Democratic operatives: Protests following George Floyd’s death helped elect Biden

Protestors outside the Minneapolis Police Department Fifth Precinct last summer. THe protests led to a surge in voter registrations and anti-Trump enthusiasm, say some Democratic operatives. Photo by Macklin Caruso/Minnesota Reformer.

George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer caused protests and then riots and a once-in-a-generation racial reckoning. And it may have caused something else: The election of Joseph R. Biden to the presidency. That’s the view of Tom Bonier, a veteran Democratic political strategist and chief executive officer of TargetSmart.

When the pandemic spread across America in mid-March, Democratic voter registration slowed to almost a stop in most states as election officials closed offices and in-person voter registration halted. Republicans, who have been less cautious about the pandemic from the start, were registering more voters than Democrats.

Then Derek Chauvin ground his knee into Floyd’s neck, video leaked out, and protests erupted and spread across the world. And while headlines focused on riots and fires and unrest, less noticeable was the fact that at many of those Black Lives Matter protests, activists were registering protesters to vote.

And the tables began to turn.

“We saw this big spike in registration among Democrats and independents across the country,” Bonier said. “That was the first indicator that this movement was having a positive impact from a perspective of organizing Democratic campaigns.”

Georgia showed the first signs of a surge in Black voters, who accounted for 35% of early ballots for their June primary before the BLM demonstrations — and 47% afterward. Intensity among young voters also surged, with the early vote share for people under 30 almost doubling in a day, according to Bonier.

Popular support for BLM, which had been hovering in the low 40s nationally, suddenly shot up to the 60s. Biden’s lead also widened in the polls around the same time, and stayed pretty steady until Election Day, Bonier said.

Jeff Blodgett, a longtime Democratic-Farmer-Labor operative and senior advisor to the Biden campaign in Minnesota, said BLM organizing was a net positive for Biden. After the initial Floyd protests, organizers added voting to their messaging, and in June Biden met privately with the Floyd family before his memorial service, as mass protests spread.

The overall favorability rating of BLM went up and stayed positive in Minnesota, Blodgett said. The huge advantage Biden ran up in the Twin Cities shows the impact of that voter organization, with a huge voter turnout overwhelmingly for Biden.

President Donald Trump reacted to the movement with a law and order mantra, and in an episode that became infamous, he had federal forces clear out protesters so he could hold up a Bible in front of the damaged, boarded up St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. He ran ads warning the movement (i.e. Black people) would come to the suburbs and make it unsafe. The gun-toting St. Louis couple that confronted BLM protesters were glorified at the Republican national convention.

This merely served to highlight Biden’s theme of  being a uniter, not a divider, Blodgett said.

“Donald Trump’s exploitation of the events that happened here actually turned people off,” he said. “He turned it into this Black and white fight about crime and suburbs, but people were actually looking for voices that were going to be more responsible and understand the anger that was out there and be more nuanced and more of a problem-solver, which is the way Biden presented himself around that same time.”

On Election Day, the suburbs swung dramatically against Trump compared to 2016.

The BLM movement had a 13-point net favorability rating in Georgia, and Biden won those voters by “landslide margins,” he said.

Given that the margin of victory was so narrow in some states — such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada — any factor may have been decisive. But the George Floyd/BLM movement was a net positive in all those states’ exit polls, and Biden won those voters overwhelmingly.

“It’s hard to look at it and say he would have won, had he not had that level of energy and enthusiasm,” Bonier said. 

In Minnesota exit polls, 52% of voters had a favorable opinion of the BLM movement, and 44% unfavorable, and Biden won 89 to 10 among those voters, Bonier said.

“So that was a very clear defining line in this electorate, and the fact that more people had a favorable opinion than unfavorable seems, in the end, to tell the story,” Bonier said. “Had that movement not gained in popularity… then I think you’d be seeing a very different result.”

Voter turnout among Blacks, Latinos and college-educated white people —allies of BLM — surged well above 2016 levels, Bonier said, and exit polls showed in key battleground states BLM had an over 50% favorability rating, and Biden won those voters by a huge margin.

The events around Floyd’s death were not entirely salutary for Democrats, however. People like U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who is the Democratic whip, and state Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, believe rhetoric around “defunding” or “abolishing” police cost the Democrats seats in the U.S. House and the Minnesota Legislature. 

But a majority of Americans broadly agree with the BLM movement and need for police reform, Bonier said.

As for those who say Democrats may have lost some House seats in conservative districts at least in part due to BLM, Bonier tweeted, “If you define your party based on what you think might work in one district in Oklahoma, you’re doing it wrong.”