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Black men, a key voting bloc, leave Georgia governor's race an open question

Voters make their way to the polls during the first day of early voting in Atlanta on Oct. 17.
Ben Gray
/
AP
Voters make their way to the polls during the first day of early voting in Atlanta on Oct. 17.

As the rematch between Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and his Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams winds to a close, Black men are fixed as one of the race's central focal points; some reports have suggested that their tepid enthusiasm for Abrams could hamstring her second bid.

According to internal polling released by her campaign and obtained by the New York Times this fall, Abrams' support among Black men lagged 2018 figures by about eight points.

The latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll also suggests lukewarm enthusiasm among Black voters generally ahead of the midterm elections.

"Stacey is just running at a bad time," said Omar Ali, an Atlanta-based Black business leader. "It doesn't matter who it was going to be on the Democratic side, people are just frustrated."

In Abrams' first run, just 55,000 votes stamped Kemp's victory. The discrepancy in backing between Black men and women in 2018 would have delivered Abrams the governor's mansion, according to Terrance Woodbury, CEO of HIT Strategies, a polling firm that centers minorities, millennials, Gen-Z and women.

Conscious of the fact that winning in 2022 would mean a close election, Abrams has expressed the need for commanding, unified support.

At "Stacey and the Fellas" — an August campaign event — she called to Black men specifically:

"If Black men vote for me, I will win Georgia," Abrams told the crowd.

Georgia Democratic candidate for governor Stacey Abrams speaks at a campaign event on Sept. 9 in Atlanta, flanked by radio and TV personality Charlamagne tha God, left, rapper 21 Savage and civil rights lawyer Francys Johnson, right.
Jeff Amy / AP
/
AP
Georgia Democratic candidate for governor Stacey Abrams speaks at a campaign event on Sept. 9 in Atlanta, flanked by radio and TV personality Charlamagne tha God, left, rapper 21 Savage and civil rights lawyer Francys Johnson, right.

Though the Democratic hopeful has worked hard to ensure Black men know she's listening — hosting both small and large events to address their most pressing concerns in her home state — she asserts that her efforts are genuine attempts to connect.

"Our intentional outreach should not be viewed as a challenge with these communities, but instead, as an opportunity for us to earn the votes of communities that have been left out of the political conversation for too long in Georgia," the Abrams campaign wrote Thursday in a statement to NPR. "We take none of these voters for granted."

In a separate interview on NPR's "It's Been a Minute" last month, Abrams told host Brittany Luse that she wants to "dispel some misinformation" about her campaign.

"So, No. 1, around this time in 2018, I actually was in almost the exact same place," she continued.

Abrams took issue with reports suggesting that she is struggling with Black men and added that she is polling "comfortably" with the voting bloc.

"There is rarely polling that actually breaks down Black men versus Black women," she noted. "It's usually aggregated. ... And across the board, Black men tend to be more conservative than Black women. It is always true. And I am polling around the same with Black voters as I did in '18."

Jermaine House, HIT Strategies' senior communications director, agreed that the current landscape for Abrams is not drastically different from her last run.

Despite reports suggesting the opposite, Abrams performed well with Black men in the past and he predicts she will do the same in this campaign.

"Abrams is definitely making the right decision by treating Black men like swing voters, not taking them for granted and doing all she can to prioritize them and ensure they come out to support her," he explained.

House emphasized this point because his firm has tracked rising conservatism among Black men using data from the last decade.

According to exit polling, roughly one in five Black men voted for Donald Trump in 2020.

House additionally noted a down-ballot "Trump-bump" explicitly observed in battleground states like Georgia.

"One thing that could explain the marginal drift of Black men to the Republican Party is that they are more likely than Black women to trust the Republicans on the economy," he reflected.

Free T-shirts are displayed for supporters of Georgia Democratic candidate for governor Stacey Abrams during a campaign event to appeal to Black men in her race against Republican incumbent Brian Kemp.
Jeff Amy / AP
/
AP
Free T-shirts are displayed for supporters of Georgia Democratic candidate for governor Stacey Abrams during a campaign event to appeal to Black men in her race against Republican incumbent Brian Kemp.

Omar Ali says he worries that economic gains for the Black community have been few and far between.

