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Politics

Biden wants to win North Carolina. Improving turnout among Black voters is key

Kimberly Hardy speaks at a DNC event at the Impact Center World Tabernacle Church in Rocky Mount, N.C., on May 23.
Andrea Ellen Reed for NPR
Kimberly Hardy speaks at a DNC event at the Impact Center World Tabernacle Church in Rocky Mount, N.C., on May 23.

Updated May 31, 2024 at 20:50 PM ET

In North Carolina, a potential battleground state this year, Democrat Kimberly Hardy is chasing the answer to one question: “Why are Black folks not voting right now in this county?"

As the second vice chair of North Carolina’s Democratic Party, Hardy is traveling through Eastern North Carolina, to rural counties with large Black populations, working hard at earning votes for Democrats up and down the ballot.

Black voters have traditionally been a critical part of the Democratic Party’s coalition. But polls this year show a softening of that support, which the Biden campaign is acutely aware of. This week as it launches “Black Voters for Biden-Harris,” which the campaign describes as a summer of mobilization, to earn votes and not take them for granted.

Hardy's 30-county tour has taken her to a community college, a gas station, a kindergarten graduation and a barbershop in the community of Rocky Mount called Head Changerz.

What she’s hearing is a lot of people who feel like their votes don’t really matter — that the system doesn’t work for them. And she’s trying to convince them that there is great power in their votes.

At Head Changerz, Hardy started off with that question about why people aren’t voting.

“There’s no wrong answer,” Hardy said. “I want to hear anything.”

And after a little hesitation, the floodgates opened. Barber Cherita Evans told Hardy elections come and go and not much changes, even the historic election of former President Barack Obama.

“I just was happy we had a Black president,” said Evans. “He had swag. He looked good.”

Cherita Evans -- aka Storm the Barber -- passionately shares her views on voting in the Black community with Dr. Kimberly Hardy (not pictured) while cutting college student Christian Pounds' hair at Head Changerz Barber Lounge in Rocky Mount, N.C., on May 23.
Andrea Ellen Reed for NPR /
Cherita Evans -- aka Storm the Barber -- passionately shares her views on voting in the Black community with Kimberly Hardy (not pictured) while cutting college student Christian Pounds' hair at Head Changerz Barber Lounge in Rocky Mount, N.C., on May 23.
Dr. Kimberly Hardy points to a Joe Biden campaign ad appearing on the TV while she talks about the pros of voting for the Biden/Harris ticket at Head Changerz Barber Lounge in Rocky Mount, N.C., on May 23.
Andrea Ellen Reed for NPR /
Kimberly Hardy points to a Biden campaign ad appearing on the TV while she talks about the pros of voting for the Biden/Harris ticket at Head Changerz Barber Lounge in Rocky Mount, N.C., on May 23.

But beyond that, she said, her life didn’t really change for the better.

“Once the emotionalism is gone, you still feel stuck,” said Evans. “You still feel like this is hard.”

Christian Pounds, a college student, sitting in Evans’ chair getting his hair trimmed, said he didn’t have a lot of faith in the system. Neither of them is all that enthusiastic about the election.

“I don’t like Trump,” said Evans, adding that she thinks he’s an “idiot.” Pounds said he doesn’t like Biden either, though, and Evans didn’t disagree.

It’s a choice of the lesser of two evils, Pounds said, echoing a refrain of many people his age.

A Biden campaign ad came on the shop’s muted TV. But Hardy was already pressing Biden’s case, talking up Biden’s accomplishments, the infrastructure bill, capping insulin prices, having the first woman of color as vice president. They weren't convinced. Evans complained that her insulin is still unaffordable.

This sort of disillusionment is exactly what the Biden campaign is fighting to break through. And it isn’t easy.

But then the conversation turned to how they plan to vote, and Evans didn’t hesitate. She’s a one-issue voter this year, and that issue is abortion.

“I’m voting for Biden, because I don’t want no man telling me what to do with my body,” she said. “That’s the only reason why.”

Dr. Kimberly Hardy, second vice chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, talks with a bookstore employee about voter apathy at the Nash Community College Campus Store in Rocky Mount.
Andrea Ellen Reed for NPR /
Dr. Kimberly Hardy, second vice chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, talks with a bookstore employee about voter apathy at the Nash Community College Campus Store in Rocky Mount.

Pounds, the college student, said he’ll probably vote for Biden, too.

Hardy, the North Carolina state party official, has been having a lot of conversations like this, leaning into the criticism, taking notes in her little notebook to present back to local politicians and other party leaders. She’s met with the Biden campaign, too. And she hears the same things again and again.

