Conservative group launches a quiet effort to drive Black voters away from Biden

Mailers targeting voters in South Carolina hit Biden on a proposed menthol cigarette ban. The group behind it plans to deploy the issue in swing states next.

Menthol flavoring reduces the harsh taste and irritation of cigarette smoke, essentially making it easier to start smoking and more difficult to stop, experts say.Anthony Behar / Sipa USA via AP file

President Joe Biden could be facing a turnout problem in 2024. And an experimental stealth campaign during South Carolina's Democratic primary highlights one way players in the Republican Party will be trying to exploit Biden's weaknesses.

A conservative group funded by anonymous donors sent mailers to approximately 75,000 Democratic primary voters in South Carolina, a heavily Black electorate, ahead of the Feb. 3 primary there, criticizing Biden over his administration's push to ban menthol cigarettes. Black smokers are more likely to use menthol cigarettes, according to research cited by the FDA, and the potential ban has divided civil rights groups.

Biden won the South Carolina primary overwhelmingly, with 96% support — but the bigger question is whether the mailer, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, pushed recipients to stay home instead of turning out. That kind of result, or pushing voters to consider a third-party option, could have a much bigger effect in the fall in a close swing state.

Building America’s Future sent mailers to approximately 75,000 Democratic primary voters in South Carolina.Building America's Future

A source familiar with the strategy driving the group, Building America's Future, told NBC News that while it's still analyzing how the mailers affected recipients’ votes in the South Carolina primary, the nonprofit is planning to reinvest in a similar strategy later this year. 

The group is planning to spend more than $1 million on efforts aimed at pushing base Democratic voters away from Biden in the general election, primarily in battleground states. It plans to target predominantly Black voters in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia and Wisconsin with a mix of television, digital, radio and direct mail. But the group may also target young voters, too, as it did during golf's WM Phoenix Open this month by focusing on concerns about potential bans on nicotine pouches like Zyn.

Targeting base demographics for the other party and encouraging members to waver is nothing new, and it's a major tactic of both parties: The nonprofit arm of Democrats' main Senate super PAC financed ads hitting Republican candidates from the right in 2018, for example. In 2016, the Trump campaign used Hillary Clinton’s defense of a major crime bill in the 1990s, when she used the term "superpredators" to refer to some criminals, in a swing-state ad campaign seen as an attempt to soften Clinton’s support among her base.

But what could be new in 2024 is how receptive voters might be to messages urging them to abandon Biden or former President Donald Trump. Trump has long struggled with certain traditional Republican demographics, and Biden's declining standing with Black voters and younger voters, among other groups, has been notable in recent polling.

Much of political strategy and commentary focuses on flipping supporters from one candidate to another. But just subtracting a vote from the other side is a part of political campaigns, too. And the volatile political environment could entice a lot more of this type of activity in the eight-plus months between now and Election Day — with targeted mailers, text messages or digital ads more likely to be the favored below-the-radar approach than the TV ads seen by millions across the swing states.

"Leadership is about setting priorities. Instead of banning menthol cigarettes, President Biden should: Stop the flow of illegal drugs in our country; make groceries more affordable; make college more affordable," the Building America's Future mailer says.

Polling commissioned by the group found that a majority of South Carolina Democratic primary voters supported the proposed menthol cigarette ban, but a significant share either disapproved or didn't have feelings about it. Those voters, Black voters especially, had a more negative reaction to language saying that Biden had "criminalized" menthol cigarettes. And the numbers highlighted a key trend seen in other polls: Biden's comparative weakness among younger Democrats.

The source adds that the group believes this issue can help soften Biden with these voters in part because of progressive criticism about his “tough on crime” past, and "make Biden work harder to earn their vote, further dividing the coalition," adding that they believe some of those voters could be winnable for Republicans.

Big money, and a little-known spender

Because Building America’s Future is a nonprofit group, there’s not much known about it. The group’s most recently available tax paperwork, from 2021, shows it is affiliated with a handful of prominent Republican consultants, including Generra Peck, who served as the initial campaign manager for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential effort. 

While the group predates DeSantis' campaign, The Washington Post reported last year that Building America's Future played a role in the broader fundraising apparatus for the pro-DeSantis effort.

It's not the nonprofit's first foray on the issue of menthol cigarettes. Fox News reported last year that the group had targeted a handful of congressional districts, as well as three states, with similar messaging.

The Biden administration first announced in 2021 that it would ban menthol-flavored cigarettes. 

“Banning menthol — the last allowable flavor — in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives, particularly among those disproportionately affected by these deadly products,” then-Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said in a statement at the time.

More than 80% of Black smokers smoke menthol cigarettes, compared to 30% of white smokers, the Food and Drug Administration said in its initial statement announcing that it was working toward a ban. 

That’s why the issue has particular salience for the Black community. And it's why the fight over the policy, which has been repeatedly delayed, has drawn in serious cash, as well as divided prominent Black leaders and groups.

Attorney Benjamin Crump and others have warned that the ban could put Black smokers at risk by making them targets for law enforcement. During an interview last year with American Urban Radio Networks, Crump referred to the case of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 when an NYPD officer put him in an apparent choke hold after he was accused of selling loose cigarettes. 

“We have to remember that when you give police another reason to confront Black people, it’s very likely they are going to use it in a criminal matter,” Crump said.

Others have argued that, by pushing the ban, Biden risks alienating his base ahead of the 2024 election — a tack taken by tobacco giant Altria in polling shared with National Review in November.  

Supporters of the ban argue that getting rid of menthol and other flavorings can help smokers quit and stop many, particularly younger people, from starting to smoke in the first place. Prominent Black supporters of the ban effort — including NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones and former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter — have appeared in ads for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids rallying people to back the policy. 

In one video, Johnson bucked the idea that the ban could have political risk for Biden. 

“It’s important for the long-term health of our community. It is a red-herring argument at this ninth hour to say it will create political risk. The concerns of the Black community is the price of gas, bread, the future of their children, the safety of their communities,” Johnson said. 

“We’re the largest civil rights organization in the Black community in 47 states across the country," he continued. "No one has raised this as a political issue."

CORRECTION (Feb. 29, 2024, 3:24 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the title of the NAACP’s Derrick Johnson. He is the president and CEO, not the chairman.