Inside the intense, person-by-person fight over the Black vote in Wisconsin

June 24, 2024

MILWAUKEE — There was no better place to be on Juneteenth in the middle of a campaign that could turn on the Black vote in a pivotal swing state.

It was stiflingly hot, in the 90s, the heat intensified by dozens of open-air smokers and barbecues that radiated off the pavement. Still, tens of thousands of people of all ages, most of them Black, poured onto MLK Drive for a vibrant parade on Wednesday, then stayed at the adjoining rollicking festival for hours longer.  

Kimberlee Foster, a volunteer for President Joe Biden’s Wisconsin re-election campaign and a longtime Milwaukee resident, stood in the blazing sun with clipboard in hand and announced her main target: people who hadn’t voted in the last one or two elections.

Kimberlee Foster takes a phone call while hold a clipboard
Canvasser Kimberlee Foster at the Juneteenth Festival in Milwaukee on Wednesday.Mahdi Atif for NBC News

“The people who vote, they don’t need us. That’s like God don’t need all those saints in church,” Foster said. “He needs sinners. When you bring in the sinners, you turn them into saints. So that’s what we gonna see. We’re going to see ones who don’t vote. Talk to them about it.” 

And that she did. Diving into the crowd again and again for hours, sweat beading on her face and on the people she approached, Foster snagged everyone she could — families, groups of friends, couples, a woman buying an impatient daughter an ice cream cone, a gray-haired man walking alone, a pair of friends enjoying hot roasted corn on the cob — to talk to them about voting for Biden. Then, one way or another, she’d sign them up.

When she came upon the “saints,” she’d take down their personal information and coax them into organizing themselves.

In one instance, a college-age man said he had once headed a youth voter group and was trying to launch a new one. Foster gently put her hand behind his elbow, guiding him over to the campaign booth where a team of five to 10 Biden workers moved in and out through the day, and they took it from there.

A person writes on a clipboard as others watch on during the parade
Canvasser Kimberlee Foster, left, talks with Jennifer Bryant at the Juneteenth Festival.Mahdi Atif for NBC News

The super-volunteer’s efforts on this particular day exemplify how the Biden campaign is trying to lock down support of a Black electorate that, in national polls, is starting to show some interest in former President Donald Trump. And this city and state illustrate why it matters so much. While Biden won Wisconsin by less than 1 point in 2020, he actually did worse in many majority-Black Milwaukee neighborhoods than Hillary Clinton had in 2016, when she lost the state to Trump by less than a point.

Personal conversations like the ones Foster had on Juneteenth are a big part of the Biden campaign’s efforts to build up more support. The campaign is specifically targeting Black neighborhoods in Milwaukee, using an organizing tool called the Reach app to map out low-propensity voters and zero in on Black voters who didn’t cast ballots in 2022 or 2020.

After several hours at the Juneteenth festival, one of the longest-running such events in the country, the Biden campaign said it had engaged with more than 100 people, from new sign-ups to those wanting yard signs and people asking for help registering to vote. It locked in dozens more who committed to take part in organizing events.

Dancers in orange and pink costumes hold pom poms and walk down the street
Dancers perform at the Juneteenth Parade in Milwaukee.Mahdi Atif for NBC News

Conversations with nearly three dozen Black voters here suggested the biggest threat to Biden was not that they’d flee to Trump, with many flagging concerns about his policies. Instead, they raised the prospect of whether — like in 2020 — they just wouldn’t show up at the polls. In interviews, they voiced a litany of complaints about their lives in recent years, like the cost of groceries, gas and rent and the persistence of crime. 

Several people were angry over what they described as the Biden administration’s seemingly preferential treatment of migrants while they were struggling financially as working U.S. citizens and weren’t getting the help they needed. 

Milwaukee resident Ezekiel Johnson, who said he supported Democrats in the past but was still undecided for November, complained that the Biden administration was spending too much money on outside causes. 

“He’s worried about what’s happening in Ukraine. … Every day it’s another package of money for them,” Johnson said. “We need another package of money for us.” 

For some, the Democrats’ organizing presence wasn’t enough. Calvin Lee, a lobbyist who was hosting a booth for a not-for-profit organization, said that at a place like the festival, Biden volunteers should have been swarming the crowds.

Calvin Lee smiles for a portrait outside
Calvin Lee of We Black We Golf poses for a portrait at the Juneteenth Festival.Mahdi Atif for NBC News

“I really don’t see the outreach from the Democratic Party. I’d like to see 20 to 50 Biden T-shirts out here today canvassing, handing out pamphlets,” Lee said, looking around at the throngs of people walking by. “Where’s the real outreach?” 

Even as Lee spoke, Foster was locked in another intense conversation with a Biden supporter who was signing up to help organize. 

Earlier, walking in the parade and then visiting festival booths, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson proudly donned a Biden shirt, which he said clearly sent a message. 

“I know there’s a lot of hoopla and the Trump campaign is trying to say things hoping that they come true. But when I come and talk to actual people, actual Black men in this community, they say that they are voting for President Joe Biden — and proudly so,” Johnson said.  

Trump has boasted that he’s drawing Black voters from Biden, and in recent rallies he has increasingly tried to make a play for them.

Johnson predicted Trump would be unable to edge into Biden’s share of Black voters.

