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President Joe Biden speaks to guests at the Pieper-Hillside Boys and Girls Club on March 13, 2024, in Milwaukee.
Milwaukee CNN  — 

On a recent chilly Sunday, a retired Milwaukee police sergeant leaned into the window of a gray Mazda in a strip mall parking lot where some of the post-church crowd was coming for lunch, chatting up the driver for almost 10 minutes.

The 2024 election could hinge on the efforts of people like Kimberlee Foster — or at least President Joe Biden’s campaign hopes so.

In the run-up to Tuesday’s Wisconsin primaries and local elections, Foster is part of a live “relational organizing” pilot program Biden’s campaign has been running here as it tries to tackle the drop-off in Black turnout over the last decade, along with the cultural and technological changes that have made it harder than ever to reach those who have checked out.

“When you knock on the door, some people want to take the leaflet and close the door so they can get back to watching football,” Foster said about going from house to house. “When you come at them this way, they’re more likely to say, ‘I hadn’t thought about voting, but now I see why it’s important to you.’ You’re praying that feedback leads them to a polling place.”

It’s no accident this program started in Wisconsin: Almost any path to victory for Biden or former President Donald Trump will run through this state, which Biden won by fewer than 21,000 votes in 2020 and Trump won by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016 — with the Black vote significantly lower than expected both times. North Milwaukee is home to the most concentrated Black population in the state, but Black engagement here has been so low that Democratic organizers are finding that half the people they’ve been reaching weren’t in their voter files, which means they never even heard from campaign staff trying to rally votes in 2020 or before.

It’s not just Wisconsin, though. CNN’s conversations with two dozen top Biden campaign aides, elected officials across the country and voters on the ground in several key states detail a frantic fight that is much bigger than what’s going on in north Milwaukee. Because the president’s hopes in almost every battleground state depend on cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, Charlotte and Atlanta, his chances of winning may come down to whether he can reverse the trend among Black voters — particularly Black men.

And while leading Black Democrats mock and decry Trump’s claims that he is appealing to Black voters by promoting his branded sneakers and saying they can now relate to him because he has a mug shot, they more quietly acknowledge that he seems well-positioned to capitalize on that disaffection all the way through November.

Already, there have been polls showing the presumptive GOP nominee increasing his share of the Black vote. But when he lands in Wisconsin on Tuesday for the first time in nearly two years, he will be in predominantly White Green Bay.

What Foster and other volunteers are doing is just one piece of a strategy that is simultaneously back to basics and adapting to challenges specific to 2024, when attention is more fragmented than ever; trust in politicians has plummeted; and reaching people is harder because of how common it’s become to ignore calls and texts from unknown numbers because people assume they’re scams.

It’s also about pushing back on what Democrats say are racially targeted voter suppression laws like voter ID requirements and limiting polling places that have hit Black voters particularly hard: the Biden campaign chose Milwaukee as the place to start precisely because of what Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler calls Republicans “really casting the ‘Eye of Sauron’ as the central place to try to keep turnout down.”

Vice President Kamala Harris is set to launch a new tour in the spring with a specific goal of talking up economic opportunity for Black men as she makes appealing to Black voters one of her prime missions for the campaign. And Biden has deliberately put them front and center himself, going to the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, as part of his 2024 kick-off. That visit was complete with an introduction from the local bishop exhorting the crowd, “Which one would Martin Luther King support? In a race between President Biden and Donald Trump, which one would James Baldwin support? Which one of those two candidates would Marcus Garvey go for? If you put Donald Trump and Joe Biden on a ballot in front of Ella Baker, Toni Morrison and Fannie Lou Hamer, which one of those two candidates would the giants of our community support?”

Now Biden’s travel schedule is being built in part around maximizing his time in Black communities, often with Black media interviews attached. His campaign has already invested millions in targeted advertising. There are new programs, like the “Power to the Polls” group — headed by former Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, a 37-year-old Black man who lost a 2022 Senate race in the state — which has earned praise from local leaders for already knocking on 50,000 doors in Black, brown and working-class communities across the state this year.

But that’s just the start.

Conversations are underway with an array of Black celebrities and other influencers the campaign hopes will publicly get behind the reelection effort not simply with endorsements, but by creating their own content.

Ahead of the South Carolina primary, the Biden campaign experimented with a slate of “Aid to Persuade” online ads urging Black voters to sign up for programs made available by the administration — from student loan cancellation to aid available through the American Rescue Plan — in the hopes that being connected with benefits would pull them in as voters.

Training sessions for volunteers at campaign offices are no longer focused on rehearsing scripts for cold calling voters, but instead on how best to text and post to their personal contact groups — and in some cases, how to build their own TikToks and other Biden-promoting material.

We actually feel pretty bullish that this is a way to get into communities that are traditionally hard to reach from organizing programs,” said Rob Flaherty, the Biden deputy campaign manager who is overseeing many of these efforts. “It is incumbent upon the campaign not to force people down a track that they don’t want to go.”

