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Joe Biden comes to Detroit as Black voter apathy imperils re-election

Biden speaks at podium
Joe Biden is slated to give the keynote address at the Detroit NAACP’s Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner, where he will also be given the organization’s James Weldon Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award. (Lev Radin /
  • Joe Biden’s speech at a Detroit Branch NAACP dinner comes amid a concerted campaign push to woo Black voters
  • Experts say Biden must overcome voter apathy and frustration in a city crucial to his re-election odds
  • Biden’s campaign calls the dinner an opportunity to “talk directly to Black America about the issues we care about most”

May 21: White House corrects Biden
May 19: In Detroit, Joe Biden touts progress for Black voters. Here are the facts

When President Joe Biden comes to Detroit Sunday, he’ll be visiting a state he can’t afford to lose to court Black voters who may be key to his re-election odds. 

National polls suggest former President Donald Trump is making inroads with Black voters, particularly men, making Biden's latest trip to Detroit an important one, according to experts. 

The Democratic incumbent can point to some policies that have been important for the community, including student loan forgiveness and marijuana reclassification, but he's failed to convince some voters to look past other woes, said Adolph Mongo, a longtime Detroit political consultant. 

“People aren’t looking at (those policies) because they go to the grocery store and the food is sky-high, you’ve got crime out of control, the Republicans have hijacked the border narrative,” Mongo said. 


State Rep. Donavan McKinney, D-Detroit, echoed those concerns. 

"I talk to my community members a lot ,and I don't know if they're paying attention (to the presidential race)," McKinney told Bridge Michigan. 

"They're worried about where their next meal is gonna come from. People are worried about how they're gonna pay their bills. At least us in the political system, the 'elite,' we're paying attention to it, but I don't know if the community is.”

Biden’s speech at the Detroit Branch NAACP’s Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner is the culmination of a multi-week courting of Black voters.

The dinner is one of Detroit’s marquee political events. While the storied organization doesn’t endorse candidates, it offers public figures a chance to rub elbows with some of the most influential community leaders.

“It provides an opportunity to say ‘I feel you,’ in a way that you don't get to do at a rally, for example, or on a debate stage,” said Greg Bowens, another longtime Detroit political consultant.

Biden’s Detroit visit follows dire warnings from Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, who recently told The Detroit News that Biden is not doing enough to appeal to voters of color in Michigan.

“Apathy is the biggest problem,” Evans told the newspaper. “If you look at the percentage of people who vote and the apathy of African Americans about voting ... that's what will turn the tide. But you've got to get somebody to get them out — and give them a reason to come out. I'm just not really seeing it.”

Some other Democratic elected officials have also struck a dour tone. They are concerned in particular that the conflict between Israel and Hamas could drag on through the election season and Biden — who has faced condemnation from progressives for not doing more to address the humanitarian plight of Palestinians — will repel too many voters to remain competitive.

McKinney, the state lawmaker, told Bridge he thinks the dinner will be a necessary charm offensive for Biden.

“We need to see him be charismatic and just have a heart to heart,” McKinney said. “That heart to heart, in person, is really where he thrives.”

A sign of ‘nervousness’

The same day as his Detroit speech, Biden is scheduled to deliver the commencement address at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, a historically Black college. His campaign has used superlative terms to describe his administration’s efforts to reach Black communities. 

A memo from senior campaign adviser Trent Baker insisted the campaign has been “authentic and consistent” in their outreach, arguing “no other administration in modern history has delivered for Black America in the way Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have.”


But that statement “is a perfect signal of their nervousness,” said Dave Dulio, a professor of political science at Oakland University. “I think it shows they know they need to do some work.”

Biden's visit is the latest in a series of presidential campaign trips to Michigan, which has played a prominent swing state role in recent elections. Trump held a rally in Saginaw County earlier this month. 

“I think it's difficult, with the polling numbers that we see right now, to find a path to 270 electoral votes without Michigan for Joe Biden,” Dulio said. 

Biden and Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, are effectively tied in Michigan, according to the most recent polling average from RealClearPolitics

But in comparison to past elections, Black voter support for Biden appears to be softening. In a recent national poll, 42% of Black Americans said they would definitely vote for Biden, lower than past years.

Trump’s campaign did not return a request for comment on this story.

Democrats seek ‘shift’

In 2020, Biden won 92% of the Black vote in Michigan, according to exit polls. Biden won Michigan by just 154,000 votes in that election, and in Detroit alone received 241,000 votes from the majority Black city.

The Sunday dinner is the latest in a slew of Michigan visits by Biden and campaign surrogates. 

Vice president Kamala Harris was in Detroit May 6 for a White House event touting the administration’s record on assisting Black businesses. First lady Jill Biden is traveling across Michigan this week.  Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, was joining her for events in Marquette, Sault Ste. Marie, Midland — and Detroit. 

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit Branch NAACP, said he thinks voters will notice that the state’s unemployment rate has declined under Biden, who has also tried to reduce student debt and increase voting protections.


“I think as the campaign moves closer and closer to the election, you're gonna see a shift,” Anthony said. “I really think that Black people who are sitting on the sidelines are gonna get in the game and say the risks are too serious for us to sit it out.”

Democrats hope a financial edge will help them make their case. Biden’s campaign has said it intends to spend $25 million nationally on advertising targeting the Black community. Biden will visit a Black-owned small business in Detroit ahead of the dinner Sunday, according to a campaign memo.

Baker, the senior campaign adviser, said Biden’s speech will be an opportunity to “talk directly to Black America about the issues we care about most.”

In an interview, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said he expects Biden to “talk about the urgency of this political moment broadly, about how that urgency is felt in an even deeper way, in the Black community, and in cities like Detroit and in a state like Michigan, and to talk about the things that he's done.

“Whether it's for positioning Black folks to be healthier, positioning Black folks to have better economic opportunities to just be more successful under his leadership,” Gilchrist said. 

“I think he's going to make a case pretty forcefully for that.”

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