WASHINGTON — This story has been updated to reflect the results
Biden flips Wisconsin
On Wednesday, the Associated Press projected the state’s 10 electoral votes will go to the former vice president. It was a crucial call in Biden’s bid for the White House that was aided by a boost in turnout. The AP reported more than 310,000 additional ballots were cast in the state compared to 2016, according to returns.
“We saw big enthusiasm. People are really determined to make sure that their voices were heard,” said Lang. “We had people since April talking to us saying ‘how do I make sure that what happened in April elections doesn’t happen again?' So people have been making voting plans for the last several weeks, the last several months and we really saw that level of enthusiasm when it came to turnout on Tuesday.”
Lang and her group BLOC endorsed Biden because she felt many Black voters weren’t buying the effort Trump put in to gain the community’s support.
“You know, I think they tried. I think people knew the importance of the Black vote so they tried to do whatever they could to appeal to us. I think it’s also a little too late,” said Lang.
Shadd, the lone Black conservative on the panel of voters, disagrees.
“Republicans, because they thought they could not be successful, didn’t try very hard,” said Shadd. “I see them making a very definite hard push now. They see cracks in the dike. They know that they can gain support if they stay at it.”
To say he was disappointed in Biden’s projected win would be an understatement and he thinks it’s a sign that the state is leaning to the left. So, his advice to his friends on the right as they expand their outreach efforts across Black communities is to keep trying.
“I would challenge Conservatives or Republicans to keep doing what they’re doing, keep reaching out,” he said. “Keep insisting on dialog.”
Arguably, there hasn’t been a more sobering lesson for Democrats in 2016 than the fact that the road to the White House runs through the Midwest. For more than three decades, Wisconsin had been a lock for the party’s presidential candidates. But it only took about 80,000 votes across the state, Michigan and Pennsylvania for Donald Trump to secure his electoral college victory.
Click here to watch Part 1: Why Black Wisconsin Voters Felt Their Votes Weren't Important Four Years Ago
Click here to watch Part 2: How Wisconsin State Party Leaders Responded To Trump's 2016 Victory
Click here to watch Part 3: Black Voters Matter: How Changing Demographics in Wisconsin Are Shaping the Election
Click here to watch Part 4: Looking At Independent Organizing in Wisconsin Ahead of 2020 Election
Click here to watch Part 5: "People Knew the Importance of the Black Vote": Wisconsinites Talk Biden Win
That year marked a record decline in voter participation for the Badger State. There were about 92,000 fewer ballots cast compared to 2012 and one of the largest drop offs across the state appears to have been among Black voters, accordinng to board of election data. In an effort to explain and unpack that election cycle and look ahead to what has happened since then, Spectrum News talked to key community stakeholders about the power of the Black vote.
Withholding Their Votes
During a group video conference call with Spectrum News, a handful of Black Wisconsinites who participated in that election tried to make sense of why so many decided to sit it out.
“I just felt like those people who were voting in ’12 but didn’t in ’16 looked at it like, ‘[Hillary Clinton] don't need my vote, she’s probably going to be okay, right?’” said LaNelle Ramey a registered Democrat. “And they just decided to just take a step back, because they really didn't think the guy would become our president.”
Milwaukeean Jasmine Johnson says she doesn’t consider herself a Democrat or a Republican but aligns with the values of the former. She described what happened in 2016 as a perfect storm. “Some were protesting by not voting,” she said. “‘There’s no way he's going to win,’ as LaNelle mentioned. And also, you have the slew of "Joe the Plumbers" in very rural areas and individuals who were riled up based on the eight years of the Obama administration.”
A 2017 report from the left-leaning public policy think tank Center for American Progress calculated that turnout among Black voters dropped 19 percentage points from 2012 to 2016. That’s compared to a seven-point drop nationwide, according to Census data. The Wisconsin Board of Elections does not release voter turnout data by race. So, CAP relied on several other data sources, like the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the American National Election Survey, to determine how many voters never showed up at the polls, and how that affected the final result.
"We basically make the demographic estimates conform to the actual pattern of voting in Wisconsin down to the county level," explained author Ruy Teixeira.
And if Black turnout and voting preferences had remained the same from 2012 to 2016, the CAP study estimated that Clinton would have narrowly won the state.
"On the other hand, if Clinton had done as well with white non-college voters as Obama did in 2012, she would have won Wisconsin very easily," said Teixeira.
White voters with no college degree were the largest swing vote in the three key "Rust Belt" states in 2016. CAP calculated in Wisconsin, 47 percent of that demographic backed Obama in 2012, but only 38 percent backed Clinton. And some exit polls found an even bigger shift in support away from Democrats.
