The Electoral College could validate LeBron James’ next great feat.
He has won four NBA championships, started his own elementary school, built a business empire and, now, is taking on the 2020 election.
Having sought to combat voter suppression and mobilize voters through his group called “More Than a Vote,” James is testing his influence during this election season.
But will James’ work have a meaningful impact, specifically on the election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden?
“Yes, of course,” said Larry Huynh, an expert in digital campaign strategy and partner at Trilogy Interactive. “There are a number of states that are coming down to the wire here. … The work to mobilize important groups of voters in the Black community can have real impact on the race.”
Although James has not publicly endorsed Biden, Ethan Scheiner, a professor of political science at the University of California at Davis, said James’ “More Than A Vote” could make a difference in races throughout the country, and not just in battleground states such as his home state of Ohio.
“Let’s put it this way,’’ said Scheiner, whose expertise includes the interplay between sports and politics, “if Biden is winning as much as the polls seem to be suggesting, it means all of the sudden Biden is competitive in states that ordinarily he wouldn’t be. And the things that LeBron’s group have been doing could help push Biden over the edge in those states.”
That wasn’t the case four years ago for James, the 35-year-old basketball superstar and social activist.
In 2016, he endorsed Hillary Clinton and held a rally for her in downtown Cleveland two days before Election Day. However, Black voter turnout in Ohio fell almost 10% from 2012 and Clinton lost Ohio to Trump.
Nationally, Black voter turnout dropped 6% and for the first time in 20 years, and there was no question which presidential candidate suffered.
During every presidential election since 1964, at least 82% of Black voters have cast their votes for the Democratic nominee, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies & Pew Research Center.
“It’s not enough for a famous person just to say, ‘Go vote,’ ” said Shermichael Singleton, a conservative political consultant who has worked on presidential campaigns for Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Ben Carson. “Sure, a famous person can be engaged and we can utilize their face and their likeness. But there has to be continued, proactive engagement and targeting of said group in order to see serious movement among potential voters of that group.”
Getting off the sidelines
James’ new plan began to take shape in February, when Maverick Carter, who runs James’ business empire, met with Addisu Demissie, who has run successful campaigns for U.S. Senator Cory Booker and California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The talks were tabled and resumed May 25 after George Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minnesota. On June 22, “More Than a Vote,’’ a non-profit organization, announced its birth via Twitter, with Demissie having been named executive director.
“Change isn’t made by watching from the sidelines,’’ the organization tweeted that day.
James already was off the sideline, playing a key role in getting Dodger Stadium and 23 NBA teams to open their arenas or practice facilito be used as polling sites. The facilities are giving voters the ability to maintain social distance and reduce COVID-19 risks.
Then his organization got to work.
Since June, “More Than a Vote” has recruited 40,000 poll workers in partnership with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, helped to register Florida voters with felony records and directed resources into swing states.
During the NBA playoffs, which ended with James and the Los Angeles Lakers winning the NBA title, he explained part of his group’s mission is to help young people understand the importance of their voice and vote.
“It’s hard as hell, because they just don’t believe it,’’ James said. “They don’t believe that their vote or their message or their minds or their voices matter. But that’s where my energy is, on continuing to push the envelope in my community, continue to let them know that they are the future, they are the reason why there will be change.’’
He has the ability to reach those voters at a pivotal time, said Patti Solis Doyle, who served as an advisor to the Obama-Biden campaign during the 2012 presidential election.
“We see through some polling that it’s not African-American women that are not showing up in the early vote right now,’’ Doyle said. “It’s younger African-American men, and so approaching them or talking to them through people who they respect and admire, (it’s) a smart tactic.’’
Chris Towler, an assistant professor of political science at California State University at Sacramento and founder of the Black Voter Project, said his data shows how James could aid Biden.
The Black Voter Project involves public opinion surveys that include a minimum of 1,200 Black respondents and the most recent survey focused on James, according to Towler. He said 60% of the respondents felt positively toward James and 57% felt positively toward Biden.
That difference grew starker among Black Americans who said they had not voted in the last presidential election, Towler said. Of the non-voters, only 35% had warm feelings toward Biden but 55% had warm feelings toward James.
“It’s hard to say how much his voice and platform, what he actually says, influences people,’’ Towler said. “But my research suggests it does, and more work needs to be done to understand this better.”
More than LeBron
Rather than rely on James’ celebrity, “More Than a Vote” has drawn on musical artists and athletes from the NBA, WNBA, NFL, Major League Baseball, soccer, tennis, softball, including NFL stars Patrick Mahomes and Odell Beckham Jr.
“We’ve been very careful to make clear that LeBron was certainly the driving force behind the formation of ‘More Than A Vote,’ but the organization is more than him,’’ Demissie said. “One of the key ways he has participated actually is bringing other athletes with their own networks, with their own strength in the communities in which they live or play, to the coalition. From WNBA players to baseball players to tennis players, you name it, we’ve brought them and he’s certainly helped with this.”
There is a team behind the scenes, too.
“More Than a Vote” includes seasoned political operatives such as Jocelyn Benson, the Secretary of State of Michigan; Frank LaRose, the Secretary of State of Ohio; and Stacey Abrams, who in 2018 was in position to become the first Black female governor of Georgia before running a competitive but losing campaign.
“The bottom line is LeBron just won a championship with the Lakers by playing a team game, and he recognizes to win in politics he needs the same thing,’’ said Huynh of Trilogy Interactive. “He has the right team around him to actually execute what he wants to execute, which is increase access to voting for Black voters specifically.
“It’s smart, it’s focused and they’re not just using his celebrity as the only asset that they have. They’re actually building an army of workers to go out there and increase access to the vote for the Black community.’’
So can LeBron James impact the outcome of the presidential election?
“I think ‘More Than a Vote’ already has,’’ Demissie said. “Let’s put it that way.’’