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'A stronghold of the Democratic Party': How older Black voters could propel Biden to victory

For some Black voters over 65, the national unrest we've seen in 2020 is a reminder of civil rights movement they lived through, and how much more needs to be done.
Image: The pink silhouette of an older woman, next to a younger woman and a child, casts a ballot as coronavirus spores loom.
"My story around voting goes way back where it is viewed as a right that you must carry out," said Lottie Shackelford.Jamiel Law / for NBC News

Oglatha Ingram takes the potential hazards of the coronavirus seriously — but she has no reservations about waiting in line to vote in the presidential election.

"I think America's integrity is at stake," said Ingram, 67, a social worker in Pennsylvania. She said she plans to wear two masks to cast an in-person ballot for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Black voters are expected to vote for Biden over President Donald Trump by about an 80-point margin, according to polling estimates. But political analysts say Black voters over age 65 in particular are expected to play a pivotal role in deciding Biden's fate.

"Black older voters are truly the stronghold the Democratic Party has in terms of consistency, reliability and turnout," said Chryl Laird, an assistant professor of political science at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

That energy could be amplified dramatically this year, experts, Democratic Party activists and rank-and-file voters say. Spurred by memories of the civil rights movement and the struggle for voting rights, senior Black voters tend to view voting as a mode of activism and an instrument for overcoming racial tension. And Black voters not only tend to align ideologically with Biden, but also to describe Trump as a deeply concerning source of division and a threat to the country's stability and values.

Among Democrats, Black voters skew more moderate than white and Latino voters. And among Black voters, seniors represent a particularly moderate and conservative Democratic constituency, which naturally aligns with Biden's centrist campaign, Laird said.

Surveys show that there is a generational divide in the Black community, in which older Black people are substantially more supportive of Biden, more trusting of the Democratic Party and more enthusiastic to vote than younger cohorts of Black people.

For example, according to a poll conducted by the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape polling initiative in early September, 97 percent of likely Black voters over age 65 said they supported Biden, 2 percent backed Trump and 1 percent said they were undecided. By contrast, among 30- to 44-year-old likely Black voters, 73 percent supported Biden, 16 percent supported Trump and 11 percent said they were undecided.

Some of the divergence seems to be a function of trust in establishment party politics to change society, experts say. An African American Research Collaborative poll this summer found that in response to the statement "I do not always like Trump's policies, but I like the way he shows strength and defies the establishment," 35 percent of 18- to 29-year-old Black voters reported agreement, while only 10 percent of Black voters ages 60 and older did so.

Hakeem Jefferson, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, said the Democratic primaries — in which older Black voters voted overwhelmingly for Biden, while Black voters under 30 favored Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. — illustrated the divergent political outlooks of older and younger Black Americans.

"There appears to be this divide between a kind of pragmatic politics and a more movement-driven, burn-down-the-system, do-it-over kind of politics," Jefferson said.

But layered on top of that comfort with the Democratic Party is a sense of responding to the emergency regarding the prospect of Trump's re-election.

"Usually people don't approach elections with fear. You may have your preference as to whom you want to win, but you don't have that fear that if the other person wins that so much will be destroyed," Lottie Shackelford, women's caucus chair of the Democratic National Committee, said of her mobilization efforts among senior Black voters. "That's what stands out most for me, this fear that people are having."

In interviews, many older Black voters and activists described Trump's handling of the pandemic as a critical motivator and pointed out that Black communities are uniquely vulnerable to Covid-19.

Brenda Hale, 74, a former nurse who heads the NAACP branch in Roanoke, Virginia, described the casualties from the pandemic as unacceptable.

"We cannot survive another four years of this, another four years of economic destruction, another four years of suffering from Trump's mistakes with the coronavirus ... even another year of not having a plan to handle Covid-19," she said.

"The health and wellness of the country — that is at stake," she said.

Trump's acknowledgment that he is trying to interfere with mail-in ballots has been a great cause of concern for older Black voters, as well.

"The voter suppression that's going on around the country is just unbelievable. It's surreal the way they're trying to keep us from getting this man voted out," said Beatrice Swoopes, 74, who lives in Shawnee, Kansas.

Given America's long history of disenfranchising Black voters, Republican attempts to curtail voting rights can strike a particularly sensitive chord for older Black voters who experienced firsthand how racism has been used to limit access to the voting booth.

Shackelford, who is 79, said she first became politically conscious when, as a child, she watched her father help fellow Black citizens cover the cost of poll taxes in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Ingram remembers being just 7 years old when she entered her first voting booth. She recalls closing the curtain and standing in the booth with her father as he cast his ballot in Baltimore. He grew up in segregated Mobile, Alabama, well before the civil rights movement; voting was something he took very seriously and something he wanted his children to take seriously, as well. "My story around voting goes way back where it is viewed as a right that you must carry out," she said.

Jefferson, the Stanford political scientist, said it's plausible that perception of voter suppression could further increase Black voter turnout. "Anger is a mobilizing emotion," he said.

According to the African American Research Collaborative poll, 90 percent of Black voters 60 or older agreed with the statement "Trump is a racist" — 11 points higher than the percentage of 18- to 29-year-old Black voters who hold that view.

For many Black voters who have been paying attention to politics their whole lives, the 2020 election is bigger than just a contest between two candidates. In their eyes, it's about defending the country from sliding into irreversible chaos.

"I know this is hyperbolic, but it's not beyond reality that we're close to civil war if this man gets back in office, because Black people, to me, we're tired," Swoopes said. "We're not going to go backwards, we're just not. And I think a lot of people are willing to put their lives on the line."