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Many midwest Democrats stayed home in 2016. Will they turn out for Biden?

Chris McGreal in Cleveland, Ohio
·9-min read

Jamal Collins took the trouble to vote four years ago even though, like a lot of people in Cleveland, he didn’t imagine it would change very much.

Eight years of deflated hopes for Barack Obama had left the African American teacher wondering if any president could really make that much difference to the lives and livelihoods Collins saw around him. He even thought there might be an upside to the election of Donald Trump.

“I’m kinda glad it happened,” Collins said a few weeks after the new president moved into the White House. “It really is an eye-opener on what’s really going on. The real truth about America. The real truth that there’s still a lot of racism. People voted for this sort of stuff.”

A lot of people in Cleveland chose not to vote. Driven by disillusionment with Obama and dislike for Hillary Clinton, turnout fell in the overwhelmingly Democratic city where nearly half the population is black, as it did in others across the midwest, helping to usher Trump to victory.

This year, Collins sees it differently.

“Trump’s presidency, the last four years, have been absolutely horrible. Trump blew life back into white supremacy. Him being so open and unapologetic about the stuff he says, and things that he’s done, really gave that power,” he said.

“Plus coronavirus, because now we have tens of thousands of people, especially in the black community, really suffering from Covid-19. We have an economy decimated to almost the proportions of the depression. The loss of jobs and loss of wealth is worse than I’ve ever seen before.”

Collins will be voting for Biden and encouraging anyone else he can to do the same because the election hangs in good part on the turnout in major midwestern cities. Trump decisively won Ohio four years ago after the state had voted twice for Obama. But with the president holding a lead of just 1% in the aggregate of recent polls, the result in Ohio may come down to just a few thousand votes in Cleveland.

Four years ago, Clinton won nearly 50,000 fewer votes than Obama in Cuyahoga county, which includes Cleveland and its small satellite cities, in part because so many Democrats stayed home.

In neighbouring Michigan, Democratic turnout in Detroit fell by about 60,000 votes in 2016. Trump took the state with a majority of just 10,704 votes. Similarly, the drop in turnout between presidential elections in the Democratic stronghold of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was more than double the number of votes – just 23,000 – that Trump won the state by.

Those victories were key to the president winning the electoral college and taking the White House.

The Democrats have reason to hope Biden can turn that around on 3 November. More than 8m people have registered to vote in Ohio, the second highest on record after Obama’s 2008 race. The number registering as Democrats has surged 20% in the state this year while Republicans have fallen 6% although they still have a slight lead in total registrations. Little more than half of the electorate are independents.

Two-thirds of the drop in Republican voters is in Cuyahoga county. Those retreating from Trump include blue collar workers and white women living in the Cleveland suburbs.

“Voting for him was a big mistake,” said a shop assistant, Lynn, who is married to a factory worker, after a campaign worker knocked on her door. “We both didn’t like Hillary and thought Trump would be good for bringing jobs back. I lost it with him that first year. I realised he was completely unfit to be president. But my husband hung on, believing in him until Covid. We’re both voting Biden just to get him out. I don’t know what Biden will do but at this point I don’t care.”

Like others who once backed Trump and have turned away she did not want to be identified because “we have some crazy neighbours around here”.

Lynn is among about 2.5m Ohioans who applied for absentee ballots, double the number in 2016. Nearly one quarter of the electorate has already voted in Cuyahoga county, whether by post or in person.

“What we’re seeing right now is astronomical volumes of people voting by mail,” said Erika Anthony of Cleveland Votes, a nonpartisan get out the vote group. “Weirdly, despite the fact that every sort of tactic that we normally would be deploying to get people to vote has been compromised because of the pandemic, I will say there’s been an increased excitement when we are engaging with residents, potential voters.”

But for all that, less than half of the population of Cleveland registered to vote. Some in the city have never been to the polls. Others turned out for Obama but not since.

