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Joe Biden has a voters of color problem

The president shouldn't take voters of color for granted — and needs a plan to win them over.

Black and Latino voters are a pivotal element of the Democratic Party coalition, key to the party’s victories in countless local and national races. But a New York Times analysis of polling aggregated over the past year suggests President Joe Biden is losing them in significant numbers. And his losses are consistent with a trend of the party losing Black and Latino support since 2016.

The timing of this trend is striking. The Trump era ushered in a new mode of white nationalism within the Republican Party and helped trigger a more resolute commitment to anti-bigotry in the Democratic Party. Theoretically, such an ideological shift could have increased Black and Latino voter support for Democrats, as that party became a more vocal champion of marginalized communities. Instead, the trend is heading in the opposite direction.

Democrats can’t take voters of color for granted or assume that anti-bigotry rhetoric is a bulwark against losing their support.

It’s a big part of why former President Donald Trump is virtually tied with Biden in the current polls. There isn’t a consensus among political scientists on why Biden seems to be losing Black and Latino support, some of whom now prefer Trump but many of whom say they’re unsure of whom they’ll vote for, or if they’ll vote at all. But what is clear is that Democrats can’t take voters of color for granted or assume that anti-bigotry rhetoric is a bulwark against losing their support. Assuming so could spell disaster for Democrats in 2024.

The Times’ analysis found that Biden’s support among nonwhite voters seems to have faded significantly since he entered office. He won more than 70% of nonwhite voters in 2020; now, according to the Times’ aggregation of New York Times/Siena College polls from 2022 and 2023, he only leads Trump 53% to 28% among registered nonwhite voters. The Times reported that Biden’s weak support among Black, Latino and other voters of color “appears to be mostly responsible for the close race in early national surveys, which show Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump all but tied among registered voters even as Mr. Biden runs as well among white voters as he did four years ago.” 

One caveat is that the Times’ analysis compares disparate kinds of data. The author “seems to be comparing [past] election day votes to hypothetical vote 14 months before election day,” Matt Barreto, a professor of political science at UCLA who advises the White House, wrote in an email. “This is a biased starting point because there are always undecided voters in a poll whereas election day is only actual votes cast. So any comparison to ‘12, ‘16, ‘20 is going to look lower because of undecided voters.” That’s an important point.  Polling this far out from November 2024 is going to reflect a higher level of agnosticism and disapproval than Election Day voting.

In a separate secondary analysis of its polling data, the Times acknowledged the limitations of the comparison, but also noted that Biden’s “support among Black, Hispanic and other nonwhite voters is well beneath previous lows for Democrats in pre-election polls over the last several decades — including the polls from the last presidential election.” Furthermore, we know the trend of Democrats losing traction among voters of color predates recent polling. For example, in the 2020 election, Trump saw an uptick in support among Black and Latino voters compared to 2016.

The implications of all this aren’t that Democrats are at risk of losing voters of color to the Republican Party en masse. The polling doesn’t indicate a mass migration to Trump, and majorities of Black, Latino and other nonwhite voters still side with the Democrats. But an unusually large number of disaffected voters of color saying they’re undecided or that they don’t plan to vote in the next election raises the possibility of Democrats struggling with mobilizing voters of color to cast their ballots.

Voters of color could be particularly cool on Biden because they’re disproportionately economically vulnerable, and thus less likely to have felt visible changes in their lives during his tenure. The Times data appears to support that possibility: Among nonwhite voters, Biden holds a much bigger lead among college graduates than non-college graduates, and Biden is “underperforming most” among nonwhite voters who make less than $100,000 a year.

Chryl Laird, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, pointed out that in lower-income communities of color, the unemployment rate, wages and labor conditions won’t necessarily track with national rates. “People have now seen Biden for a period of time, and they’re not necessarily unhappy with him per se, but maybe they’re thinking he hasn’t seemingly shown them as much as they wanted to see,” she said.

Assuming Biden’s voters of color problem is related to the economy, part of the problem could be his administration’s failure  to communicate what he’s achieved. But to Laird’s point, part of it could be that, despite the fact that the economy is doing well on a big-picture level, large swaths of the population are still smarting from higher prices for food and goods and have seen their bank accounts decline after those accounts benefited from the government’s cash injections during the pandemic.

It’s critical that we reject the lazy thinking of some pundits who see voters of color as monolithic or as defined by their identity. It’s true that, to some extent, race can predict political behavior. But voters of color, like white voters, hold a complex array of ideologies and interests, and it is naive to assume that anti-racism is the most important message a party should communicate to them — or that such a message is important to them at all. 

“Based on survey data that I’ve worked on, and others as well, we see that Republicans have made gains, among, for the most part, socially conservative, economically conservative Latino and Black voters,” Bernard Fraga, a political scientist at Emory University, told me. He also said that in his research he found that Republicans appear to be making gains among Latino voters who are the children of immigrants or more proximate to the immigrant experience.

What should Democrats be doing to generate enthusiasm among such voters? Laird said it’s crucial for the Democrats to connect with and work with community leaders in communities of color where the party is vulnerable to low turnout. Democrats don’t just need a strong ground game, but a ground game that cooperates with trusted community surrogates who can communicate what the party has been doing and what the party can do for them. Fraga said that “Democrats need to talk about what they’re doing for Latino and Black voters, and less about what Republicans will do to those voters when Republicans take power.”

Biden is still a long way from Election Day, and there’s a good chance his poll numbers pick up once it’s known who he’ll be facing off against and voters have a clearer sense of the stakes. But losing the faith of voters of color is a problem that Biden and Democrats need to take seriously — and immediately address.