DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - In the Near North Side neighborhood, a black community in the heart of Iowa’s state capital, it would be easy to miss that the nation’s first presidential nominating contest is only days away.
For months, Democratic candidates have buzzed around the state - one of America’s whitest - courting supporters ahead of the Iowa caucuses on Monday. But in this Des Moines neighborhood, there is barely a campaign sign in sight.
Residents here, in two dozen interviews, said they felt overlooked by the Democratic candidates, a troubling sign for a party that will need the support of African-American voters for its eventual nominee in the Nov. 3 presidential election.
The interviews are no substitute for professional polls aimed at Iowa’s black Democrats, but they give a sense of the mood among one of the party’s key demographics in a battleground state.
While many residents wanted to see Republican President Donald Trump defeated, few believed a Democratic president could improve their lives.
Contrary to national polls that show Joe Biden is the most popular Democratic candidate among African Americans, only two of the 24 interviewed said they preferred former President Barack Obama’s vice president.
Twelve said they supported U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, citing his focus on economic justice.
Black voters account for about a quarter of the national Democratic primary electorate. Some question why Iowa, which is roughly 90% white and 4% black, gets an outsized opportunity to influence the presidential race every four years compared to more diverse states that better reflect the overall country.
Derrick West, a 40-year-old barber, is skeptical of politicians but thinks maybe a woman in the White House could bring real change.
“These politicians, they want our vote, they come and use us. After they get our vote, they don’t help us. Iowa is always the key state to win, but it has some of the smallest number of African Americans. Even if every single African American was qualified to vote here, what impact could we have? Actually, I haven’t seen any of the candidates in this neighborhood. I think they are scared of what we would tell them. I hope a woman wins. We’ve had men all these years, and where has it got us? We haven’t figured out racism in America yet. Any woman president would do for me. And I like (U.S. Senator Elizabeth) Warren. She’s a fighter.”
Ako Abdul-Samad, 68, a state legislator and founder a non-profit organization aimed at helping low-income minority communities, remembers how Obama had campaign offices and yard signs in black neighborhoods during his 2008 bid to become the first U.S. black president.
“In 2008, they had hope. There’s no candidate that’s doing it this year. The question here is: How can we trust you? I’m more supporting Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The people I’ve been talking to, Biden is not really resonating. For the African-American community, he’s taking us for granted because he was Obama’s vice president. Yes, we want to see Donald Trump defeated. But for African-Americans, even more important, is jobs, our public safety. Can my son leave home and make it back alive?”
Ivette Muhammad, a 52-year-old social worker, said she was not upset that the once-diverse field of Democratic candidates has dwindled to white front-runners.
“Because Barack Obama was met by such opposition and racism, there is a great deal of concern that that would repeat itself. Barack Obama met such degradation. I love Tom Steyer, and I love Bernie Sanders. They seem most committed to social, economic and criminal justice. I mourn over the social injustice and the criminal injustice. America should be ashamed of itself. There seems to be no moral compass to put in place policies to alleviate this.”
Des Moines security guard Duke Kelly, 55, has two basic wishes: access to better jobs and expanded bus routes to get him there.
“I travel by bus, but a lot of the better-paying jobs are not on the bus routes...I’m not sure any of these candidates can do what they say they want to get done. When they get in office it’s about what Congress allows them to do. They won’t be able to make things happen. It’s just another election. I mean (Andrew) Yang wants to give everyone $1,000 a month. If Yang ever gets into office, they are not going to let him do that.”
Joshua Wandera, 21, a state worker who helps Iowans with mental illnesses, said he did not see much point in participating in Monday’s caucuses.
“We don’t have much power. It’s almost like our vote doesn’t count. Money plays such a big role in politics. I don’t know if I will be caucusing. I’ll probably vote in November because I don’t want to see Trump elected again. There have been too many Democrats running...Most of the candidates lie to get our vote and then switch things up once they get power.”
Reporting by Tim Reid; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Alistair Bell