To be fair, Joe Biden wouldn’t be the first Democratic presidential candidate to fumble this demographic. But also to be fair, Biden’s not doing a lot to grab it, either. The outcome of the 2016 election hinged on turnout, and Hillary Clinton failed to excite the same voters who turned out for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Losing hundreds of thousands of votes in the “blue wall” states cost Clinton and the Democrats the election, and a significant portion of the votes left on the table in 2016 were African-American.

This time around, the combined Trump/RNC campaign has put a lot more resources into GOTV efforts and at least some level of outreach to black voters. Even apart from that, though, Democrats have begun to worry about a repeat of 2016 in more ways than one, Politico reports:

In response, Democrats have urged African Americans to channel their frustrations into voting. But for younger black voters, many of whom are protesting in dozens of American cities, that requires trust in a system that they believe has done little for them or their families. Joe Biden is struggling to connect with young voters, particularly those of color, according to public and private polling — a serious problem for the former vice president that started during the presidential primary.

This week’s demonstrations are an inflection point for the Democratic Party that could engage these voters or further alienate them from the political process, according to more than a dozen Democratic pollsters, strategists, organizers and lawmakers. The difference-maker for Democrats in November, they said, isn’t whether President Donald Trump will peel off a small proportion of black men as he’s trying to do — but whether Biden can persuade young black voters in battleground states not to sit out the election.

“This is a moment where people are disillusioned in institutions,” said Branden Snyder, executive director of Detroit Action, a grassroots organization that works to mobilize black and brown voters from economically marginalized communities. “I’m worried that a lot of our first-time voters, and a lot of them are young voters, are going … to completely opt out of the system.”

It’s probably too soon to model that, while cities are still being disrupted by both the aftermath of looting and COVID-19. It’s possible that the outrage seen at the moment will create political energy for turnout. It’s also very possible that the inevitable frustration and disillusionment that sets in when it becomes clear that “reform” will have to take place locally rather than nationally will have precisely the impact Democrats fear.

However, that doesn’t mean Biden can’t make matters worse — and he already has:

Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who worked on Obama’s campaigns, called the protests an “opportunity to reconnect and reengage this cynical and disillusioned segment of the electorate.” But he warned that for Democrats, young black men “were the most problematic” for the party, since that group’s participation dropped the most from 2012 to 2016.

“But there’s also ample opportunity for Democrats to [screw] this up,” Belcher added.

Biden had a golden opportunity to reach precisely this segment of Democrats’ most loyal voting bloc by talking with Charlamagne tha God on The Breakfast Club. Charlamagne’s audience is young and politically engaged, primarily African-American (but of course not limited to that demo), and looking for reasons to turn out against Donald Trump. Biden responded to that opportunity by getting into a childish feud with Charlamagne and proclaiming himself the arbiter of blackness depending on political choices of voters. After being called out on that, Biden decided to blame Charlamagne for “baiting” him rather than simply admitting he was wrong for getting defensive.

That is practically the definition of [screwing] this up. Democrats are right to be worried about it, especially in the middle of this feud, which now has Charlamagne pointing out Biden’s “very racist” track record in the Senate to his young and engaged audience. However, Democrats only have themselves to blame for it, too. Joe Biden was the most establishmentarian candidate in the 2020 sweepstakes, and the problems with his track record in a populist environment were painfully obvious from the beginning. Biden might have won the nomination with the help of black voters, but that came very late in the overall game when the options were Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Amy Klobuchar, and only after James Clyburn intervened to rescue Biden’s bid.

And needless to say, Democrats certainly hope this point gets lost amidst the noise:

Four years ago, Trump only got eight percent of the African-American vote, and probably won’t get much more than that this time around. If Democrats can’t get younger black voters to turn out, though, it won’t matter, especially in battleground states. One has to wonder whether picking a woman of color, as is the current strategy, would even matter now, given the obviously manipulative quality of such a choice after all these missteps. It might, but don’t forget how little identity politics mattered in 2016, or for that matter in 2008 for the GOP with Sarah Palin on the ticket, too. If the candidate doesn’t generate enthusiasm on his/her own, running mates are irrelevant.