Will Michigan Blacks and Browns show up without a presidential candidate who looks like them?

Kamala Harris and Cory Booker talk after the second debate | Andrew Roth

Three high-profile presidential candidates of color have dropped out of the race in the last two months: U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California), U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro. 

Now people of color in Michigan are debating whether their absence could depress turnout during both the March 10 Democratic primary and the Nov. 3 general election — something of particular concern given the fact that now-President Donald Trump narrowly — but critically — won the state four years ago.   

Harris, who is both African- and Indian-American, was the first of the group to suspend her bid on Dec. 3 amid concern about her ability to raise funds necessary to wage a competitive campaign. 

Julian Castro after the second debate | Andrew Roth

Castro, who’s Latino, ended his campaign on Jan. 2. Booker, who is African-American, dropped out of the race on Jan. 13. Both also had fundraising trouble and also experienced difficulty earning name identification and building ground games in early caucus and primary states. 

Blacks and Latinos have been a critical voting bloc in the Democratic Party, with African-Americans playing a particularly big role in Michigan for decades. 

Detroit, for example, is about 80% African American. The number of Motor City residents who cast ballots in the presidential general election dropped from 335,000 in 2012 — when the race was between then-President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney — to 247,000 in 2016 in the election between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Trump, according to Detroit Metro Times reporting

The result was that Clinton received nearly 47,000 fewer votes than Obama had in 2012, the Chicago Tribune reported. And Trump ended up winning Michigan by only 10,704 votes — roughly one-quarter of that total, making the Mitten the closest state in 2016.

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Greg Bowens, an African-American political consultant and public relations professional, addressed some of the punditry that Democratic nominee needs to be a white male in order to beat Trump in 2020.

“The notion we need a white man to beat another white man in an election is on its face racist and sexist, because it stereotypes white males as strong and everyone else as weak,” said Bowens, who is Black.

Greg Bowens

“Sens. Harris’ and Booker’s entrance and exit from the presidential contest is no different from a dozen others who have done the same, but with much less criticism,” Bowens continued. “Diversity in the Democratic [Party] ranks will suffer as a result.”

Polling has consistently shown former Vice President Joe Biden leading with African-American voters. A recent Washington Post/IPSO poll  showed 48% backed Biden. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was a distant second and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was third.  

Hodari Brown, a 35-year-old African-American Democratic Party activist, argued that there is a divide among generations of Black voters.

“Polls are not always a reflection of reality,” Brown said. “I do believe older African Americans trust or trusted Biden, but millennials like myself and others were up for grabs or believed in Booker and Harris more, as they appealed to us more than Biden.”

As part of an 11-state survey conducted by Equis Research in 2019, two-thirds of 500 registered Latino voters in Michigan sampled planned to support a Democrat for president. Another 17% would back Trump and 16% were undecided. Women outpace men in this category. The survey, of course, was carried out before the Harris, Castro and Booker exits.

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“When digging into age and gender in Michigan, we not only find a 26-point gender gap on Trump re-elect; but can further pinpoint middle-aged men as the subgroup with highest Trump support,” a portion of the survey reads.

Brandon Brice, host of “Straight Talk” heard on Southfield’s WFDF 910-AM, challenged the Democratic Party to create election rules that results in people of color having a genuine opportunity to be successful.

“There is a modern-day hypocrisy among the Democratic establishment, which says it wants diversity, but still remains the party of white men,” said Brice, an African-American who identifies as a political independent, but has worked as a GOP staffer. “My advice to the Democratic establishment is to revert back to ‘pocketbook politics’ and to start talking about real issues that affect middle Americans.” 

Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes | Andrew Roth

But Lavora Barnes, the Michigan Democratic Party’s first Black female chair, told the Advance on Thursday that “Black and Brown Democratic voters are fired up this election cycle and the Michigan Democratic Party is working overtime to ensure we’re turning that passion into action in March and November.”  

She said the party is “making historic investments in organizing and outreach to communities of color throughout the state.” Barnes added the MDP has two Detroit organizers, a director of African-American outreach, and a voter protection team “dedicated to educating voters of their rights and standing against any efforts to suppress the vote. 

“We’re confident these investments are going to pay off and we’re going to turn Michigan blue up and down the ballot, in every corner of the state,” Barnes said.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.