Into Getting Black Men to the Polls
Barack Obama: What's going on? Hello, gentlemen. It's good to see you.
Trymaine Lee: So what do you do when you're a Democrat and the election is less than two weeks away? You throw up the Bat Signal and this guy shows up.
Archival Recording: We hear you play a little basketball. That's why we're here.
Obama: I've got to admit, my game is a little broken at this point. But, you know, looking around, some of you all I might take.
Lee: This week former President Barack Obama is in the swing state of Pennsylvania, campaigning for his former VP, Joe Biden. Now, Obama's first stop was a round table in Philly, talking to Black men who are leaders in the community about the issues facing them today and the importance of turning out the vote.
Obama: One of the biggest tricks that's perpetrated on the American people is this idea that the government is separate from you. The government's us. Of, by and for the people. It wasn't always for all of us. But the way it's designed, it works based on who's at the table. And if you do not vote, you are not at the table. And then, yes, then stuff is done to you. If you're at the table, then you're part of the solution.
Lee: It was Black support in South Carolina that helped get Joe Biden the nomination. Now, he's looking to expand upon the 81% of Black men who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign is trying to get Black men on their side, like with this ad, featuring a Black truck driver.
Archival Recording: To me, Trump is a freakin' godsend. To me, Trump is life. To me, Trump is a second chance. But there is a silent majority out there. I talk to 'em. I got people that I work with on a daily basis saying, "Yo man, we gotta do somethin'."
Lee: 14% of Black male voters went for Trump in 2016. Now, I know it doesn't really sound like a lot, but it's more than some of his Republican predecessors got. And he's going for an even bigger share this time around.
Donald Trump: I did more for the Black community in 47 months than Joe Biden did in 47 years.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, why in the final days before the election, both parties are trying to get Black men to the polls. There's no one better on any of this stuff than Cornell Belcher. He's a Democratic pollster at NBC News, an MSNBC political analyst. He worked on the Obama campaigns in '08 and 2012, and has his own polling and strategy firm called Brilliant Corners. Cornell Belcher, man, thank you so much for joining us.
Cornell Belcher: Thanks for having me, the pleasure's mine, brother. I've been checking you out, and I've been wanting to have this conversation.
Lee: I feel like every week I'm, like, where's Cornell? It's like that Chapelle Show where he's, like, "Where's Ja?" I'm, like, "Yo, where is Cornell Belcher?" I need some help in understanding this, man. Now, we covered a lot of ground, but I started with this push to get Black men to the polls. You know, I've always wondered, efforts like this, is it pandering or an actual, genuine attempt to bring Black men into the fold?
Belcher: Well, no, but you gotta make the case. Look, every presidential candidate, on the Democratic side, from Buttigieg, to Biden, to Harris, Bloomberg, put out a specific plan for addressing inequality in our society. Trymaine, sometimes we've gotta know when we're winning. I mean, because of our demands, the system is acting. And one of the biggest knocks of the Obama years, and I understand that especially early on, was that there were no policy prescriptions specifically for Black people.
Well, fast forward. You can't be serious in politics right now, particularly on the Democratic side, if you don't have specific policy prescriptions for Black people. That's a victory. Now, it is not the end of the game, but we gotta take it and we gotta run with it.
So when you drop out of the process, you are in fact ceding the ground to others who don't have your interests. And what I would argue to brothers is: If you want to protect your community, if you want to make things better in your communities or for you and your family, you can't cede political ground and power to others because you don't like the game. Right? The game is the game. And you've gotta play the game or you and your people are gonna suffer the consequences.
Lee: Well, in playing the game, Cornell, you know, the good brother Ice Cube, the OG, caught some flack because he said, "You know what? I have an idea for Black America, a contract with Black America, and I don't care who's willing to engage with me." So he said he presented it to Biden, he presented it to the Trump administration.
And Biden said, "You know what? Let's wait until after the election." Trump said, "You know what? Come on, and let's talk." But, you know, Ice Cube is saying, "Let's play the game, let's not just put all our eggs in one basket. Let's appeal to Trump. And if he's willing to put, as his plan calls for, $500 billion investment in the Black community, why not do that?"
Belcher: Have we actually seen what the Congressional Black Caucus' platform is?
Lee: I don't think many have.