“Which means it's real, right?” Hardy asks. “Because I'm not just hearing it from one or two people. I'm hearing it from folks all over the place, that it feels like nothing changes when they vote. And so it does make people say, ‘Is anyone listening?’ ”

The view from a nearby community

In neighboring Wilson, N.C., state House candidate Dante Pittman recently stopped in to see his regular barber, and to talk politics. Kahmahl Simmons said people in his chair talk about former President Donald Trump all the time. They see him on the news and are in disbelief that he’s running again. Simmons said customers ask, “How can people allow it, stuff like that?” But there’s not much talk about Biden.

Dante Pittman, 28, is the Democratic candidate for the state House in Wilson, N.C. He says there's a "lot of pressure" to run his campaign well, because if voters turn out for him, they could help other Democrats on the ballot in this district where turnout among Black voters sagged in 2022.
Tamara Keith / NPR
Dante Pittman, 28, is the Democratic candidate for the state House in Wilson, N.C. He says there's a "lot of pressure" to run his campaign well, because if voters turn out for him, they could help other Democrats on the ballot in this district where turnout among Black voters sagged in 2022.

“The impression I've been getting when I've been talking with folks is that it's not so much as just a Biden versus Trump,” said Pittman. “It's Biden versus Trump versus people that say, ‘We don't even want to get involved. We're not going to vote this time.’ ”

Simmons agreed that for a lot of people, it’s “so easy to sit it out.”

Trump is making a play for Black and Latino voters, and recent polls show him performing better with them now than he did in 2020. Top Democrats remain skeptical that there is going to be a dramatic shift from blue to red among Black voters, but they are worried about turnout.

The seat Pittman is running for flipped from Democratic to Republican two years ago, in large part because of a collapse in turnout among Black voters. The district has a slight Democratic registration edge and is about 40% Black.

“We have some people here who are trying to portray an image as if, you know, folks have just changed their party affiliation and will never vote for a Democrat. That's not what happened,” said Pittman. “What happened is folks did not feel as though they had a reason to come out and vote. They weren't motivated to come out to the polls. And that's why we saw the change that we did.”

Now, he’s trying to change it back, one conversation at a time. He stopped in a second barbershop in downtown Wilson. Style Masters is the barbershop he went to as a child. There’s an autographed picture of Obama hanging on the wall, and a Dante Pittman campaign sign out front. CJ Ward, who used to cut his hair, still works there.

Ward, who voted for Biden in 2020, says he’s planning to vote for Trump.

“I know Trump, he has his little wild side to him,” said Ward, who, in addition to working as a barber, has a trucking business. “But he did try to help out business owners. That’s just how I feel.”

Pittman and the rest of the barbers in the shop didn’t contain their surprise. But Ward said he’s made up his mind.

Pittman is going to keep having these conversations in his community, about things like the schools and economic development, and he says if voters show up for him, it could help higher up the ticket as well. Even if they aren’t motivated by the rerun presidential race at the top of the ticket, he’s hoping they will be motivated to vote for a member of their community running in a state House race, like him.

Signs at a DNC event in Rocky Mount, N.C., on May 23.
Andrea Ellen Reed for NPR /
Signs at a DNC event in Rocky Mount, N.C., on May 23.
DNC Chair Jamie Harrison at the DNC office opening at Station Square in downtown Rocky Mount, N.C., on May 23.
Andrea Ellen Reed for NPR /
DNC Chair Jamie Harrison at the DNC office opening at Station Square in downtown Rocky Mount, N.C., on May 23.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” said Pittman in an interview. “It’s a lot of pressure because we know we have to do our job here, and that it has effects here for the governor’s race, for the presidential race.”

Why eyes are on this part of the state

This region in North Carolina is getting national attention, in part because if voters get engaged, it could make a big difference in a state with narrow margins and an energized Republican electorate.

In Rocky Mount, volunteer precinct captains and local elected officials packed into a small room with an air conditioner that couldn’t keep up to celebrate the opening of a Biden campaign office, one of 13 in the state.

“You are powerful here in North Carolina,” said Democratic National Committee Chairman Jamie Harrison, who was on hand for the opening. “You are now a battleground state.”

In an interview with NPR, Harrison, who himself visited a barbershop before the opening, said he met a man there who insisted he had never once met a Black Trump voter. CJ Ward notwithstanding, Harrison said he’s skeptical that Black voters are moving in a big way toward Trump. But he is clear-eyed about how close this election is going to be.

“You can never take any campaign for granted,” said Harrison. “You got to go out there and you got to make your case. And I can tell you on the Democratic side, we're doing the work. We're opening the offices.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Politics
Tamara Keith
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. In that time, she has chronicled the final years of the Obama administration, covered Hillary Clinton's failed bid for president from start to finish and threw herself into documenting the Trump administration, from policy made by tweet to the president's COVID diagnosis and January 6th. In the final year of the Trump administration and the first year of the Biden administration, she focused her reporting on the White House response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her reporting often highlights small observations that tell a larger story about the president and the changing presidency.