has a voice and is engaged, which is why Senator Klobuchar’s Iowa campaign is going everywhere and talking to everyone.”
For Bridget Saffold, a 42-year-old nurse from Waterloo, a candidate’s willingness to go “everywhere” and meet people in their communities is critical to voter outreach, particularly among African-Americans.
Saffold’s interest in politics was formed at a young age from her father, who worked on Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1988.
But it wasn’t until she became an adult and had children that her family background translated into activism.
“I think people are trying to be a little bit more engaged because they have not been happy over the last three years,” said Saffold. “But I think it’s more difficult right now because there’s so many [presidential candidates]. I don’t even really know all of the names.”
Saffold lives in the same neighborhood she grew up in, a predominantly black area of Waterloo where the default campaign stop for politicians is the nearby church.
Earlier this month, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren turned the tables to step outside the traditional event and come to Saffold’s home.
“Especially in our community … it’s a big deal for us for somebody to come to us, to our neighborhood,” Saffold said. “That’s a big deal because when they come down to us and our neighborhood, they get to see a whole different — or at least hear from us — who they would never hear from otherwise.”
Saffold said her mind was not settled on who to support in the caucus — she’s open to organizing more neighborhood get-togethers — but she appreciated the attention Warren has spent on specific policy proposals.
“She has details on how you’re supposed to roll that plan out,” Saffold said, noting health care, wealth disparities and access to home ownership as important issues. “There’s a thought-out plan, there’s a thought process to the ideas that you have, and I think a lot of the ideas that she talks about are important to everybody.”
More Than ‘Lip Service’
Biden, leading in state and national polls, currently commands the most support from African-Americans of any 2020 candidate in the race.
“Folks often forget that blacks are a part of the middle class, and that is a narrative that has been, and is continuing, to run rampant throughout the national dialogue,” said Jamal Brown, Biden’s national press secretary. “It’s not only wrong, but the VP is actively working to address that.”
A May poll conducted for African-American political groups showed 76% of black Democrats surveyed were supportive of Biden, with 64% either “enthusiastic” or “comfortable” with Sanders. CNN also has found in its recent polling about 50% of black voters support the former Vice President.
“He’s reminding folks that the middle class is diverse,” Brown told Starting Line. “It’s everyone. The middle class built this country, not Wall Street CEOs or bankers, and the issues affecting the white, working-class family in Ohio are also impacting the black, middle-class and working-class family in Pittsburgh.”
Harris Jones, of Burlington, said in a recent conversation outside a local Hy-Vee grocery store, he wanted a candidate who would pay more than “lip service” to black voters.
“Reach outside the church,” said Jones, a 29-year-old construction worker. “I feel like that’s an old-fashioned way to reach black people. You might reach my grandmother there, but you’re not going to reach me and other people my age.”
Southeast Iowa doesn’t always garner much attention from politicians, Jones said, and that’s especially true for the African-Americans that live here.
“We have a lot of the same concerns as everyone else,” he said. “I want to be able to have health care even if I get laid off. I want a job that will pay the bills, with maybe even a little left over.”
“I’m not paying very close attention yet,” he said. “But I will. I definitely don’t want another four years of Trump.”
by Elizabeth Meyer
Photos by Julie Fleming