Belcher: And what their plans are? 'Cause here's the thing, all of a sudden, Ice Cube didn't come, and look, I love the brother's acting, and I have a couple of his albums. And I appreciate what he's trying to do. But let's step back and level set. We don't need another plan.
What I talked about is there are a number of plans. And if you look at what the Congressional Black Caucus has put forward, and is trying to move, it's sitting in the Senate dying because Mitch McConnell and the Republicans aren't gonna move on it. If Donald Trump wanted to do something for Black Americans, he would tell Mitch McConnell to lift up off of the Justice and Policing Act right now. So we gotta understand the game, right? And talk about sort of being hoodwinked, the plan's already there. Act on the plan.
Lee: So in terms of reaching out to Black men, which seem to be shaping up to be a really crucial demographic for so many reasons, Joe Biden's got this ad running right now that focuses on Black men, and he's in the barber shop. You know, look, it bothers me sometimes that the only place people tend to find Black men is the barber shop, we exist in other places. But it is effective in it being a center of community. And in this ad, one of the brothers says, "You know, it's our responsibility."
Archival Recording: It's our responsibility. If we don't lead that effort to make things better, we can't ask other people to do it. There is no good reason not to vote. You cannot sit on the sidelines. You've gotta get in the game.
Lee: It was a well-done ad, and it seemed genuine, the brothers' voices in there seemed like brothers that we would know. But is that kind of thing actually effective in reaching brothers who might not otherwise be inclined?
Belcher: You have to compete. And there's not a silver bullet. You know, I'm gonna push back on the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" sort of narrative that too often gets called up, right? So if they aren't in our cultural places having conversations with us, it's bad. But if they are, that can be bad, too, right?
Belcher: But the power of that ad, I think, is real brothers talking about what they have to do, and what's going on in the community, and how they bring about change. And it is very much this ideal that if you want change to happen, you can't just expect change to happen without you taking a part in it. So this ideal of responsibility and power is something that, from my research, I've been telling people one of the things that correlates strongest with nonparticipation is whether or not they think they have power. And it's something I started tracking going back to the Obama years. If a voter doesn't think they have power, they are not very likely to participate, right? So you have to give them a sense of the power that they, in fact, can change things.
And then connect that power up to policies that they want, right? And that's just Politics 101. So when we say we want criminal justice reform, and I'm gonna give you my vote 'cause you're gonna act on criminal justice reform, that's the political system working. That's how the political system is supposed to work.
Lee: Now, you know, on the flipside, Trump is kind of flipping that narrative, and they have a commercial out now with Herschel Walker.
Herschel Walker: I've known Donald Trump for 37 years. He keeps right on fighting to improve the lives of Black Americans. He works night and day. He never stops. He leaves nothin' on the field.
Lee: And Georgia State Representative, Vernon Jones. And again, Jones is a Democrat, or has worn a badge for a while.
Vernon Jones: Joe Biden has had 47 years to produce results, but he's been all talk and no action, just like so many of the Democrats who have been making promises to the Black voters for decades.
Lee: Is that kind of ad effective? The idea of powerlessness, the idea that, "Democrats, look at your communities. They talk about it, but they're not really about it." Does that work?
Belcher: Well, it hasn't because Biden has anything from a 10- to 12-point lead, and he's close to garnering Obama-like performance numbers among African American voters. But look, if 100% of the Black vote is the thing, it's gonna be a failure. And it's ridiculous. Okay, so 10%, 12%, 13% of African Americans vote Republican. Are we expecting African Americans--
Lee: I've had the same thought. What is winning? You need 100? You need 99?
Belcher: Right. I mean, and it's, like--
Lee: Can't we have some brothers with bad politics?
Belcher: Things like, we say that Blacks aren't monolithic, but then we want 100% of Blacks to vote for, you know, that's just not how any of this works. And it's not now history's worked. Look, we've had 12, 13% of African Americans voting Republican for a long time.
I mean, go back to George Bush, go back before then, right? You're gonna get a certain percentage of Black people who are gonna be Republican. I'm not worried about that 12 or 13% of Black people who vote Republican.
And we seem to be obsessed. And I think part of the train is this ideal that, where we go, well, Donald Trump's clearly a racist. How could anyone Black be for Donald Trump? It's almost offensive. But we gotta let that go. And I'm more worried about us getting those several million African Americans, particularly those brothers who didn't participate, who voted for Obama and didn't participate in 2016, I'm a lot more worried about getting them back into the process than I am, you know, worried about if 12 or 14% of Blacks are gonna vote for Donald Trump. You know, 14% of what?
