Dem Fear in Ohio: Repeat of 2016 Blunder With Black Voters

Source Images Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

Why you should care

Because Ohio could be the death knell for Trump … but only if Democrats can turn out Black voters.

Every election forecast, including OZY’s, says if Joe Biden wins Ohio, he wins the White House. The Buckeye state wasn’t expected to be competitive this year after Hillary Clinton lost it by 8 percentage points in 2016. However, the pandemic and ensuing recession, plus a Republican bribery scandal, have led to President Donald Trump and Biden being virtually tied in the polls. “A blue Ohio ends the election, and the drama,” as David Pepper, the Ohio Democrats chair, tweeted in mid-September. 

But just over a week before Election Day, key leaders in Ohio worry Democrats may not be sufficiently reaching voters of color. They won Ohio in 2008 and 2012 in large part thanks to historic turnout from Black voters, who backed the Obama-Biden ticket with more than 96 percent of the vote both times. Clinton lost though in 2016, as working-class white voters flipped to Trump and Black voters stayed home in Democratic strongholds like Cleveland and Cincinnati. Yet while Democrats are working overtime to win back the former group, critics within the party say they’re not doing nearly enough to get the traditionally Democratic Black vote out.

“There is this disconnect, especially with white elected officials, who don’t take the concerns of Black voters at face value,” says Emilia Sykes, the Democratic minority leader of the Ohio House of Representatives. “You should be expanding the electorate to people who will vote for you. It’s less expensive to do turnout votes than persuasion votes. But for some reason, the party is hellbent on focusing their resources on voters who have clearly said this is not the party they want to be a part of.” 

We didn’t have the capacity or resources because they’re giving them all to the white women groups to have wine parties.

Emilia Sykes, Ohio House Minority Leader

Columbus city councilman Shannon Hardin acknowledges challenges, but suggests they have as much to do with the COVID-19 pandemic as mistakes made. “I wouldn’t disagree with Emilia. She may have a different vantage point than I do,” the 33-year-old, first elected in 2015, says. The Biden campaign held a “Barbershop Talk” virtual event for Black men on Thursday, featuring Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and a host of Black Ohio politicians. About 25 people attended, a number Hardin says would likely have been bigger as a physical event in non-pandemic times. “I can tell you in the urban core, there has been pretty direct outreach in messaging to Black voters. I’m not saying it’s landing 100 percent … the effectiveness, the photogenic part of it, is not necessarily there. But it’s happening.”

However, Sykes, at 34 years old already one of the state’s most prominent Black Democrats, argues the party has made a strategic error — aiming its Ohio pitches at “suburban women” and “working-class voters” but not messaging to African Americans in those communities. She criticized a lack of spending to court voters of color and a voter database that didn’t accurately track them. Her criticisms match those from some newer citizens of color, prime Democratic targets given Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and travel ban from majority-Muslim countries. Mohamed Jama, a Somali organizer in Columbus, says, “I’ve told them my story, gave them the strategy for reaching us, but it looks like [the campaign] didn’t want to go for it.”

Ohio is especially important because it counts its mail ballots early, meaning it will likely be able to announce a winner on election night. If Democrats capture the state, which has a Republican governor and secretary of state, it could deny Trump any standing to claim victory prematurely and stave off weeks of electoral uncertainty. And the turnout concerns here reflect apprehension among Democrats elsewhere. Four years ago, Trump crossed the finish line by winning with a margin of less than 80,000 voters total in three nearby states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. This time, Ohio could be similarly close. “We don’t have those voters to lose,” Sykes says. 


Pepper, the state party chair since 2015, points to a number of initiatives to reach nonwhite voters. Democrats sent vote-by-mail applications to 100,000 households, primarily targeting younger African American voters. They organized drive-thru registration events at churches and partnered with Black businesses to become “voter registration hubs,” where beauty salons, barbershops and restaurants can offer voting forms to customers. In an October roundtable featuring five suburban Democrats, one of the speakers was a Black councilwoman.

The party’s “Make It Count” campaign recruited celebrities, including multiple Black Ohioans, to shoot digital videos urging citizens to vote. It has spent $40,000 on ads in African American newspapers the last two months, and last year helped elect a number of down-ballot candidates of color. And while the Trump campaign, facing a budget crunch, has pulled millions in TV ads in Ohio, Biden has ratcheted up spending. Both he and his running mate, Kamala Harris, have increased visits to Ohio while enjoying a 3-to-1 cash advantage over Trump nationwide. On Saturday, Harris traveled to Cleveland to “urge Ohioans to cast their ballots early and mobilize their communities to make a plan to vote.”

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“When your most dedicated Black voters are starting to disappear, that should be a red alarm, but unfortunately they are not paying attention.” – Emilia Sykes, Ohio House Minority Leader

Source Images Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

Those efforts have helped 8.08 million Ohioans in registering to vote by mid-October, a figure just trailing the record 8.2 million in 2008. Democrats gained a quarter million new registered voters since 2016, although Republicans still outnumber them 1.9 to 1.6 million statewide — and a majority of Ohioans are unaffiliated with either party. “We saw some whopping voter registration numbers because many groups are doing creative things,” Pepper says.

