In this March 9, 2020, file photo Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit.
CNN  — 

In early March, Angela Lang and her team at Black Leaders Organizing for Communities had just added 17 new workers to knock on doors in Milwaukee’s predominantly black North Side ahead of the state’s primary. Then, came the coronavirus outbreak.

Overnight, the group had to shift to virtual phone banking and turn to text-messaging apps to reach voters. “We had to train our folks over the phone, which was a little bit difficult,” said Lang, who started BLOC in 2017 to engage voters in some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

“Some folks got it,” she said of the training, “and there are some folks that are just not good with technology. We had some older folks that we’ve had to show them how to turn their ringer down on the new iPhone that they just got.”

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Around the country, independent groups like Lang’s organization, political candidates and activists are confronting the Democratic Party’s biggest challenge in years. They must quickly retool their ground game to reach and mobilize the African American voters who will be crucial to former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential ambitions and who have been hard hit by the country’s worst pandemic in a century and its economic fallout.

Black voters form the backbone of the Democratic Party’s voter base: 93% of African Americans backed President Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012. And this year, black voters in South Carolina helped propel Biden to a landslide victory in the state’s primary, resuscitating his once-struggling campaign and putting him on the path to the Democratic nomination.

Now, Biden’s campaign, the Democratic National Committee and groups on the left are scrambling to adapt to the new reality of trying to engage those voters from afar. From his base at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden has hosted phone calls with black clergy and black women’s groups. His wife Jill recently “campaigned” virtually in Detroit with black Democratic Party activists.

And on Thursday night, the DNC took its “Chop it Up” series – first staged in barbershops before the pandemic – online. Nationally syndicated radio host Russ Parr, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, and other African American leaders hosted the virtual town hall to discuss economic issues confronting black men.

“Nobody has ever had to campaign for a general election in the midst of a pandemic while everyone is at home,” said Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to Biden’s campaign. “But we still have to meet people where they are and give these individual communities the attention that they deserve.”

“While black voters helped propel us and put us over the top in this primary, we’re not taking anything for granted,” she added. “We are intent on earning every single vote this fall.”

Even before the pandemic upended the normal campaign routine, boosting African American voting topped Democrats’ priorities. After surging to a record high in 2012, black turnout in a presidential election declined for the first time in two decades in 2016 when Obama was no longer on the ballot, according to The Pew Research Center.

And in two crucial states that flipped to President Donald Trump in 2016 – Michigan and Wisconsin – black voter turnout fell. In the end, Trump captured Wisconsin by roughly 23,000 votes. The margin was even smaller in Michigan, where he won the state’s 16 electoral votes by fewer than 11,000 votes out of more than 4.5 million cast.

Personal touch

Cliff Albright, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, said voter outreach posed challenges – even before the outbreak.

“But on a scale of 1 to 10 … this has definitely taken us into 9, 10 or 11 levels,” he said, as activists have had to abandon face-to-face interactions and find socially-distanced ways to educate voters about the new absentee and mail-in voting requirements.

“It’s even harder for older folks,” he said. “Some folks just want that personal contact. They want to be able to see and touch you.”

Black Voters Matter helped drive the black turnout in Alabama that proved pivotal to Democrat Doug Jones’ upset in the 2017 special election for the US Senate. In 2018, the group barnstormed Southern states by bus to mobilize black voters in person.

Albright said his organization now will rely heavily on phone banking in the weeks ahead and hopes to reach as many as 400,000 voters in Pennsylvania, a key battleground won by Trump that will hold its rescheduled primary June 2.

These days, he said, the group’s interactions with voters are just as likely to include wellness checks and advice on how to protect themselves from the coronavirus as discussions about how to request an absentee ballot.

The virus and the disease it causes, Covid-19, have had a disproportionate toll on the African American community, who are being hospitalized and dying at higher rates than their white counterparts.

A CNN poll released Tuesday found a majority of black adults say they know someone who has been diagnosed with coronavirus; 54% say so compared with 38% of white adults and 36% among Latino adults.

African Americans are also far more likely to give the government negative marks for its efforts to prevent the spread of the virus: 79% say the federal government is doing a poor job controlling the spread, compared with 50% of whites.

Black vice-presidential nominee?

But Quentin James – who runs The Collective PAC, a group focused on boosting African American representation in elective office – said the Democratic Party can’t count on disdain for Trump and concern about the federal government’s response to the virus to drive black turnout.