Angela Lang, a community organizer in Milwaukee, said she believes poor outreach efforts from both parties were to blame for low turnout.
“I think everyone's knee-jerk reaction after the 2016 election was to go after the voters who switched from Obama to Trump, instead of re-energizing and re-engaging a base that they have neglected,” she said.
Lang founded the group Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC) following Trump’s upset victory to fill that void. The organization group isn't tied to a party but has endorsed candidates.
“We said that we were not going to wait for a candidate, or a party, or an elected official to engage us. We were going to do that work ourselves,” she said. “We're going to hire folks from the community do year-round civic education, not just show up when there's an election.”
Since November 2017, BLOC has done field outreach to register and engage voters. Lang says pre-pandemic, they knocked on about 227,000 doors and talked to more than 20,000 people with a staff of 75. During COVID-19, they’ve continued their efforts by making cold calls and sending text messages. Their goal is to send out 500,000 texts before the end of this cycle reminding Black voters to get to the polls.
“Our community was some of the least engaged and most disenfranchised, yet we were to blame for the outcome of the election.”
Republicans Look To Make Inroads While Democrats Play Defense
When discussing Clinton’s loss, Felicia Martin, First Vice Chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin (DPW) said she believes the deck was stacked against the Democratic nominee by years of attacks from the right. In her eyes, that’s why so many voters decided not to engage.
“With all of the noise, I'm going to call it, in the 2016 elections about emails, Benghazi, the 1994 crimes bill — which she did not vote for because she was not on an elected official — but they hung this narrative around her neck and that, along with this perceived narrative of her not caring enough about Wisconsin to even visit Wisconsin during the election cycle, it doomed her,” said Martin.
Four years later, Martin thinks Democrats are not taking any chances of a repeat. She says the party’s outreach efforts have become even more apparent among Black voters.
“I have noticed that there's a lot of enthusiasm for the race now, be it enthusiasm against Trump, or enthusiasm, because we recognize that the stakes are high now,” she said.
Though, GOP officials in the state see things a bit differently. Republicans like Orlando Owens, the former African-American Outreach Director for the Republican Party of Wisconsin (RPW), believe Clinton’s absence might’ve played a bigger role than their opponents on the left care to admit. Owens, the first and only Black branch chair for the state party and current Milwaukee North Branch Republican Party Chair, said her skipping out on in-person campaigning in the state signaled to communities of color that their voices aren’t being heard.
“If you don't talk to African-Americans, Black Americans about these issues, or be it Latinos, Blacks, poor whites, then it don't seem as if ‘I'm part of the discussions,’ as well and that they are a part of that overall landscape of conversation,” he said.
And Trump’s victory inspired Republicans to branch out in ways they hadn’t before. In February 2020, the party opened an office in Bronzeville, one of Milwaukee’s historically Black neighborhoods.
Monty Shadd, a 70-year-old, Black, conservative, Grafton resident who participated in the group call, saw that as a sign of his party’s commitment to his community.
“I don't think that Conservatives or Republicans are throwing money at the issue,” he said. “I think the effort is sincere.”
And while Democrats are calling it a desperation move, Republicans say they’re looking to meet all voters where they are.
“I think that’s been the positions of both of the parties for too long: One party believes they had the Black vote and they didn't really have to work for it, and the other party believes they really couldn't get it so why even try that hard?” said Owens. “I think in both cases, you do the Black vote a disservice.”
Trump, Biden Make Pitches To Black Voters
At the end of September, President Trump rolled out a set of policies aimed at undercutting the Black community’s historically loyal support for Democratic presidential nominees. He’s calling the two-paged proposal the Black Economic Empowerment "Platinum Plan.”
Trump outlines in it four tenets: Opportunity through employment, security through criminal justice reform, prosperity through federal investment in Black businesses, and communities and fairness through addressing health, wage and educational disparities.
“President Trump has an incredible opportunity to engage even more and turn out the Black vote because he has delivered. He's kept his promises,” said Paris Dennard, Black Voices For Trump advisory board member.
But the Trump campaign hasn’t outlined a targeted plan to reengage Black voters in Wisconsin. According to Dennard, they’re banking on the Platinum Plan to entice voters in the state’s African-American communities to flip.
“I think more Black people are going to say ‘I can vote for the Platinum Plan’ because I believe that $500 billion for new access to capital, $3 million new jobs for Black Americans, $500,000 for new Black-owned businesses, $20 billion for access to broadband and tele-health, $40 billion in terms of contracting, making sure Black banks are at the table, making the KKK as well as ANTIFA terrorist organizations and Juneteenth a national holiday,” said Dennard. “These are all things that President Trump has imposed in his Black economic empowerment plan that, I think, resonates and connects with the African-American community and gives them something to vote for.”
Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s campaign is touting their national, statewide and hyper-localized approaches to reengaging Black voters. Broadly, his agenda for Black Americans was unveiled in his Lift Every Voice Plan and it aims to close the racial wealth gap, address inequities in the U.S. education system, correct racial disparities in health care, expand voting rights and ramp up environmental protections.
“We are not taking any vote, particularly in the African-American community, for granted,” said Ashley Allison, National Coalitions Director for Joe Biden. “We have a national African-American engagement program with Caribbeans for Biden; African diaspora for Biden; Black men, Black women for Biden; HBCU students for Biden; Black students; you name it, we have it for Biden.”
And Allison says the Biden-Harris camp is especially making that clear in Wisconsin. After protests and unrest erupted in the state following the police shooting of Kenosha resident Jacob Blake, the campaign planted roots in surrounding communities of color.
“We take those national programs, two I’ll mention specifically: Our ‘Shop Talk’ program which is focused on Black men, [features] a conversation with Black men for Black men,” said Allison. “And ‘Sister to Sister,’ which is a conversation for Black women with Black women about what a Biden-Harris administration would do for them to improve their lives. In Wisconsin, we actually launched the Shop Talk program in Milwaukee, right after the shooting of Jacob Blake and we wanted to go and launch this effort because we wanted to speak directly to Black voters, the trauma they were experiencing, the pain they were experiencing and the support they’re getting from the surrounding communities about how important their voice and lives mattered.”
Black Issues Take Centerstage
The voters who participated in the group call said both presidential candidates’ records with their community are now under the microscope ahead of Election Day. Ramey said he feels uncomfortable supporting Trump because he believes the president is racist.
“He has never said, ‘I denounce white supremacy,’ and ‘I don't stand for racism,’” said Ramey. "As a matter of fact, he has yet to say Black lives matter.”
“I don’t say Black lives matter,” interrupted Shadd, the only conservative voter on the call.
Shadd and the other three participants were at odds at this point in the conversation. While most believed systemic racism still existed in America, Shadd vehemently disagreed.
“My family came pretty much directly from the South. A Scottish banker during the reconstruction period moved his family to Oshkosh, Wisconsin. With him, he took one former House slave, she was his mistress. That was my great-great grandmother. My family lived in Oshkosh, Wisconsin until the end of World War II at which time they moved to either Chicago or Milwaukee. So I know a lot about racism as a result of hearing stories,” said Shadd. “Situational racism exists, but systemic — we’re this the 21st Century — it's not there anymore.”
He was also forgiving of Trump’s rhetoric around Black issues, but did not give Biden the same benefit of the doubt. Voter Dorinthia Robinson pointed out the disparities in police responses to protests that happened this year, comparing crackdowns on BLM events with leniency toward anti-shutdown rallies.
“With racial tensions and social justice issues that are happening right now, it comes up again,” she said. “When you see military tanks driving through the streets of a community and attacking certain individuals simply because they are voicing their opinion and asserting their First Amendment rights, but then you see other individuals who are asserting their First Amendment rights on the State Capitol grounds, carrying long guns, and they're practically given a picnic during the time that they're there. There's no military in sight, there's no tear gas gas, there was no rubber bullets.” All four voters on the call did agree that the rise in protests will be consequential in this election.
One person who has been close to these protests since they ramped up in May is Milwaukee-native Frank Nitty. He quit his job in 2016 to take on activism fulltime and became well-known in his commuity for walking across the country to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness for racial justice at the National Action Network’s Commitment March in August.
“We're individuals that are fighting for change in this country and we just want to make sure that Black lives do matter, whether it's the organization, or the phrase,” he said. “And, we want to make sure that we bring light to the families that have lost their loved ones to excessive police violence and excessive use of force.”
He said months of demonstrations have seemingly led to an increased sense of urgency among both political parties. But he thinks there’s only one candidate who is making a genuine effort.
“If [Trump] does win, he's going to definitely double down and try to discourage protesters across the country from fighting for their rights and fighting for change,” said Nitty. “So for me, it's about what Trump stands for and there's no way, as a people, we can vote for him right now. There’s no way we can support those ideas. Even though we don't like what Biden is saying completely, Biden is still someone we can hold accountable."
Nitty's message to the candidates is to actively include Black voices in the conversation now that the power of their vote is becoming clearer.
"This isn't a negotiation. This is the demand. This is something that we must have," said Nitty. "And I think that's where they got Black Lives Matter and the rest of us confused. We're not asking for change. We're demanding change. So, this is something that's going to happen no matter what."