“Voter apathy is a real thing,” said Anthony. “If I’m a black person particularly, I really am not seeing anything that’s demonstrating to me that democracy is working for me.”

Related: 'I'm more enthusiastic now than in 2016': meet the voters standing by Donald Trump

Cleveland is among the most racially segregated cities in the country and one in three residents lives below the poverty line. It struggled through the Obama years, never really recovering from the 2001 recession or the national economic collapse seven years later. Then came coronavirus.

Amanda King, an African American volunteer working to register voters in Cleveland said some voters are more motivated to turn out this year.

“I think that among young and educated voters, there’s a feeling that this is our duty to vote in this election because it’s consequential. It feels more pressing than the Trump-Hillary election,” she said. “I think for some people, their bubble has been burst. After the Obama presidency they were thinking we’re a progressive society, things are great. And then this four years of Trump has really made some people come to the realisation that our country is not the democracy that it could be or should be.”

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But King, who runs an art collective, Shooting Without Bullets and who helped curate City Champions, the Guardian’s week-long focus on the city last year, said she met far less enthusiasm in one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, Hough, where she visited barbershops, a popular gathering place for discussion among African American men.

“When I do voter registration in Hough, which is a majority black neighbourhood that has been disinvested from, redlined, a lot of that population is functionally illiterate, it’s a very different response over there. There’s a lot of people who are not interested and who don’t believe in electoral politics,” she said.

“Many of their arguments were that whether it’s Trump, whether it’s Obama, whether it’s Bush, whether it’s Clinton, they’ve never cared about me. Me choosing them as leadership has never changed the conditions in which I’m living. And you look at that neighbourhood, and you look at those statistics, and you say, you’re damn right. I understand that frustration.”

King said dire predictions for four more years of Trump are doing little to galvanise people in neighbourhoods like Hough.

“That might work for white women who voted for Trump last time but that’s not going to work necessarily for the people on the fence. You can’t say to someone who has nothing, to someone who is constantly in a state of struggle, well this guy is gonna make it worse. There’s no more fear to be had. They’re not selling greatness here, they’re selling well, it’s worse or worse,” she said.

“I’m thinking that there’s a lot of barbershops around the midwest where this conversation is happening. It scares me because I know that we need to turn out for this election.”

Detroit and Milwaukee also saw a drop in voting in African American neighbourhoods in 2016 that local activists in part attributed to a lack of interest because Obama was not on the ballot or disillusionment because he was able to achieve less than they had hoped, in part because of Republican obstruction.

Collins grew up in overwhelmingly black East Cleveland where his father worked for General Electric and his mother was a bus driver.

“People feel like their vote is not going to make a difference. And people may be too concerned with other stuff that’s going on right in front of their face versus getting into politics. They don’t trust politicians, never have,” he said. “Up until Obama, there were never a lot of people voting around here because I don’t think they really saw them making a change.”

Collins, who teaches at a school and a community centre, said coronavirus forced his classes online but some of young people he teaches don’t have computers. Others lack decent internet connections. They might rely on their phones for social media but that doesn’t work for interactive lessons.

“These are the kinds of problems a lot of their families are focused on, not voting,” he said.

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Democratic politicians remain confident but have a different concern.

Kent Smith is running unopposed for re-election as a state representative in Euclid, a majority black small city within Cuyahoga county that is effectively a suburb of Cleveland. He is less worried about turnout than whether the votes get counted.

“I really think that in 2020, because of the global pandemic and the change in how people are voting, it’s really going to be turnout versus the number of votes that are ruled ineligible,” he said.

Smith said a combination of voters not being used to filling out postal ballots – a common error is to put the date instead of date of birth – and efforts by Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, Frank LaRose, to throw roadblocks in the way of voting by post which is more favoured by Democrats, has raised concerns of large numbers of ballots being discounted.

“Projections of turnout are healthy for the Democrats. It’s a matter of how many of those votes will actually count,” said Smith.