Joe Biden on the campaign trail in Iowa.Gage Skidmore / Flickr

You would have been forgiven for assuming — as many pollsters and commentators did — that Joe Biden’s Democratic Party had a fairly easy task. Americans went to the polls amidst the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak, under a president who consistently downplayed the risk of the virus and baselessly asserted that the country was “rounding a corner” as cases climbed higher and higher. In the face of inflamed racial tensions, Trump displayed a similarly flippant attitude, selectively condemning violent acts while showing no desire to behave as a unifying force.

While the pandemic continues to ravage the US, and while 61% of Americans worry about the prospect of a civil war, surely what voters want most is a steady hand. Biden arguably filled this role. A tried and tested, moderate Democrat with a reputation for “working across the aisle” and a knack for changing his key stances with the times, Biden’s pledge to ‘return the country to normalcy’ should surely have resonated with anyone tired of Trump’s bombastic, divisive style, especially with working class people of colour, who have been disproportionately affected both by the pandemic and its economic fallout, and by the eruption in racial tensions.

And yet, the polls were wrong again. The Democrats’ hopes of a landslide were dashed early on, giving way to a nail-bitingly close race beset by legal challenges from the Trump campaign. Even now that Biden has conclusively won the election, it is clear that this was not the spectacular rebuke to Trumpism which the Democrats were dreaming of. Trump proved resilient in such Democratic targets as Florida and North Carolina, and the nearly 71 million people who voted for him — some 9 million more than in 2016 — are not going anywhere. Come 2024, if voters do not feel that the Biden administration has helped to heal the deep fissures in American society, some variant of a Trumpist Republican party may well sail back into power — propelled, as in 2016, by the discontent of the ‘left behind.’ The Democrats’ position is far from secure.

“ is clear that this was not the spectacular rebuke to Trumpism which the Democrats were dreaming of.”

With an ethnic minority electorate steadily increasing in size, the Biden campaign could have a great deal of confidence from the knowledge that they had black and Latino votes ‘in the bag’ – except they didn’t. Trump won a greater proportion of non-white voters than any Republican in the last 60 years. In swing states, it was Trump’s gains among non-white working class voters that made him competitive — even while he actually lost votes from his previous core demographics. Trump’s 20-point erosion of the Democratic lead in Miami-Dade, pivotal to his retention of Florida, was owed in large part to the Cuban community, who backed him by a 13-point margin. Aware that the young black and Hispanic electorates are increasingly competitive, the Trump campaign has made efforts to appeal to them through the Black Voices for Trump coalition and other initiatives. FiveThirtyEight suggests that these efforts have borne fruit.

Why exactly has this happened? Many minority voters resent being lumped together as a monolith. Biden’s clumsy remark that “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or for Trump, you ain’t black” (for which he later apologised) epitomises the assumption that minority voters who do not support Biden’s party don’t know what’s best for them; it is patronising and dismissive of all the nuanced concerns ethnic minority voters have about supporting the Democrats. A party claiming to promote racial justice should not treat minority voters who have reservations about them as if they do not understand what’s in their own interests.

“Minorities’ views on the matter should not be assumed any more than white voters’ are.”

This error is even more concerning given the immense diversity of minority voters’ opinions. To many of these voters, Trump’s stances on immigration and law and order are not immediately inherently objectionable. One focus group study published in the New York Times found that a typically Trumpist message on immigration and law and order (which made reference to “illegal immigration from places overrun with drugs and criminal gangs” and “fully funding the police, so our communities are not threatened by people who refuse to follow our laws”) was rated as “convincing” by around 3 in 5 white and black respondents, and an even higher proportion of Latinos. While many Latinos support making avenues to US citizenship easier, some also want to improve border security and dissuade migrants from crossing illegally – and may not associate these policy proposals with racism. Minorities’ views on the matter should not be assumed any more than white voters’ are.

Trump enjoyed a relatively strong reputation for economic management before the pandemic, having taken credit for very low unemployment rates and higher average disposable incomes until March this year. This record was a central part of the Trump campaign’s pitch to minorities: on Trump’s campaign website, a Black Voices for Trump representative touts the “3 million new jobs” and “500,000 additional black-owned businesses” created under Trump’s first term, and the ‘Platinum Plan for Black Americans’ promises to “increase access to capital, fuel Black owned businesses [and] cut taxes.” One black Trump voter told Vox that “I got a higher pay rate, the highest I’ve ever been paid before. So I definitely think I want to stick with this president, because my money’s looking a little better.”


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However questionable you find Trump’s claims, it is telling that his economic, outcome-driven approach found some success. It suggests that some minority communities in the US care about results, not rhetoric. Taking positions on immigration and crime which are less associated with racist attitudes is not enough — especially for the minority voters who do not feel that previous Democratic administrations have helped them. To avoid losing any more minority votes in 2024, Joe Biden and his party must show that they can go beyond empty slogans and performative activism, and proactively persuade minority communities that they can deliver sustainable prosperity and security.