In his beloved Philadelphia, Biden faces wariness from Black voters

President Joe Biden is welcomed to Atlanta by a delegation of Morehouse College alumni including, from left: Mayor Steven Reed of Montgomery, Ala.; Mayor Randall Woodfin of Birmingham, Ala.; Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.); Marlon Kimpson, a senior Biden administration trade advisor; Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.); and John Eaves, a former Fulton County commissioner, at the Hartsfield International Airport, May 18, 2024. (Michael A. McCoy/The New York Times)

PHILADELPHIA — In Milwaukee on Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris highlighted her work to close the racial wealth gap. In Atlanta on Sunday, President Joe Biden will deliver the commencement address at Morehouse College, an all-male historically Black institution. And in Detroit the same day, he is expected to speak at an NAACP dinner.

But as Biden and his team intensify their efforts to engage Black voters, evidence keeps emerging that he faces serious challenges among that politically powerful, heavily Democratic group of Americans, threatening his ability to resurrect his victorious 2020 coalition.


And perhaps nowhere are those problems more striking than in Philadelphia, the largest city in Biden’s birth state and a place he visits seemingly constantly — pulled back by his roots, its proximity to his current homes and an awareness that Pennsylvania delivered him the presidency four years ago and could decide his reelection bid this fall.

In interviews with nearly two dozen voters in predominantly Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia this past week, as well as with elected officials and strategists, signs of softness in Biden’s standing were palpable.

Just eight voters said they were committed to voting for Biden, while many others were debating staying home or, in a few cases, supporting former President Donald Trump. They cited concerns about immigration, the cost of living and their sense that Biden was more focused on crises abroad than on fixing problems in their neighborhoods. And despite Biden’s robust policy accomplishments, some were unfamiliar with his record.

“I don’t care about what goes on overseas,” said Latasha Humphrey, 36, an infrequent voter who is considering supporting Trump, if she votes at all. “I care about where I live.”

Democrats have long banked on strong showings in Philadelphia — and more recently, its suburbs — to offset weakness in more conservative parts of this closely divided state. Their concern is not that the city’s Black voters will gravitate en masse toward Trump but that too many of them, apathetic about their choices, might simply stay home.

In Pennsylvania, Biden is doing slightly worse with Black voters than four years ago, though he still wins the vast majority, according to a New York Times/Philadelphia Inquirer/Siena College survey released this past week. He was the choice of 69% of Black voters now, compared with 79% in June 2020. Trump was ahead in the state overall in the most recent poll.

For Democrats on the ground, the work to mobilize Black voters — colloquially described as a “battle against the couch” — is steep.

“It’s going to be easy to convince people not to vote for Trump,” said Isaiah Thomas, a Democratic at-large City Council member in Philadelphia who is helping lead an effort to encourage Black men to vote in November. “It’s going to be hard to convince people to vote for Biden. Those are two totally different fights.”

The Biden campaign is working on both fronts.

In a statement, Jasmine Harris, Biden’s Black media director, said the campaign was “treating Black voters as persuasion targets, pouring the same resources into reaching them that you do for traditional swing voters.”

She added, “We’ll really see the results of our campaign’s outreach to Black voters closer to Election Day.”

Last August, the president’s team announced a $25 million advertising effort aimed at battleground states, which included what the campaign has said is the largest and earliest investment in Black media ever for a reelection bid.

The campaign has continued to spend on that front, including a seven-figure investment in Black media this month. Biden and Harris have taped interviews with Black radio personalities and community leaders in battleground states.

Harris has also participated in sit-down interviews and informal events meant to reach Black men. Polls show that Biden is doing better with Black women — whom Democrats often refer to as the “backbone” of their party — than with Black men.

And the Biden campaign is thinking through less traditional ways to reach Black voters in places including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

For example, early discussions are underway about using campaign offices in some neighborhoods as community hubs, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions, who was not authorized to speak about them publicly.

There are also plans to try to enlist local celebrities including actors, rappers and other musicians, this person said.

Many Democrats argue that, to the extent there are signs of softness, it is because voters simply have not yet tuned in to an election rematch between two well-known figures. Some are also deeply skeptical of polls showing a drastic shift among Black voters.

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., a close and important Biden ally, campaigned for him recently in the Philadelphia area.

Clyburn said in an interview that he was “not experiencing, anywhere I go, what these polls are reflecting.”

“These people are upbeat, looking forward to this campaign, and they are all-in for Joe Biden,” he said.

He was incredulous at the idea that Black Americans would support Trump, noting the former president’s long history of racist comments. Asked if he believed that Americans remembered that record as memories of the Trump era fade for some, Clyburn replied, “We ain’t going to let them forget.”

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