“Very few people saw Joe Biden as the most exciting candidate in the Democratic primary,” he said. “I think they saw him as the most pragmatic choice and that’s why he won. But no one is reaching into their piggy banks trying to find money to give to his campaign or signing up to volunteer the way we did for Obama.”

A surefire way to energize black voters, said James: Pick a vice presidential nominee who will excite them. Should Biden select Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost Georgia’s gubernatorial race in 2018, or his former primary rival, California Sen. Kamala Harris, “There’s literally tens of thousands of black women who will sign up to help in that campaign,” he said.

Both graduated from historically black institutions – Abrams from Spelman College, and Harris from Howard University, he noted. And Harris has a vast network of likely supporters via her sisters in Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s oldest black sorority.

“Listen, black woman are the most likely voters in this country from a demographic perspective,” James said. “Why not unleash that? Why not give them one more reason to engage in this process?”

Sanders said that message has been heard loud and clear by the campaign. But so far, Biden publicly has not tipped his hand about his choice.

Biden “has said his vice president is going to be a woman,” Sanders told CNN this week. “Most importantly, it will be someone who is simpatico, as he likes to say, someone with whom he can have a relationship that he and President Obama had.”

“It could be a black woman,” she added. “There are very capable, competent and amazing black women who could potentially be the vice-presidential pick. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Black men as key target

It’s not just outreach to older black voters that preoccupies activists.

Democratic Party officials are looking for new ways to stem any defections to Trump among African American men. Trump won 13% of the black male vote in 2016, compared to just 4% of black women, exit polls show.

And Trump’s campaign has made a concerted effort to peel away African American support, opening offices in urban centers, running ads in black newspapers in key states and hosting online talks with his “Black Voices for Trump” coalition that feature stalwart supporters, like social media personalities Lynette “Diamond” Hardaway and Rochelle “Silk” Richardson.

The campaign also spent millions on a Super Bowl commercial that featured an African American woman, Alice Johnson, who was released from prison in 2018 after Trump commuted her sentence for a non-violent drug offense.

“I’m really, really nervous about this election,” Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress, said on Thursday’s “Chop it Up” townhall sponsored by the DNC. He cited new poll numbers showing Trump with an edge in the crucial battleground states that will determine the electoral college.

“We’ve got to pay close attention to that 13%,” he said, referring to Trump’s support among black men nearly four years ago.

Clyburn said he’s pressing churches, black fraternities and Masonic halls to “adopt a precinct” and assign their members to help turn out 15 or 20 voters each. “Let’s make sure these people vote,” he said. “We cannot afford to lose this election.”

Old-school tactics

In Michigan, the state Democratic Party established a permanent ground force of organizers following Hillary Clinton’s stinging loss in 2016, and there are signs those investments may have paid off: Turnout in the March Democratic primary soared, up roughly 30% over the last presidential primary.

This fall, “if turnout returns to normal in Detroit – even if it’s just to pre-Obama levels – that ought to provide a really strong basis for Joe Biden to carry the state,” said Peter Wielhouwer, a political scientist at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

The pandemic has forced the Democrats’ current field staff of 60 in Michigan to become “virtual organizers,” said Lavora Barnes, the chairwoman of the state’s Democratic Party.

“We’re doing thousands and thousands of calls,” Barnes told CNN on Friday. And voters, indoors as they comply with Michigan’s stay-at-home orders, “are picking up and responsive,” she said.

Back in Milwaukee, where nearly four in 10 residents are African American, Lang’s group is making calls, sending text-messages and brainstorming about “old-school” ways to reach North Side residents, such as posting voting information in gas stations.

Her group launched in November 2017 to find ways to reengage African Americans in politics after turnout slumped. BLOC’s “ambassadors” operate year-round and spend their time listening to residents about their day-to-day concerns, Lang said.

BLOC now has 50 canvassers focused on the North Side. (Lang’s group has not yet endorsed in the presidential election, but she expects to do so after the convention.)

Right now, much of their work has shifted to phone calls and online with Facebook Live events and virtual town halls. Lang is hoping her team can resume face-to-face interactions in some fashion in the months ahead – perhaps by knocking on the doors and then standing on the sidewalk to maintain a safe physical distance.

But she expects any in-person canvassing will go more slowly than originally planned as staffers encounter residents reeling from the impact of the virus – and longing for human interaction after months of social distancing.

“We’ll probably have to adjust our goals because the conversations may be a little bit longer,” Lang said. “We may not be able to hit those 12 doors an hour.”

CNN Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.