About a month ago, an advertisement popped up on the black gospel radio station The Light 103.9 FM where I live in Durham, North Carolina. It was voiced by a woman who sounded like she was in her mid-50s, with the lilt of an educated urban black Southerner. Although I wasn’t consciously listening at first, it caught my attention. It was a political ad, the first I’d heard on the radio this election cycle, and I wondered which candidate was bothering to actively campaign in North Carolina well before the March 3 Super Tuesday primary.
Normally, ads on this station are for big-box stores, loan companies and the local women’s expo — this year, featuring Angela Bassett as the headline speaker — so what I was hearing stood out. As the narrator talked about investing in our social safety net and protecting Social Security, she was also hitting President Donald Trump hard, pulling no punches while reminding listeners what’s truly at stake as he runs for re-election. Then I heard former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s voice, and I wondered what in the world was going on.
Bloomberg’s strength, surely crafted by some smart and experienced staffers, is the direct appeal to black people. Black voters don’t want to be taken for granted.
Evidently, Bloomberg’s strategy to bypass the early states to focus on Super Tuesday wasn’t just taking the form of a big television buy, highly paid staff and a push on social media platforms, but also a direct appeal to Southern black voters — in particular, the class of black voters who are horrified by Trump’s behavior, energized to vote and unsure whom to support.
Accordingly, he’s been blanketing the airwaves in places where black working- and middle-class listeners can hear him addressing the issues they care about. And here in North Carolina, he’s filling a political vacuum at the same time. There are no Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg ads playing on black radio. In fact, I haven’t heard this many political ads on black radio since the 2008 Obama campaign, and even he didn’t appear on the airwaves so early.
The Bloomberg who defended harsh policing tactics and gentrification policies as recently as five years ago wouldn’t be someone whom the listeners of “The Light” would naturally support — if that’s the candidate they knew. But they generally haven’t been paying as close attention to the Big Apple’s mayor and police as they do to the mayor and police in their own cities. They’re most familiar with the Bloomberg who is whacking the dickens out of Trump in ads and saying he will fight for them. So I wasn’t surprised to see his numbers with black voters in the latest Quinnipiac University poll ranking him second to a quickly fading Biden.
It’s a strategy that could help make Bloomberg a surprisingly strong candidate with black voters — a crucial component of the Democratic base — as he takes advantage of Biden’s threatened collapse and the fact that none of the other candidates has caught on (yet) with wide segments of the African American community. It would be a mistake to not take note of the Bloomberg campaign’s ability to effectively connect with this constituency despite his horrendous record on racial justice in New York City and his profile as a white billionaire.
This is, admittedly, quite jarring. I know Bloomberg for overseeing an administration that targeted black and Latino men and women with extraordinary and disproportionate surveillance by the police as part of its stop-and-frisk policy. Young black men in particular were subjected to the force of a virtual police state that constantly and often aggressively put them through pat-downs when they traveled to school or to work. Ignoring data showing that nearly 9 out of 10 of those stopped were innocent, Bloomberg erroneously claimed the stops were a deterrent to crime. He even contested a U.S. Supreme Court case that sought to put an end to the destructive practice that was the tip of the mass-incarceration iceberg in the city.
Bloomberg apologized for the practice when he entered the race, but it felt staged — and it came well after a change of heart would have made a substantive difference. My New York friends have also decried the gentrification, driven by his policies, that created a city that was much, much too expensive for the working class, even at the margins of the city. So I found his radio appeal proclaiming that he would serve as the protector of the social safety net for black Americans laughable.
But most of my neighbors don’t track NYC politics as closely as they do local politics. This isn’t to assume that they are low-information voters; based on my research on this community and its history, I’d argue that black voters, particularly black working-class voters, are tremendously informed and engaged in comparison to the white working class. After all, their lives have depended on political engagement in a region that was once legally segregated and now is in the grip of voter purges and new voter ID laws that jeopardize their ability to exercise their basic right to cast ballots.
At the same time, these black voters are struggling to hold on to political representation as Southern cities gentrify and transform, while the deindustrializing South offers few opportunities for the working poor. But their focus is often on their place in a city and the state, not urban politics hundreds of miles away. They have probably heard the term “stop-and-frisk,” but it likely isn’t as front of mind as the coming school board election.
And it’s important to remember the history of the black electorate, particularly older voters, who overcame decades of disfranchisement, poll taxes, white-only primaries and voter intimidation just to be able to vote in the first place. When they finally did get the right to vote freely, they had to support lots of candidates who were tremendously imperfect and, oftentimes, racist but who they hoped shared some of their interests and could win in a general election.
These are folks who are accustomed to voting for the lesser of the two evils. And they are just emerging from the ashes of Hillary Clinton’s historic campaign, which seemed to teach them that white men won’t support a white woman — a refrain I’ve heard over and over from female voters at my church and other local organizations. They aren’t voters who cast ballots by the metric of any strict ideological test; they are voters who are rightfully frightened by Trump and interested in supporting anyone who can beat him.
And the style of Bloomberg’s attacks is part of what makes them think he can do that. Other Democratic candidates are criticizing Trump from a cerebral, high-minded, democracy-is-at-stake place; Bloomberg just hits him hard, highlighting his crass language, his callousness toward immigrant children and the dramatic erosion of the racial climate fostered by his presidency. Black voters like his fight-fire-with-fire approach. Like Calandrian Kemp, the black mother featured in Bloomberg’s Super Bowl ad, said, some black voters feel like “now we have a dog in the fight.”
Over the past few days, I’ve seen political chatter on Twitter about teaching “low information” black voters that Bloomberg is not a legitimate supporter of black causes while bemoaning the billionaire’s ability to buy a campaign whole cloth. I think folks may be missing the point. Billionaire Tom Steyer has been running ads here on television since the fall, and he hasn’t moved the needle nearly as far as Bloomberg has in such a short time.
Bloomberg’s strength, surely crafted by some smart and experienced staffers, is the direct appeal to black people. Black voters don’t want to be taken for granted. They don’t want to be ignored. They don’t like campaigns where none of the issues affecting their lives are addressed. They like campaigns that talk about investing in black communities that have been poisoned by pollution and neglect. They care about investments in our schools. They desperately want to see an end to gun violence. They want to close the racial wealth gap. They like to be recognized and heard.
Crass calculation or not, Bloomberg has been putting black voices front and center in his advertising. And he shouldn’t be the only one doing it. Where is the rest of the field? It doesn’t take millions to broadcast on black radio, where advertising is cheap. And although recent news will probably keep Bloomberg from appearing as a guest on a nationally syndicated black show in the near future, other candidates should know that that kind of outreach is completely free.
The time to invest directly and boldly in engaging black audiences is past due for the rest of the Democratic field. After all, they need the Obama voters who stayed home in the previous cycle to return. These voters can be won over: They are progressive and concerned, and they are a working-class bloc that can help turn swing states blue.
Bloomberg is spending a fortune, but this key lesson about the black electorate can be learned for free.