DETROIT — Four years after an election that came down to Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the campaigns of Joseph R. Biden Jr. and President Trump are waging an intense and surprising battle in those states for votes among a crucial demographic: Black men.
The outreach is vital for Democrats, who lost the three industrial states in 2016 partly because of diminished support from Black voters. They worry that not enough Black men will cast ballots — or that Mr. Trump might make enough marginal gains to help in close races.
The Biden campaign is now heavily focused on getting Black men to turn out to vote: Mr. Biden and former President Barack Obama are campaigning together for the first time this year on Saturday in Detroit and Flint, Mich. Mr. Biden is also running a series of ads featuring young Black men from Flint, tying local issues to the election. One walks through the history of Black voter suppression; another starts with Mr. Biden saying “Black Lives Matter, period.”
In Philadelphia, where Hillary Clinton had strong but not surging support from Black voters in 2016, the Biden camp also deployed Mr. Obama for a day of campaigning, sent Senator Cory Booker to Sunday round tables in the city’s northern neighborhoods, and relied on leaders like Sharif Street, a state senator and the son of former Mayor John F. Street, to canvass neighborhoods multiple times.
The Trump strategy has aimed to erode Mr. Biden’s support with a negative campaign. One television ad replays Mr. Biden’s controversial “you ain’t Black” comment, in which he questioned how Black Americans could support Mr. Trump, and reprises his role in the 1994 crime bill. A set of 40 digital ads claiming “Joe Biden Insulted Millions of Black Americans” has been running across the country for the past week.
The battle for Black men is one of the more surprising developments in a race that has been defined by the monthslong stable lead of Mr. Biden over Mr. Trump in many polls. Republicans are making a concerted push to cut into the Democrats’ base of Black support in battleground states, as well as drive up their own numbers of Latino voters, and some polling suggests the effort has been moderately successful.
Mr. Biden held a 78-11 percentage point lead among Black men in a recent national poll from The New York Times and Siena College, a comparatively weak number for a Democratic nominee whose ticket includes the first Black woman selected as vice president. (Many undecided Black voters are widely expected to vote Democratic, though a number could well stay home.)
Mr. Trump won roughly 13 percent of Black male voters in 2016, according to exit polls; some Trump advisers are aiming to get closer to 20 percent next week.
Among some Black men, there is a belief that Mr. Biden carries similar baggage to Mrs. Clinton: a policy history that includes helping pass legislation that contributed to large increases in Black prison populations, and a party history in which they feel Democratic candidates are more concerned with winning Black voters than improving the conditions of Black communities.
Demery Charleston, a 42-year-old who lives in a suburb of Detroit called Harper Woods, said he was voting for Republicans because he believed they spoke out more forcefully against violence within Black communities and the incidents of looting that occurred during a summer of protests.
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“I’m talking about the real Detroit. I don’t see these protesters marching in these neighborhoods,” Mr. Charleston said. “A 7-year-old girl gets shot in the neighborhood, and there’s nothing. It’s real hypocrisy,” he added, referring to a girl who was shot by someone driving by her Detroit home in May.
Mr. Obama, for one, tried to respond to such criticism of Democrats by delivering a direct message to Black men at a recent event in Philadelphia: Don’t get cynical.
“What I’ve consistently tried to communicate this year, particularly when I’m talking to young brothers, who may be cynical of what can happen, is to acknowledge to them that government and voting alone is not going to change everything,” Mr. Obama said. “But we did make things better.”
To understand why some Black men would be drawn to a president who has expressed racist sentiments, stoked white grievances for political gain and was the political face of the birther lie against America’s first Black president, is to grapple with the complexity of the Black experience. In interviews with more than two dozen Black men across swing states, including Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, they described voting rationales as a complex web of race, gender and socioeconomic status — with policy concerns like health care, immigration and the coronavirus pandemic.
Todd Holden, who joined an hourslong line on the final day of early voting in Philadelphia, said he was primarily driven to vote against Mr. Trump, but he was also drawn to Mr. Biden’s promise to act on climate change.
“Biden and Harris have a huge climate change platform which is big,” Mr. Holden, 29, said. “From 2016, up until this point, it’s seemed almost like a mission to roll back everything Obama has done with the environment.”
Several Black men, including ones backing Mr. Trump, said voting was a means to an end: a determination on how best to work a system that has not historically prioritized Black advancement.
“We’ve been voting for Democrats for 50 and 60 years and no progress,” said Marco Bisbee, who attended Mr. Trump’s recent rally in Lansing, Mich., along with his 13-year-old son, Quavion. “Y’all had eight years of a Black man as president — he ain’t give you what you need.”