Lee: I mean, I guess it sounds like you're saying, you know, because Black voters do tend to vote for Democrats, if more Black people come out, then it will be a net win for Democrats. But there is a stat here. And I know we shouldn't be surprised. And, like, what do you want? Complete allegiance in lockstep? That's ridiculous. We should be able to have freedom of political thought.
But there's one stat that shows that 18% of young Black men under 50 support Donald Trump. That seems like the opposite of what we saw with the Obama coalition and young folks coming out and being so tuned into the social matters of the day, police reform and all that stuff. Isn't that just a little concerning? The idea that if you can chip off some young people here, in a Wisconsin, and in Milwaukee, chip off some young Black folks over here, in a Florida?
Belcher: All right, let's do some more math.
Lee: And I'm a journalist for a reason, so if my math, so please give me some math.
Belcher: So what are we talking about? Okay, so 80-plus percent of young Black men are voting for Joe Biden. So we're getting really worked up over that? I mean, it's the forest for the trees, right? Do I want 18% of young Black men voting for Donald Trump? No. But to your point earlier, so we have to have 100% allegiance? That's just not realistic, right? Find a number like that 18% in that group, and we inflate it, and we drive a narrative around that. When the truth of the matter is, that Joe Biden is a lot closer to Barack Obama-like performance among Black voters than Hillary Clinton was. Joe Biden is anywhere between, you know, 87 or 89% of Black voters. I mean, come on, Trymaine.
Lee: We have to take a break. And when we come back, Cornell and I talk about the polling and strategy around Black voters in 2020. Stick with us.
Lee: We're back with Cornell Belcher. You know, I think in 2016, many of us felt, you know, hoodwinked and bamboozled, and led astray by the polls. And I know you do this, man, can we trust these polls? Like, is there anything happening different now than what we saw happen in 2016? In terms of, like, where we stand with the candidates?
Belcher: Well, let's unpack that. The public polling was actually better in 2016 than it was in 2012. So the narrative was wrong, the polling wasn't that wrong. The narrative was really wrong, in that it was a two person race. And the Russians were making sure that it wasn't, in fact, a two person race. What did Donald Trump get in Wisconsin? Did he get a majority in Wisconsin? No.
Did he get a majority in Pennsylvania? No. Did he get a majority in Florida? No. So did he get a majority in Michigan? No. All these sort of key industrial states, he got by with a bare plurality in 2016 that would've been a losing percentage in 2012.
What did he get in Florida? He got 49%. Mitt Romney got 49% in Florida and lost. And take a state like Wisconsin, which was a key pivotal state, and sort of encapsulates the protest vote of the young voters. Hillary Clinton is off of Barack Obama's margin in a state like Wisconsin by almost the exact percentage point of people protesting their vote, voting third party. And so what you had was an erosion of the Obama Coalition, particularly that youth portion of that Obama Coalition, which was instrumental to Barack Obama winning election. A lot of young voters, especially young voters of color.
Lee: This idea of obviously, you know, Trump is gonna get a certain chunk of Black voters, but it's still in the hole, a small portion of Black voters. But it also matters where folks are showing up and showing up to vote, and getting them turned out. I know you were working with the Jaime Harrison Senate campaign, which has really shocked a lot of people, man. I mean, you think about Lindsey Graham, but now you have this young Black Democratic challenger who raised, was it $57 million last quarter?
Belcher: I've lost count.
Lee: But when you think about turnout for the folks who might care about this race, in particular, and Black folks coming out to support Jaime Harrison, does that end up doing anything when it comes to, like, the Biden ticket? Right? Like, does that one race change anything?
Belcher: I'm glad you brought this point up. Because again, this is about the math. If the African American electorate, if the African Americans share of the electorate in South Carolina, looks like the share of the electorate that they were in, say, 2016 or even in 2014, Jaime Harrison's not gonna be the senator.
If the share of the African American electorate is about 2% higher, there's a good chance that Jaime's gonna be senator of South Carolina. That's the power here, and that's the point I'm trying to make, so I'm not getting caught up in the few percentage points of Blacks who are voting Republican, right? Or am I trying to change the face of the electorate?
