Formerly uninterested in politics, Georgia activist now focuses on rallying occasional voters

Davante Jennings voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton on his first ballot in the 2016 presidential election. Republican Donald Trump’s election that year, he claims, transformed him from an optimistic college student to a cynical cynic overnight.

Jennings moved away from a system he believed overlooked people like himself, a young Black guy who grew up politically aware in Alabama but held little visible power. It took him nearly six years to see that view as self-defeating.

At 27, Jennings is not only eager to cast his second presidential vote for Democratic President Joe Biden, but he is also fully invested as an activist, top aide to a Georgia state lawmaker, and regular volunteer for the non-profit New Georgia Project, which recruits potential voters.

“I was like, I’m not voting for this if it’s all rigged and it doesn’t even matter,” he told an interviewer. “Now, I can speak to folks who have been battered down by the system and say, ‘I understand. Let us talk about why this is crucial.”

Jennings’ route highlights the tens of millions of Americans who political campaigns frequently refer to as “low-propensity voters,” or those who never or seldom vote in general elections. In 2020, around one-third of all eligible Americans did not vote. In 2016, it was closer to four out of ten.

With presidential elections sometimes determined by narrow margins in a few states, those voters might decide whether Biden is reelected or Trump completes his White House comeback. Biden’s team has a significant head start in reaching out to such people, but both campaigns, as well as political action groups from across the political spectrum, intend to create a broad organizing footprint in order to maximize support in the fall.

“It is so critical to have an actual campaign where people can feel like they see a part of themselves,” said Roohi Rustum, Biden’s national organizing director, during an interview.

Biden and Trump both owe their victories to occasional, dissatisfied voters who frequently feel unrepresented.

Democrats’ unreliable supporters are younger and more likely to be non-white. They helped Biden win Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin in 2020, four years after Trump flipped them in his defeat of Clinton, while also adding Georgia and Arizona to his list.

Rustum’s efforts to reconstitute that coalition currently involve more than 100 field offices, 300-plus paid staffers, and approximately 385,000 volunteer recruiting calls until the end of March. The team is emphasizing Biden’s policy record, arguing that he is a more compassionate and stable character than Trump. However, the campaign is prioritizing a network of volunteers to make the case within their own circles, particularly in places with low attendance.

Formerly uninterested in politics, Georgia activist now focuses on rallying occasional voters

“No talking point is going to be as persuasive as someone they know in their community,” Rustum remarked. He went on to say that “it’s actually your pastor, your cousin, your neighbor.”

Jennings does not personally support Biden’s candidacy. However, his involvement with the New Georgia Project, founded a decade ago by Democratic power player Stacey Abrams to encourage Black turnout in Georgia, reveals a similar mentality.

He contended that voter concerns frequently cross party and demographic boundaries in ways that the national debate does not reflect. “There’s not as much difference as people think between poor and Black and poor and white,” he went on to say. But the message is still important. “When someone looks like you and sounds like you, there’s a certain baseline of trust.”

Trump has increased Republican support among white voters without college degrees, which helped him convert many Rust Belt states that Democrat Barack Obama won twice in his presidential campaign. Trump also hopes to increase support among Black and Latino men.

This cycle, he trailed Biden in fundraising and organizing. He is in the process of reorganizing the Republican National Committee and setting up a field operation. But Republicans argue Trump is the main draw, so nuts-and-bolts organizing is less vital to his overall appeal than it is for Biden.

“President Trump connects with people’s frustrations, on the economy, the border, and their values,” said Georgia Republican Chairman Josh McKoon. “That draws people to him.”

Jennings agreed that the idea has some merit. Some young, nonwhite voters, he claims, are drawn to or intrigued by Trump’s bombast against the same establishment powers they distrust, just as some of Trump’s white fans do.

“Yeah, they’re starting to think they’ve been manipulated, lied to, and taken advantage of on the Democratic side, like we’re just expected to vote for Democrats,” Jennings said, echoing a portion of Trump’s appeal. “They’ll say, ‘At least we know what we’re getting from Trump.’ That’s not what I think, but it’s what I hear on sometimes.”

Especially in less affluent communities, both metropolitan and rural. According to Jennings, his chats generally revolve around basic quality of life issues such as a lack of excellent job possibilities, a scarcity of grocery stores with fresh, inexpensive food, and limited access to medical care. Younger voters are dissatisfied with marijuana criminalization. He said that older people sometimes mistrust Democrats’ emphasis on LGBTQ rights.

According to Jennings, the first guideline of convincing a doubtful nonvoter is consistency.

“We knock on doors with a single mom and three children running about. She is stressed. And we’re coming in and saying, ‘Hey, I need you to make time; this is critical.’ Some individuals don’t want to hear about it. “I get it,” Jennings replied.

“But if I knock on that door once and nothing happens, I’ll return a few days later. And again. What it starts to do now is say, ‘Oh, you really care. I’ve told you no, but you keep coming back, as if you really care. Because I do.

Breaking through, he continued, usually entails narrating his own narrative and linking concerns to the vote box.

Jennings stated that his comeback to politics did not occur until 2022, during a cordial talk with another Black man, who was older than him but still of working age and could not afford health insurance even with a job. Georgia is one of the Republican-controlled states that has not completely extended Medicaid under Democrats’ 2010 federal statute, the Affordable Care Act.

“I realized, hey, you’re dissatisfied with the healthcare system. How do you update the system? “You have to have the votes,” Jennings remarked.

Jennings received an invitation to a New Georgia Project event for Black males at the same time that U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock was running for reelection as Georgia’s first black senator. He attended and quickly began volunteering, learning along the way how to let potential voters lead the debate.

That does not imply talking first, or even at all, about Biden, Trump, or any other contender, Jennings stated. After all, he skipped the 2018 Georgia governor’s election, in which Abrams became a national headliner in her bid to become the first Black woman in American history to be governor, as well as the 2020 cycle, in which Biden narrowly won Georgia and the state delivered Democrats Jon Ossoff and Warnock to the Senate.

“Of course, the president is important,” Jennings said. “But sometimes the president isn’t the one who can fix the problems right in front of you.”

Ranada Robinson, research director of the New Georgia Project, lauded volunteers like Jennings and explained why she urged the group not to use the term “low-propensity voter.” Instead, the group uses the term “high-opportunity voters.”

She described the prior classification as “a legacy of transactional politics,” referring to the old system of political powers that appeared only during elections.

The new terminology, she added, is empowering: “We can be a more inclusive democracy if we acknowledge that maybe, you know, the old-school techniques don’t work on everybody.”

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