The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Some Pennsylvania Democrats regret not voting in 2016. They say they’ll be sure to cast a ballot in 2020.

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks during a rally in Philadelphia on May 18. Pennsylvania went for Donald Trump in 2016 after 28 years of backing a Democrat for president. (Matt Rourke/AP)

PHILADELPHIA — The Rev. Alyn E. Waller, a senior pastor at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia, believes African American voters in his city hold the key to the White House.

After backing a Democrat for president in every election since 1988, Pennsylvania swung behind Donald Trump in 2016, helping propel him to the presidency with a dramatic turnout of supportive white voters while turnout of black Democratic voters in urban areas fell.

Hillary Clinton easily won the vote in Philadelphia, but the drop-off from prior elections left her unable to offset white Republican votes coming from more rural and conservative parts of the state.

It was a moment not lost on Trump. During a rally in Pennsylvania in December 2018, he praised black Americans who stayed home. “They didn’t come out to vote for Hillary,” he said. “They didn’t come out. And that was a big — so thank you to the African American community.” He also has often lauded his rural supporters for their high turnout.

Overall, turnout of black voters fell from nearly 67 percent in 2012 — during the reelection of the nation’s first black president — to less than 60 percent in 2016 while the white percentage rose incrementally, according to a Pew Research study.

In Pennsylvania, exit polls showed, the percentage of the vote cast by African Americans, who overwhelmingly sided with Clinton, dropped from 13 percent in 2012 to 10 percent in 2016. White voters, who went dramatically for Trump, rose from 78 percent to 81 percent of the electorate.

Interviews with black and white voters in the state show that a different dynamic may already be in play — on both sides.

Arresting the slide in black turnout and cutting into Republican advantages among white and rural voters is seen by Democrats as key to flipping Pennsylvania back into their electoral column. The same is true in Wisconsin and Michigan, two other historically Democratic states that went for Trump in 2016.

“I think people in Philadelphia understand that we can determine the presidential election in many ways because we can determine how Pennsylvania goes,” Waller said in an interview with The Washington Post. Trump’s margin of victory in the state was narrow: Just 44,000 of the 6.2 million voters flipped the state from blue to red.

“We are trying to impress upon our community how important both the vote and the census is in this new year,” Waller said.

He argues that Joe Biden, the former vice president, is the candidate most likely to get black voters to the ballot box.

“What we fundamentally need is someone who can energize our community to come out. I don’t think any of the candidates will help us with a Barack Obama-style turnout, but I think Biden is like getting back into old comfortable shoes that will allow us to get our footing back.”

That sentiment reflects Biden’s primary campaign strategy more so than any Democrat seeking the nomination in 2020: He is keen to demonstrate that he’s popular among black voters while also appealing to the exurban and rural white voters who aided Trump.

Yet he has faced a series of potential setbacks in maintaining his support among black voters over the past few months: Rivals have attacked his opposition to federally mandated busing in his home state of Delaware in the 1970s and also comments in which he championed his work with well-known segregationist senators.

This month, he told a group of mostly minority voters in Iowa that “poor kids” are just as bright as “white kids” before quickly correcting himself. But the controversy doesn’t appear to have trickled down to black voters in Philadelphia.

“Where do these comments come from?” questioned Tasha Ann, a 46 year-old dental assistant in Philadelphia. “It’s worrying, but we all say things we shouldn’t say.”

“You can’t judge him on that,” she added. “He proved himself time and time again with Obama. We all have a past. I would say Biden is more likely to get African Americans out voting.”

Waller was also unconcerned. “We have had 30 years to see his heart,” he said. “Do I believe that Joe Biden in his heart is a racist, or do I believe that he does not have the African American community in his heart? I don’t believe he’s a racist and I don’t believe he wouldn’t give the best that he could for our community.”

More than a dozen African Americans who said they usually vote Democratic — but didn’t vote at all in 2016 — blamed unease with Clinton’s candidacy. They also expressed support for Biden, frequently citing his past as Obama’s vice president as a major positive, and occasionally others.

Carl Garner, a 53-year-old IT specialist, said he was partial to Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California.

“Anything’s better than what we have right now.” he said, adding: “I’ve always liked Kamala Harris and I think she’s a very strong candidate. . . . I wouldn’t mind putting my vote behind her, but right now I think we just want to beat Trump, to be honest with you.”

Biden, he said, is best suited to win: “I still feel that the middle of the country trusts Joe Biden more than the other candidates. Even though I’m not part of that middle, I don’t think we can win without them.”

Jason Saffore, 43, an African American Democrat working in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, said he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Clinton in 2016 and so didn’t vote at all. Next year, he said, will be different.

“The guy we have in office now is not serving our country and it’s time for a change,” he said, as he arranged a stack of onions in a crate. “We need a president who is for all Americans. Last time I didn’t really care for the Democratic field at all, so I stayed out of the mix. I think a lot of people did.”

“I’m actually for Joe Biden at this point,” he added.

At a bus stop nearby, Shanta Tillar, a 36-year-old African American from Philadelphia, said that in 2016 “I really didn’t think my vote would count” so she chose not to cast a ballot.

“Yes, I regret not voting last time,” she said. That will change in 2020 “because America needs a different president,” she insisted. “I think Joe Biden would be a good president as he worked with Obama, but really anyone is better than who we have now.”

Where Biden has an advantage at this early stage of the campaign is his ability to meld support from black voters with a measure of backing from more conservative white voters who will entertain a vote for him but are less open to other Democrats in the race.

David Kenderdine, a white 55-year-old retired police officer from Montgomery County, said he had been a “straight Republican” his entire life and voted for Trump. But if Biden wins the nomination, that could change.

“He’s the Democrat who would appeal to the working man,” Kenderdine said, speaking outside a local coffee shop in Doylestown, 40 miles north of Philadelphia. “I like him, I always have.

“Mr. Biden is a gaffe machine, but at the end of the day he is a statesman and I believe that he has the best interest of our country in mind. If it was anyone else, I’d say no. But, I probably won’t make my decision until I pull the lever.”

Kenderdine is forgiving of the various controversies that have surfaced around Biden’s campaign, suggesting they make him a more appealing candidate to take on Trump.

“I like Mr. Biden,” he said. “It’s mainly because the guy doesn’t care what he says and he speaks his mind. So many of these politicians speak with a guarded tongue. He doesn’t. He still has my nod for the Dems.”

Chris Cozzone, a 56-year-old garage owner and Trump voter in Little Britain, a rural area near Lancaster, 70 miles west of Philadelphia, also believes Biden is the most palatable Democrat in the race. “Out of all the Democrats, he would probably be my favorite because he’s not so far left,” he said.

“He’s a little more on the conservative side. Medicare-for-all and free college for everybody” — programs favored by other candidates that Biden has dismissed — “that would be awesome, but it’s just not reality.”

But he describes himself as a “die-hard” Republican who is unlikely to turn against Trump next year.

“I think he is turning the economy around and doing a really good job. Things are still getting done, despite the opposition.”

Bill Neff, 65, who owns a local security company in Lancaster, is one of the few voters in the area to admit he deeply regrets voting for Trump in 2016. “He’s not for the common person, he’s for the elites and the very wealthy and therefore he’s bleeding money from working people,” he said.

He is undecided on which candidate he will back in the crowded Democratic field. “But I will not vote for Donald Trump again,” he said. “No way.”