Political experts warn though that statewide voter registration numbers can mislead. Many Democrats registered to vote in the GOP primary for John Kasich four years ago. Since voters can only switch party registration in primary elections, they may never have switched back. “We are a state of swing voters. They aren’t necessarily changing their party registration — they are looking specifically at the people they are voting for,” says Ironton mayor Sam Cramblit, a Democrat who has worked on political campaigns everywhere from Texas and Illinois to Maryland and Missouri.

While Democrats have identified the suburbs as key to beating Trump, both in Ohio and nationally, Sykes worries they’re overlooking Black women. The state party data was “terrible,” she said, losing many voters who didn’t re-register as they shifted from predominantly urban African American neighborhoods to suburban districts. “When your most dedicated Black voters are starting to disappear, that should be a red alarm, but unfortunately they are not paying attention,” Sykes says. “We didn’t have the capacity or resources because they’re giving them all to the white women groups to have wine parties.”

Sykes apologizes for the last remark, saying she didn’t mean to come across as disparaging. Still, her frustration is evident, particularly in a year when the Biden campaign and Democratic National Committee posted eye-popping fundraising numbers — including $383 million in September alone. She launched the We Belong Here PAC in August to track down and reach those suburban Black voters, identifying 84,000 of them after working overtime to parse data with staffers for months. But as of Oct. 14, the PAC had raised less than $40,000. Sykes hasn’t had the outside help she hoped for, with neither the state party nor the Biden campaign investing in the work. Still, the PAC has released three ads targeting those voters, amassing 128,000 impressions online.

In August, Democrats were handed a major talking point by Trump when the “America First” president called for people to boycott Akron-based Goodyear Tires, the nation’s largest tire manufacturer with 60,000 workers across the United States. The mayor and a local union director dominated local TV coverage, while the party pushed Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Tim Ryan to national cable networks and media outlets. Barring one press conference where two of the seven speakers were Black women, Sykes says the party mainly chose white men to make its case about Goodyear — even though Akron is 40 percent nonwhite and nearly a third Black. “Think about the Great Migration from the South, all these Black people moved to work in steel mills, rubber factories in the Midwest. And you fail to talk about that, or talk to those voters?” Sykes says. “Missed opportunities, every single time.”


Mohamed Jama, the founder of a Somali-language newspaper and a nonprofit that provides resources to the roughly 100,000 Muslims in central Ohio, also serves on the executive committee of the Franklin County Democratic Party. When Jama worked for the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012, the team was “willing to reach out and include everybody,” he says. They organized 23 staffers and volunteers of African descent to phone bank and help drive voters to the polls in Columbus. But with the Clinton campaign in 2016, Jama saw shifts that led to unforced errors and alienated members of the Somali community. Four years later, that has continued: Jama, a Democratic National Convention delegate for Biden, sent a detailed plan to the Biden campaign on how to organize his community. However those staffers “became unresponsive” and Jama worries that “a lot of folks may not vote,” particularly given challenges posed by the pandemic.

While the race has shifted toward turnout in the final weeks, Democrats still have some persuading to do. Biden has quietly polled worse with voters of color nationwide than past Democratic candidates. He is leaking Latino voters and underperforming with Black voters, with a 71-point lead over Trump compared to Clinton’s 82-point advantage. Biden’s slight dip has come as Trump has openly courted Black voters, touting his passage of the First Step Act to reduce federal prison populations and historically low (pre-pandemic) unemployment for African Americans.

“If you look at what’s happening with the polling out there, they remember — they remember that you treated them very badly,” Trump told Biden in Thursday’s final presidential debate, referring to Biden’s role in the passage of the 1994 crime bill. There are signs that messaging is working for Trump, to an extent. Younger Black voters are particularly less opposed to Trump, with 21 percent of those ages 18 to 44 supporting the Republican president compared to just 10 percent in 2016, according to UCLA Nationscape polling.

Kailynn Anderson — a soon-to-be 22-year-old Black woman from Youngstown, Ohio, who marched in the George Floyd protests and voted for Clinton in 2016 — plans to vote for Trump in November. The beautician appreciates Trump’s $250 million annual funding bill for historically Black colleges and universities and supported him signing the bipartisan Preventing Maternal Deaths Act, addressing an issue that disproportionately harms pregnant Black women. “There are so many younger millennials and Gen Zers who are shifting,” says Anderson, although she adds that Democrats are still reaching out more than Republicans. “They are using Black Lives Matter as a way to say ‘We hear you,’ but it doesn’t feel genuine to me.”

Hardin sees those polls and is worried that younger Black voters feel disconnected. Columbus, like many cities, has seen a crime spike recently. Meeting with families at a local boxing gym this week, Hardin asked a young Black man what it would take to get him off the streets. “A $20 hour job,” he responded immediately. “What I have not heard (from the party) is a message to that young man,” Hardin says. While he is confident the Black community is energized to vote, he admits the pandemic has complicated their traditional tactics. “It’s new, and because we’re trying something that’s never been done before, this is a test to see how well it works,” he says.

Both Jama and Sykes still believe Democrats have the best platform for Black voters. Still, they worry that Democrats haven’t done enough in Ohio to convince Black Americans that their lives will change for the better by voting. “We will see more turnout than in 2016,” says Sykes. “But it’s not going to be because of such a heightened organized effort. Not anything but Black people, ourselves, trying to make it happen.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name and position of Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and the year in which Shannon Hardin was first elected to the city council.

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