(Milwaukee) — Long before the coronavirus pandemic, the economic downturn and the recent protests over racial inequality, the Black men of Milwaukee’s North Side had experience with crises converging all at once.
In one ZIP code of mostly Black residents — 53206 — more than half of the children live in poverty. The neighborhood records terrible health outcomes, according to experts. And among Black men, one study estimated that from 2000 to 2017, about 42 percent of those ages 25 to 34 were incarcerated or on probation.
The men in the area who are eligible to vote can expect long lines and strict voter identification laws at the ballot box. Still, many vote consistently, calling it an electoral act of defiance in an imperfect democracy.
“I’ve voted in every election,” said Charles Huley, 75, a church elder who lives on the North Side. “What changes is who I can convince to come with me.”
For Democrats, who rely on Black voters to power their electoral advantages in America’s urban centers, the difference between good and great Black voter turnout is often dependent on how many Black men go to the polls.
Black women are the party’s most loyal demographic base — often referred to as its backbone — but motivated Black male voters were a crucial distinction between former President Barack Obama’s record-setting Black turnout in 2008 and 2012 and the diminished performance of Hillary Clinton in 2016.
In states like Wisconsin, which was decided in 2016 by less than 23,000 votes, that dip was one of the causes of a Democratic night to forget, proof that the nominee had problems motivating the base, not just among swing voters.
In deep-blue Milwaukee County, where statewide Democrats run up the score to offset more conservative rural areas, Mrs. Clinton had one of the largest drop-offs in raw votes of any county in the country, earning more than 40,000 fewer votes than Mr. Obama did four years earlier. Pew Research estimated that in 2016, 64 percent of eligible Black women said they had voted compared with 54 percent of eligible Black men, a much larger gender gap than for white or Hispanic voters.
Four years later, as Joseph R. Biden Jr. seeks to build the coalition Mrs. Clinton could not, he operates with several personal and structural advantages.
In interviews with a dozen Black men in Milwaukee during the recent Democratic National Convention, and with several of the state’s most visible Black male elected officials, they predicted that Black turnout in November would look more like it did for Mr. Obama’s victories than for Mrs. Clinton’s loss, fueled by a leap in enthusiasm from Black men.
Little of this is because of Mr. Biden’s personal appeal, they said, though he benefits from his close relationship with Mr. Obama and an absence of the sexism that many women running for office face.
The interviewees isolated other, more important factors: the constant chaos of President Trump’s administration, a backlash to the president’s demonization of minorities to win over white suburbanites and even Mr. Biden’s selection of Senator Kamala Harris of California as his running mate.
“Four years ago, I don’t think a lot of Black men felt directly connected to that campaign,” said Mandela Barnes, who became Wisconsin’s first Black lieutenant governor in 2019. But in 2020, he said, “people are more desperate — people need solutions and need answers.”
Cavalier Johnson, the president of Milwaukee’s Common Council, the city’s version of a City Council, said another advantage for Mr. Biden was that his campaign — and voters — were less likely to take victory for granted.
“There was this strong assumption based on the past presidential elections about this blue wall that was impenetrable,” said Mr. Johnson, who is known as Chevy, referring to the commonly repeated fact that Mrs. Clinton did not hold an in-person event in Wisconsin during the run-up to the general election.