For years, Ali has called for those around him to "sit in the middle" and wait for the major parties to make a genuine case for their support. By doing so he said, "you force the Democrats to truly deliver something to us because now they realize that Black people will actually vote Republican."

"Our ticket out of this is economics," Ali continued. "Think about it, what have we gotten economically — what have we gotten, period, for voting?"

"Nothing has come out of it and anger has stemmed from that," he stressed. "What we want is the opportunity — the economic opportunity — to take care of our families and to take care of our community."

Mondale Robinson, founder of the Black Male Voter Project, stands in his hometown of Enfield, N.C., where he serves as mayor.
/ Kate Medley for NPR News
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Kate Medley for NPR News
Mondale Robinson, founder of the Black Male Voter Project, stands in his hometown of Enfield, N.C., where he serves as mayor.

"It's not a problem created by Stacey Abrams," said Mondale Robinson, founder of the Black Male Voter Project (BVMP). "We haven't seen a decrease in the number of Black men killed by police. Black men are still unemployed at twice the rate of others, and those who are arrested and can't pay cash bails sit in jail even though they haven't been proven guilty."

Robinson maintains that Black men are consistently overlooked by the Democratic Party and feels that polls have done the same.

In his view, the narrative of growing Black male conservatism is "dangerous."

"It makes it seem like Black men are costing people elections when, in actuality, Black men voted closer to Black women than anyone else in the country," he explained.

Black women are Democrats' most reliable voting bloc and, generally, men swing more conservative than women, regardless of their race.

Stacey Abrams, Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Georgia, during a "One Georgia Tour" campaign event in Atlanta on March 14, 2022. Abrams also campaigned in Cuthbert that day.
/ Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
Stacey Abrams, Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Georgia, during a "One Georgia Tour" campaign event in Atlanta on March 14, 2022. Abrams also campaigned in Cuthbert that day.

The problem, according to Robinson, is that politicians and pollsters alike do not reach a critical undercurrent of unlikely voters. "The brothers that people in these polls aren't talking to" are the very people that Robinson organizes.

Their oversight is why he contends that exit polls overestimated the number of Black men who supported Trump, turning to figures that suggest the same.

Following the 2020 election, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center found "President Trump's alleged appeal to Black men turned out to be illusory." They concluded that the number of Black men who voted for Trump remained roughly one in 10 in both 2016 and 2020.

Robinson says the word "frustration" does not go far enough to explain what he calls Black men's "antipathy" for the political process.

"It's hatred, deep-seated historical animosity, linked to the psychology of traumas past and present — traumas of being a Black man and having horrible incidents with politicians and their transactional nature," he said.

Stacey Abrams is running for governor in Georgia. If elected, she would be the first black woman to serve as governor in the country.
Asma Khalid / NPR
/
NPR
Stacey Abrams is running for governor in Georgia. If elected, she would be the first black woman to serve as governor in the country.

Black men and Black voters are already voting in Georgia. Thus far, they have cast ballots in record numbers. Whether or not their turnout will sway the November outcome, this feeling of neglect could be principal to their decision-making.

If their aversion to the Democratic Party becomes Abrams' Achilles heel, the loss would be an ironic repercussion.

Abrams' organizing was crucial for fueling Democrats' answer to Republicans' grassroots activism in 2018 and 2020. Mobilizing Black voters was an essential component of her playbook then and, if not for their support in this southern garrison, she would not have delivered her party the Senate and presidency.

Even if Black men do not pose an issue in Abrams' current charge for the governor's mansion, Democrats could continue to face the growing rancor of a population that has felt promised time and again that change will come, while their circumstances have not, Robinson said.

This animus could have a very real electoral impact as Democrats probe new battlegrounds in other diverse, historically red strongholds.

"People closest to the pain probably got the best solutions," Robinson said, insisting on the need for Democrats to genuinely connect with Black folks — men in particular — in elections to come.

"Black men living on the margins — those who don't normally participate — probably know what's best for Black men," he continued. "That demographic is not represented in the Democratic Party today and they can't win national elections without us. We make that party powerful — Black people do."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Juma Sei
Juma Sei is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow at NPR. He is a Sierra Leonean-American from Portland, Oregon, and a 2022 graduate of Yale College.