Want Black votes? Offer Black voters true empowerment

Polling over the past few months has made it clear that Black voters are poised to play a determinative role in the 2024 presidential election. Black voters are no longer an afterthought or a mere get-out-the-vote audience. Their decisions to vote Democratic, Republican, third party — or to stay home — will make the difference this November.

As candidates and campaigns develop strategies and investments to engage Black voters, there are three things they should know. First, increasing Black political participation requires increasing Black voters’ perception of their political power. Second, building Black political power requires deep investment and understanding. And third, those investments should be concentrated in the grassroots organizations that already live and work at the intersections of Black communities.

Despite Black voters’ pivotal role in the upcoming elections, many polls treat Black voters as a monolith or worse lump them into a broad “voters of color” category. 

We have studied the Black electorate for many years and unpacked the differences and intersections among Black voters not just by typical demographic measures, but by measures of their values, beliefs and political identities. Through this research, we have segmented the Black electorate into clusters that allow for more thoughtful and strategic targeted mobilization and engagement.

One of the most interesting findings is that close to one-third of Black voters fall into the “rightfully cynical” cluster, reflecting significant doubts about a system that has ignored their interests. These are the Black voters who are the closest to the pain — with the lowest levels of income and education — and lack trust in politicians and institutions that have failed to deliver tangible change for their communities. 

As one young Black man put it in a focus group in Florida, “My hood ain’t get no better under Obama and no worse under Trump, so what do any of these presidents got to do with me?” 

Another critical segment of the Black electorate we identified as “nextgen optimists” who comprise about 20 percent of the Black electorate. These are young Black voters with high levels of trust and efficacy, yet they vote sporadically primarily due to a lack of information.

For “rightful cynics” and “nextgen optimists” who make up more than half of the Black electorate, political power is not about electing a particular candidate. Political power is when their vote impacts things that matter to them and their communities. 

For example, in November, Ohio Organizing Collaborative was the first group in the nation to apply our Black voter segmentation research. They used it to build a sense of belonging among like-minded Black voters and allow them to feel and exercise their power together. The collaborative engaged “nextgen optimists” on college campuses and provided information about voting procedures. They also engaged the “rightfully cynical” cluster by recruiting formerly incarcerated people as precinct captains in their Cleveland neighborhoods. 

The results of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative’s experiment are promising. Eighty-three percent of Black voters supported a ballot measure to secure abortion rights, and 72 percent of Black voters voted to legalize marijuana. These numbers were higher than the rates for voters of any other background. In this scenario, the hero is not the politician but the voter.

At the root of political cynicism is a sense of powerlessness. If you think that your vote doesn’t matter and when you show up nothing changes, that can lead to disillusionment and disengagement. Earlier phases of our research conducted in 2020 found a direct relationship between a Black person’s belief in their power to make change and their level of civic participation, including voting.

When Black people feel powerful, they vote. When they feel powerless, they don’t.

Just dumping millions of dollars into advertising, especially at the last minute, won’t empower Black voters to effect change with their votes. Instead, investments should be made in Black-led power-building organizations already deeply engaged with their local communities. 

In Georgia, the number of Black super voters, or, those showing high vote propensity, went from 500,000 in 2018 to almost 800,000 in 2022. This stunning increase was due, in large part, to the New Georgia Project’s commitment to reaching out to the voters traditional candidates and campaigns overlook. New Georgia Project and similar groups take the time to engage these voters by having high-quality conversations with them year-round, connecting the dots between who is elected and the impact on their daily lives and following up to help them access the resources that became available because of their votes — whether an election is coming up or not.

Candidates who want to increase the political participation of Black people would do well to follow the wisdom of independent, Black-led power-building groups like the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, New Georgia Project, Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC) in Wisconsin, Michigan’s Detroit ActionFaith in Florida and POWER Interfaith in Pennsylvania.  

Relying solely on voter databases sold by the political industry excludes the millions of Black voters who are missing and mislisted in the databases, the infrequent voters who are decisive in close contests and the new voters who can take advantage of same-day registration in 22 states, including swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin.

Ultimately, candidates need to treat Black voters like the sophisticated political agents they are. They must understand the nuances and differences in Black political thought and behavior. They will have to court them and persuade them. And they need to start now, not after Labor Day. 

Most of all, they must get comfortable with Black people feeling their power and flexing that collective muscle to make life better for themselves and all Americans.

Katrina Gamble, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of Sojourn Strategies. Terrance Woodbury is the chief executive officer and founding partner of HIT Strategies.

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