How Trump speaks ‘directly to that apathy’

Democratic operatives and community leaders have been worrying about the erosion for years. Many Black voters who turned out for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 watched his presidency with pride — but without feeling much change in their own lives. Political leaders and activists alike talk about hearing over and over again that they needed to be there for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and again for Biden in 2020, but their lives didn’t seem to change with who won or lost.

Some drifted to Trump, and his explicit, “What the hell do you have to lose?” pitch to Black voters. Some just stopped showing up at all.

“You’re going to have some people that are able to vote who — not just because of Joe Biden, not because of Donald Trump — just feel disengaged from the political process, and so they’re not going to do it,” said Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson. “I have people in my own family, my own friends network, who probably would not vote in this election, but they will be voting because I’m going to be on their tails between now and November.”

Trump’s share of the Black vote went from 8% in 2016 to 12% in 2020, according to CNN exit polls from each election. A New York Times-Siena College poll from October found that 22% of Black voters in six battleground states, including Michigan, said they would support Trump in 2024.

Local Black leaders are trying to counteract that slippage in support for Democrats by connecting with people where they are.

“For me, what this is about is letting them know, ‘We can’t give up. We can’t throw in the towel, and we’re not going to do it,’” said Rep. Don Davis, a freshman Democrat who’s defending an Eastern North Carolina district where Biden will need strong turnout if he’s to flip the state. “We’re doing everything to just provide hope, so that they know and they’re not forgotten in this process.”

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, a 37-year old Black Democrat whom Biden invited to ride with him during his trip there in March, said Trump is “speaking directly to that apathy” — even if he can’t articulate exactly why Black people should vote against Biden.

“It’s our job at the local level and grassroots level to connect these dots, because we’re the ones that they trust more at the moment,” Crowley said.

Sitting at a hipster bar in her Milwaukee district after a canvassing kickoff, Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore said she needed a cold glass of water because she was “burning up” thinking about what she sometimes hears from voters who say they don’t feel any difference from having Biden in office.

In her speech to volunteers, Moore talked about all the “BMWs” she liked seeing around — “Black men working,” she explained, on projects like replacing lead pipes so children in their communities can have cleaner water, with money out of Biden’s infrastructure bill.

She touted the expansion of Obamacare, debt relief and affordable housing, plus promises to renew the childcare tax credit, and said, “For Joe, I want people to have faith and gratitude.”

But the malaise is real among Black voters she talks to, Moore said. So is the impact of what’s going on in Gaza –— among younger Black voters angry about Biden’s handling of Israel’s war against Hamas and among a widening range of Black voters who see parallels between Palestinians’ experience and their own lives. (Activists opposed to Biden’s policy are urging people to vote “Uninstructed” in Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary to amplify the message that a portion of Democratic voters in other states have been sending.)

And Moore said she worries that some of the larger Democratic rhetoric this year, particularly as Republicans are trying to spin those positions, could “point shave” Black turnout.

Republicans “know they could never win the majority of Black voters. But if they can depress the vote with rhetoric like, ‘They’re nothing but abortionists’ — and there are people in the Black community that share the anti-choice position or other culture wars like LGBTQ rights,” Moore argued, “all they got to do is just get a few people off base.”

Community leaders say they’re still not convinced

Leaders of several Black grassroots organizations say they haven’t seen much difference from the president and his aides so far.

“A lot of times with the organizing we do, it’s harder to get the people who are not registered or not likely to vote,” Krysta Jones, co-convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable Virginia chapter, told CNN. “We need to take that time to register them and then continue that conversation.”

“They are still reaching out to Black men like it’s 1960-something,” W. Mondale Robinson, the founder of the Black Male Voter Project, complained about the Biden campaign.

“If you’re looking for some middle-aged or older Black men with jobs that can pay $40, $50 for haircuts, great, go there. But that’s not your voting problem,” Robinson said. “Your voting problem is those living on the corner, those with their backs against the wall, those who are struggling to make a living.”

Since Biden has announced his reelection efforts, his team has held two meetings specifically focused on outreach to Black men. Several people who attended the meetings told CNN they were productive, and the Biden campaign team knows they need to do more to reenergize this base.

Harold Love, a Tennessee state representative who is the incoming president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, attended one of these meetings and called it productive.

But he added that when the campaign tries to reach out to Black male voters, it needs to focus more on what the administration has done for them and less on what’s at stake if Biden loses.

“It’s more important in this campaign to talk about if you vote, these issues will continue, like (canceling) student loan debt,” Love said.

Rep. Lauren Underwood, an Illinois congresswoman who has already spent one weekend in Wisconsin and will be on the road trying to boost Black turnout, said what she has been stressing is the need to focus on how “a Black man, head of his household, wants to be treated with respect as he navigates around the world.

“It’s not just cannabis or just criminal justice reform — which are important for some people,” Underwood said. “We have real pockets of Black wealth — and those individuals who are building a secure foundation for themselves and their families may not typically hear a conversation directed to them. There’s opportunity there.”