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 aged 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, 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.
He said that courting turnout from Black men was the same as for any other group: “You have to come out and you have to ask. And then you have to address the issues that are of concern to them.”
The die is not cast, however, and Mrs. Clinton’s fate still holds warning signs for Mr. Biden and his campaign. They are both Washington insiders who struggled with younger Black voters in the primary — a key demographic in Mr. Obama’s general-election coalition — but won older Black voters handily en route to the nomination.
Throughout her race, Mrs. Clinton faced skepticism for her association with the 1990s expansion of the federal prison system, an overhaul that Mr. Biden helped craft. He has recently embraced the language of acknowledging systemic racism, and released a sweeping policy meant to close the racial wealth gap and improve education in Black communities. Still, as with Mrs. Clinton, the matter of trust remains.
In November, it could be Mr. Biden’s improvements with white voters throughout the state — not his prowess with motivating infrequent Black voters — that powers his electoral success.
“These people locked up a lot of my brothers, you know,” Adi Armour, 49, said, adding that he did not vote for Mrs. Clinton in 2016 but planned to vote for Mr. Biden in 2020. He called the decision “a tough one.”
“It’ll be more of a vote to get Trump out of there than a vote for Biden to get in,” he explained.
Mr. Trump and his Republican allies have zeroed in on the importance of Black male voters in swing states like Wisconsin, and have made some concerted efforts to pry them away from Democrats.
Their efforts are twofold: to argue that Black voters’ loyalty to Democrats has not been rewarded — effectively asking them, in Mr. Trump’s famous words last election cycle, “What do you have to lose?” And to focus less on persuading Black men to vote for Republicans and more on creating an environment for low turnout over all.
In a leaked audio recording recently published by Politico, Mr. Trump said days before his inauguration: “Many Blacks didn’t go out to vote for Hillary ’cause they liked me. That was almost as good as getting the vote, you know, and it was great.”
He has said similar things publicly, and allies have argued that the administration’s restrictive immigration policies could appeal to some Black voters who share a nativist instinct that outsiders are to blame for their community’s woes.
State Representative David Bowen, a Democrat from Milwaukee, said he was confident that Mr. Trump’s campaign efforts would not take root, considering how much the president had done to inflame racial tension. Mr. Bowen said he worried more about the pandemic’s effects on reaching infrequent Black voters, as normal canvassing tools like door knocking and registration drives become more difficult.
“The in-person organizing that would be there, and that the Black community is used to, isn’t at the same level,” Mr. Bowen said. “Being on the safe side is important. But how do we balance that with the need of meeting people where they are? Because that’s important, too.”
Mr. Bowen is part of a cohort of Black leaders and activists who have protested racial inequality for more than 85 days straight, an effort that began after George Floyd was killed by the Minneapolis police in late May. Mr. Bowen said the group had shown no signs of slowing, and wanted to sustain its momentum and force Democrats including Mr. Biden to be more responsive to its concerns.
He said that although Mr. Biden could win without robust young voter turnout, a Democratic Party that was not responsive to the current flood of activism risked creating a disaffected generation for years to come — one that includes Black men.
“Younger voters supported that Bernie Sanders agenda because they wanted big change,” Mr. Bowen said. “Older Democrats are more moderate, and some of them feel like incremental change is enough right now. But the people who are closest to the pain are the younger ones, and they’re calling for substantial change in agenda. They have real demands.”
According to the Pew data from 2016, Black men vote at comparable rates to other minority groups. Even for Mrs. Clinton in 2016, Black turnout returned to its levels during the pre-Obama Democratic Party, not a drop-off that was historically unprecedented.
In recent weeks, several political organizations have announced initiatives targeted at improving the political process in Black communities, and at motivating less frequent Black voters to come to the polls. More Than a Vote, a collective of athletes headlined by the basketball star LeBron James, said it would invest millions to try to recruit poll workers in Black communities. The N.A.A.C.P. announced a campaign called “Black Voices Change Lives,” which will seek to expand peer-to-peer organizing in Black communities. Its stated target is a 5 percent increase in Black voter turnout in the general election from 2016.
Gaulien Smith, who owns Gee’s Clippers, a barbershop in Milwaukee, said he thought sexism had played a role in some Black male apathy for Mrs. Clinton. He posited that there had been a different reaction to Ms. Harris on the ticket, because she is seen more as someone who understands the Black experience and can be a champion for Black men.
“In her, we see history,” Mr. Smith said.
At Gee’s Clippers, on the city’s Near North Side, the health crisis might have changed the social nature of the barbershop, but it could not destroy it. With people wearing masks and chairs spaced apart, a gaggle of Black men watched an afternoon game of the N.B.A. playoffs, hours before Mr. Biden was to accept the Democratic nomination.
The flow of customers and barbers stretched the gamut of the city’s Black male electorate: businessmen, church elders, teenagers and activists. And while there was universal distaste of Mr. Trump, even from some who said they had expressed interest in his candidacy four years ago, there was a sense that 2020 was not 2016 — a mantra that has been reflected in polling, fund-raising and other measures of a country’s political health.
“Even if Kamala wasn’t the vice-presidential candidate, I still feel that we will come out in droves because of what we’ve experienced these last four years,” Mr. Smith said.
Kenny Paskel, 24, sat silent in a corner. When prompted, he said that Mr. Biden would probably be his choice, but that a felony conviction on his record since the age of 17 prevented him from voting. He cannot vote in this election, or any election in his lifetime, unless state law changes.
“I guess I don’t know what I’m missing,” he said.