Cavalier Johnson waves and holds a Juneteenth flag
Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson walks in the Juneteenth Parade.Mahdi Atif for NBC News

“He called the most diverse place in the state of Wisconsin — where the vast majority of African Americans live in this state — he called their home ‘horrible,’ and Joe Biden is making historic investments in our city,” Johnson said.   

Inside the data

“Enthusiasm to vote among Black voters is the smallest of any of the demographic groups that we look at,” said Charles Franklin, the chief pollster of the Marquette Law School Poll.

Black registered voters are about 4% to 6% of the electorate in Wisconsin, and Franklin noted that the relatively small cohort makes it difficult to glean substantive takeaways from polling data.

“I just don’t have enough data to be able to say with any confidence whether Trump really is appealing more to that subset of the Black community,” Franklin said.

But when Black voters were asked “How do you feel about these two candidates?” according to Franklin, “Biden is not doing as well as he did four years ago, and Trump is doing a little bit better. I think that’s the legitimate warning sign for Biden.”

A mural that reads: "Our history. 1865. Our culture. FUBU. Our community. Our village. Ours to protect. 4 the ancestors. 4 the blacks. Thank you 4 celebration of freedom. The truth is no one is free until everyone free. Black people still most incarcerated. Without community, there's no liberation. Black live matter around the world. May we be ready 4 the fight of our lives. One love. Love. Peace. Soul hair grease.
A mural for True Skool’s Juneteenth Mural Contest in Milwaukee.Mahdi Atif for NBC News

The earlier warning sign for Biden came in 2020, when he won Wisconsin by about 20,000 votes. Clinton, who famously didn’t visit Wisconsin during the general election campaign before she lost, won most Black-majority wards in Milwaukee by 1 to 4 points more than Biden did in those areas in 2020, according to data Franklin has collected.

In 2020, Democrats were supposed to host the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, but that was mostly scuttled because of Covid. While Biden visited the state, he didn’t accept his nomination there — he did it instead in Delaware.

Biden himself, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris and first lady Jill Biden, have frequented Wisconsin this year, which numerous people said they appreciated. Maryland Gov. Wes Moore is scheduled to visit Milwaukee this week.

Standing in line at the massively popular Pop’s BBQ food truck at the Juneteenth celebration, Milwaukee resident Diane Wynn said she was “open to him” when she was asked about Trump. She forgave him for news reports about his calling Milwaukee a “horrible city,” which Trump denied. She thought he was referring to crime, and she agreed with that assessment, saying criminals weren’t spending enough time behind bars.

A sign reads "WISGOP Black Coalition" with a black elephant logo
The Wisconsin GOP Black Coalition at the Juneteenth Festival.Mahdi Atif for NBC News

“At first, I was like ‘hell no’” at the thought of backing Trump, Wynn said. “But maybe we need something different.”

Wynn also complained about benefits flowing to migrants when Black communities were hurting.

“What are they doing for the middle class?” she said.

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said Democrats need to keep hammering away at messaging to the Black community. He and other Black leaders are convinced that if they just got more of Biden’s policy accomplishments in front of people, the choice would then be obvious. That ranges from student loan forgiveness to help the administration has delivered to Black small businesses to low unemployment numbers, he said.

A Biden campaign poster reads: "I'm onboard because I love voting. Want my kids to grow up in a democracy."
A Joe Biden-Kamala Harris campaign poster at the Juneteenth Festival.Mahdi Atif for NBC News

“There are going to be people who remember receiving that check from Donald Trump but may not understand that they’re able to stay within their homes because of the Joe Biden administration,” Crowley said. “We can’t put it all on the Biden administration and the federal government to tell the story. There are folks like myself, organizations, individuals and businesses that have benefited on the ground, and they are our trusted messengers.

“We have to do a much better job in general and presidential politics in making sure that we’re lifting up those voices in our world,” he said.

Still, concerns about Trump ran deep. Milwaukee residents brought up what they saw as his economic failings in the area when he was in office. Many of those interviewed said he promoted racism and feared what kind of policies a second term could bring for Blacks.

A person wearing a large sunhat paints a mural on a wooden board
Artist Zakia Wells works on a mural for True Skool’s Juneteenth Mural Contest.Mahdi Atif for NBC News

Though he was undecided, Milwaukee resident Ezekiel Johnson said he wasn’t sure he could stomach Trump.

“He was mad last time he lost. He’s a sore loser. He lost fair and square,” Johnson said. He also brought up Trump’s failed promise to bring Foxconn to Racine. “That s— was a bust,” he said. 

Darren Reaves, a Navy veteran, said he was on the fence about voting for Trump — until recently. 

“I have no other choice but to vote for Biden. He’s not a felon,” Reaves said. 

Reaves said he liked that Trump might mix things up in Washington, but he doesn’t like the message Trump sends. “He’s promoting racism. He’s promoting dissension. He’s promoting dislike. He’s promoting ‘my way or the highway.’”

Parade goers walk on the street, holding a banner that says "Celebrate Freedom"
Employees of the Milwaukee County Transit System march at the Juneteenth Parade.Mahdi Atif for NBC News

Standing tall, a man with a white beard stopped briefly but wouldn’t give his name. His vote would be for Biden, he said. Why? He followed a lifelong rule older folks instilled in him since he was a young boy.

In sizing up politicians, he said, he was always told to “pick out the one who’s not going to reinstate slavery.” He tapped twice on a reporter’s notebook and walked away.

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