By Trevor Hunnicutt and Jarrett Renshaw
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Bahta Mekonnen, a 28-year-old in the key voting state of Georgia, is among the millions of Black voters who helped deliver President Joe Biden the White House in 2020.
Three years later, he is one of the voters who Democrats fear could cost Biden a second term in 2024.
Disappointed by what he sees as Democrats’ lurch to the left, free spending and empty promises, but also turned off by far-right Republicans, Mekonnen says he sees nothing but bad options at the ballot box next year.
“What I’m noticing across the Democratic Party right now is there’s a lot of pandering to the Black community,” said Mekonnen, who plans to attend business school after a career in the military.
“It seems like they do a lot to try to make it seem like they are the party for young Black men or Black men as a whole, but they don’t back it with anything. They don’t follow through,” he said.
Long the most loyal Democratic constituency, Black voters played a large role in rescuing Biden’s struggling 2020 presidential campaign in the South Carolina primary, and sending him to the White House with Democrats in control of the Senate, thanks to further success in Georgia.
In return, many Black voters expected Biden and Democrats to push new federal protections against restrictive local voting laws, police and criminal justice reform, student loan debt relief and economic empowerment.
Many of those efforts have been blocked by Republicans, leaving Biden to ask voters to let him “finish this job,” with a second term, but with no clear path to get these things done.
On the other hand, Democrats’ focus on LGBTQ and abortion rights leaves voters like Mekonnen feeling alienated.
“I’m probably getting turned away from the left, just because the Democrats are turning more left in my books,” he said, adding he wished Democrats spent more time on the economy.
Polls and Reuters interviews show younger Black voters and Black men of all ages are losing their faith in Democrats, Biden and perhaps even the political process, just three years after the U.S.’s biggest protests for racial justice and civil rights in a generation.
The vast majority of Black voters, including men, are still expected to choose Biden over a Republican.
But the question for Democrats is whether disillusioned Black voters will turn out to the polls in large enough numbers in crucial cities, from Philadelphia to Atlanta, Milwaukee and Detroit to keep Biden in the White House.
“Democrats need to understand that there is a growing population, especially with Black men, who are reaching the point of being fed up with always being pushed over and looked over,” said LeLann Evans, 33, a political campaign manager who is running as a write-in candidate for Nashville City Council.
Democrats’ failure to secure widespread student loan relief or legalize marijuana has been disappointing, Evans said, adding that Republicans’ more aggressive approach when they have power means they are “actually getting things done.”
Self-identified Black Americans make up 14.2% of the U.S. population, or 42.7 million people, a 30% jump from 2000, Pew Research shows. These Americans are five years younger than the population as a whole, with an average age of 33, and Democrats’ earning their loyalty is crucial for the party to keep winning in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia, and to recapture districts in the South in the future.
Instead the opposite is happening.
Black voter turnout dropped by nearly 10 percentage points, from 51.7% in the 2018 midterm elections to 42% in 2022, according to a Washington Post analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s survey released earlier this year. White voter turnout slipped by only 1.5 points to 53.4%.
“Black voter turnout was down across the country in 2022. We saw it in the polls, the surveys, the exit polls and every way you could measure it,” said Michael McDonald, a politics professor at University of Florida.
Some Democrats have also been disturbed by recent polls showing that some Black voters are defecting to Republicans.
One in five Black people under the age of 50 voted Republican in the 2022 midterms, roughly double the number of their elders, according to a previously unreported analysis of exit polling data by HIT Strategies, a public opinion research firm aligned with Democrats that routinely surveys Black Americans. Black men and women under the age of 50 voted Republican in similar numbers, the poll showed.
Republican Donald Trump’s 12% share of the Black vote in 2020 was four percentage points higher than it was in 2016, according to exit polls by Edison Research.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted July 11-17 found 18% of Black Americans would pick Trump over Biden in a hypothetical matchup, compared to 46% who favored Biden, including about one in four Black men, compared to about one in seven Black women.
Compared with Black women, Black men were more likely to say they would back a presidential candidate that supported abortion restrictions and increased police funding to fight crime.
Democrats are favored by Black voters who value abortion rights, voting rights and opposition to racism, says Terrance Woodbury, chief executive officer at HIT Strategies.
But that margin shrinks when it comes to managing the economy.
“When you get to economic issues – economic security, inflation, job security – those 50 and 60 point gaps began to shrink to near parity, where you have young Black folks saying that Republicans are almost as good for them on the economy as Democrats are,” Woodbury said.
Julian Silas, 25, a Black investment research analyst from the Chicago area, said many of his friends and family are reexamining their politics and questioning just how much the loyalty of Black Americans to the Democratic Party bettered their lives, particularly their economic standing.
Every four years, Democratic candidates talk about increasing Black wealth and closing the gap between Black and white Americans, but “nothing actually really happens,” Silas said.
“It seems like there’s things that they talk about that seem good, that I can align with, like student loan debt relief or home ownership and all these different things, but maybe sometimes it doesn’t feel like it’s moving fast enough,” Silas said.
The U.S. Black unemployment rate has fallen to historic lows under Biden, but hit a 10-month high in June, driven in large part by Black workers leaving the labor market.
Black families had 4.4% of total household wealth in the first quarter of 2023, Federal Reserve data show, up slightly from 4.3% at the beginning of 2020.
The Democratic Party has spent considerable time, money and resources to retain and expand the Black vote, including mounting registration drives in battleground states and recruiting Black campaign staff.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black person to hold that position and the highest U.S. Black elected official, and Jaime Harrison, the African-American chairman of the Democratic National Committee, attended this summer’s Essence Festival of Culture in New Orleans and have lavished attention on historically Black colleges and universities and media outlets including Black radio stations.
Harris spoke at the annual NAACP gathering on Saturday.
“As we head into the 2024 cycle, the DNC is doubling down on our commitment to engaging Black voters with meaningful and sustained investments to make sure they know how President Biden and Vice President Harris have delivered for them,” said Tracy King, the DNC’s director of outreach communications, in an emailed statement.
For some, right now, that’s not enough.
“I’m kind of stuck with Biden until someone else comes along,” said Andre Russell, 47 and from Chicago, who works in education. “As a society we definitely have to move past the trope of old white men running everything.”
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Jarrett Renshaw; Additional reporting by Jason Lange and Eric Cox; Editing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)