Mr. Bisbee, one of the few Black men at the rally, voted for Mrs. Clinton in 2016 but now plans to vote for Mr. Trump. He decided to support Republicans after what he described as unfair treatment of Brett Kavanaugh, Mr. Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, who was accused of sexual assault during his confirmation hearings.
Hakim Rahman, a 23-year-old from Philadelphia, said his disillusionment with Democrats began soon after he voted for Mrs. Clinton in 2016, when he grew frustrated with what he felt was unfair pressure put on Black voters to vote Democratic.
“Just seeing Joe Biden saying ‘you ain’t Black,’ it’s exposing that the Democrats feel entitled to the Black vote,” said Mr. Rahman, as he waited in a nearly two-hour line to vote early outside City Hall. He decried what he viewed as a distorted media portrayal of Mr. Trump as a racist, and said that efforts like the bipartisan criminal justice bill signed by Mr. Trump and economic opportunity zones had helped Black Americans.
Make no mistake: Democrats are likely to win an overwhelming share of Black votes, and the vast majority of votes from Black men. Mr. Trump’s efforts — whether it’s showcasing Black speakers at the Republican National Convention, highlighting endorsements from Black rappers like Lil Wayne and Ice Cube, or emphasizing his support for historically Black colleges and universities — are attempts to cut into Mr. Biden’s share of Black voters.
In the Philadelphia region, that G.O.P. effort strikes a nerve. In 2016, the overall turnout in the predominantly Black neighborhoods of north and northwest Philadelphia was down compared with 2012, even as late campaign events featuring Mrs. Clinton drew huge crowds.
For the past few weekends, Representative Dwight Evans, whose district includes north Philadelphia, has driven a caravan of cars around the neighborhoods, with placards declaring “Black Voters Win Elections” duct taped to the sides, making pit stops in grocery plazas to talk to voters and pass out literature, reminding them that the neighborhoods were once food deserts until Democrats fought for changes.
“Remember when Trump said, particularly to the Black community, in August of 2016, ‘What the hell do you have to lose?’ Well, you could lose this building, these blocks,” Mr. Evans said, standing in the parking lot of a ShopRite off Fox Street.
Mr. Street, who is vice chair of the state Democratic Party, canvassed recently in Chester, a majority Black city in Delaware County, just outside Philadelphia. He knocked on doors with John Kane, a white plumber running for State Senate, on a block that had low turnout in the last election.
To Mr. Street, the battle was less about convincing Black voters in this city to vote for Democrats. It was simply convincing them to turn out.
“These folks that we convinced today by showing up, for the Black and brown community, it’s not Trump or Biden,” Mr. Street said as he made a second lap down 8th Street. “It’s voting for the Democrats or staying at home.”
Election experts and forecasters said there was little chance Mr. Trump’s inroads with Black men could swing a state election outcome unless he also attracted more suburban voters, seniors and college-educated whites.
The Trump efforts have also inspired some backlash.
“All the Black radio stations I’m calling into, we get to kind of a conversation where people feel deeply offended that there’s an active effort to suppress their vote or create obstacles for them voting,” said Mr. Booker, the New Jersey senator.
In Wisconsin, Democrats are seeking to energize the Black men in Milwaukee who may have sat out the last election — while holding on to white voters in other parts of the state. Even among more progressive men, who did not see Mr. Biden as their top choice in the Democratic primary, there was a sense that ousting Mr. Trump was the first step to seeing real change.
Throughout Michigan, a state Mr. Trump narrowly won in 2016 but is trailing by several points now, some voters said a key to Black turnout was whether younger Black men got involved.
Darren Mosley, a 54-year-old Detroit resident who attended an event with Senator Gary Peters this week, said Democrats made reaching young voters harder, but not impossible, by nominating an older candidate.
“We need some young blood,” Mr. Mosley said. “Look at the age of senators and people in office. They don’t have young minds. We need younger thinking so we can move forward and keep young voters encouraged.”
For some Black male voters, their argument for Mr. Biden at this point was one of harm reduction — that supporting Democrats would lower the chances of life getting worse, even if it didn’t ensure that everything would become better. But that was a calculation rejected by Mr. Bisbee, the man who brought his son to Mr. Trump’s rally in Lansing.
Asked about some of the president’s most controversial comments about race, including using profanity to describe some African countries, Mr. Bisbee dismissed it.
“Was he not telling the truth?” he responded.
But even he had limits to his support. He laughed when asked whether he thought the president was a role model.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” he said. “But we elected him to do a job.”
He and his teenage son then walked into the rally.
Astead W. Herndon reported from Detroit, Lansing, Mich., and Milwaukee, Nick Corasaniti from Philadelphia and Chester, Pa., and Kathleen Gray from Detroit.