Lee: But when you think about the other battleground states, right, these elections usually come down to just a handful of states, because the others have typically not been in play necessarily. But you think about Ohio, and Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, how important, how critical is the Black vote in these states in 2020?
Belcher: They're critical. But, you know, in 2008, going into Election Night, David Plouffe (who was the campaign manager for Barack Obama in 2008) said, "We're not gonna be sitting around on Election Night waiting for the results from one state to come in to determine who's President of the United States."
So we're gonna stop putting all our eggs in one basket. We're gonna stop sort of depending all on Iowa. You remember in that Kerry race, it was all about Ohio. That's just not the way it should be, and especially given where this country is. I mean, look, I love Ohio. Columbus, Ohio is one of my favorite small cities in the country. And Ohioans don't send me nasty messages, but from a completely strategic standpoint, the future looks a lot more like the Sunbelt and the West than it does Ohio.
Lee: We're talking about this drop off, and folks from the Obama years simply not voting in 2016, and we saw what happened. Do you have a sense from early voting, and apparently, there's these record numbers.
Belcher: Trymaine, you've hit on something, which is going to make me say something that I'm not comfortable with. If you look at the early voting stuff, I think it was yesterday, I haven't looked today. But you had close to 7 million voters who already early voted almost two weeks out, who didn't vote in 2016.
Belcher: 7 million.
Lee: Phew. Who didn't vote.
Belcher: What does that mean? That means we have no idea what the electorate's gonna look like. And what I can tell you is, you know, even on a liberal side of what the electorate is gonna look like, I think we might be off the mark because, I mean, we're looking at sort of turnout patterns, like, at least early, and the motivation that I see in the data.
And so we ask questions about motivation to participate. The numbers that I'm seeing that I've been seeing in the data for the last month or so, Trymaine, I haven't seen these numbers. They're better than what I saw in 2008.
Lee: You talked about the Russians earlier, and all these disinformation campaigns about mail in absentee ballots, and all of this stuff that is always obviously armed against Black folks. But what's the end goal of that kind of disinformation? And like, this cycle in particular, with all of the other motivations, Trump, you know, leading among them, and his actions, does that stuff work? Is it working?
Belcher: Yes, it does work. I mean, voter suppression works. And voter suppression is real. When they are removing polling places from predominantly minority areas, when they're making it harder for people of color to vote, yes, that has an adverse effect.
You know, it's a double barreled thing, right? Because one, they want to make it seem that the system isn't credible, and then they make it harder for you to actually participate. So it's a two track thing, where they're undermining the credibility of the system. And look, when I hear this cycle, which is something I didn't hear in the Obama years, I hear younger people, and particularly younger people of color saying, "You know, my vote doesn't matter," or, "My vote doesn't count." Well, they are driving that intentionally, this idea that your vote doesn't matter, and your vote doesn't count. And then on top of that, they're making it harder for you to actually participate in the process. And that's just straight out voter suppression, and does it impact? Yes.
Lee: Cornell, let me ask you this, man, you obviously know how the sausage is made. You know, you've made some sausage. Is there any particular thing that you will be watching closely, as an indicator of how this might be? Something that could give us a sense of, you know, how things might play out?
Belcher: I think they're gonna try to sow chaos on Election Day. I think they understand that Donald Trump is not well positioned for reelection. And at this point, really, the only thing they can hope for is chaos and shenanigans. But I'll be looking at that stat line about these sporadic voters, who are now participating. If the electorates in some of these battleground states are one or two points more minority than it was in 2016, I'm gonna look for that.
Because if they are, and to our point, you know, you don't have 8% or 9% of younger voters breaking third party, and younger voters of color, in particular, breaking third party, and Joe Biden's garnering 88 to 90% of that vote overall, and that electorate is one or tow points browner than it was in 2016, it's hard for him to lose.
Lee: Cornell Belcher, man, thank you for joining us. You obviously have one of the best brains in politics. And you are more than your hair, but you also, for people who have never seen you, have the best hair in the business, man. You know, in a dream might've, I grow mine on my face, not on my head.
Belcher: Well, you know, I appreciate that, because a lot of my friends are now losing their hair, and I like to just keep growing mine and flaunt it.
Lee: Cornell Belcher is a Democratic pollster, MSNBC analyst and runs a polling and strategy firm called Brilliant Corners. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickgteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next week.