Posted on March 7, 2020

Trump Has His Sights Set on Black Voters

Thomas B. Edsall, New York Times, March 4, 2020

The Trump campaign is investing more money and resources in an attempt to attract African-American voters than any Republican presidential campaign in recent memory.

The drive includes highly visible television advertising, including an $11 million Super Bowl commercial, along with ad purchases in local black newspapers and on radio stations; “Black Voices for Trump”; storefronts in key battleground states; and a sustained social media campaign directed at black voters whose consumer, religious and demographic profiles suggest potential support, including on such issues as immigration, abortion, gender roles and gay rights.

For Trump, the effort became all the more crucial as the Super Tuesday primaries demonstrated Joe Biden’s strong appeal to black voters. Exit polls showed Biden winning 57 percent of the votes cast by African-Americans on Tuesday, 40 points higher than his closest competitor, Bernie Sanders, at 17 percent.

Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of the pro-Democratic BlackPAC and the affiliated nonpartisan Black Progressive Action Coalition, wrote in an email that Trump has already communicated with a large segment of the African-American electorate, although she disputes the effectiveness of Trump’s bid to win black support:

We’ve had a significant number of black voters tell us that they have gotten Trump ads on their social media platforms. That tracks with our recent poll where nearly 30 percent of those surveyed said that they had been contacted by the campaign.


Robert Jones, founder and C.E.O. of the Public Religion Research Institute, wrote in an email that

just ahead of the 2016 election, only 5 percent of African Americans said they thought Trump “understands the problems of people like them,” and 75 percent of African- Americans said they did not know a single person among their friends and family who was supporting Trump; moreover, Trump’s favorability in PRRI polling in 2016 was 7 percent among African Americans.

PRRI’s most recent series of weekly surveys, conducted from late March through December 2019 with a total of 40,000 interviews, show that Trump’s positive numbers among African- Americans, although still low, have more than doubled. Jones pointed out by email that Trump’s favorability rating among black voters overall increased from 7 percent in 2016 to 18 percent in 2019, with a large gender gap; Trump’s favorability rating among black men in 2019 was 23 percent and 14 percent among black women.

Despite this shift, Jones argues that he sees little evidence “that the Trump campaign should expect significant defections among African-American voters in 2020.” {snip}


Looking back to 2016, there is data that suggests — although it certainly does not prove — that Trump’s efforts to demonize Hillary Clinton among African-American voters helped to suppress black turnout.

That year, Trump ran ads in battleground states and on Facebook quoting Clinton’s 1996 reference to minorities in organized gangs as “superpredators”:

They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators — no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first, we have to bring them to heel.

Trump’s superpredator ads were designed as much to suppress black turnout as they were to actually persuade African-American voters to cast ballots for Trump. {snip}

At a postelection Pennsylvania rally in December 2016, Trump acknowledged the crucial role turnout suppression played in his victory:

We did great with the African-American community. I talk about crime, I talk about lack of education, I talk about no jobs. And I’d say, what the hell do you have to lose? Right? It’s true. And they’re smart and they picked up on it like you wouldn’t believe. And you know what else? They didn’t come out to vote for Hillary. They didn’t come out. And that was a big — so thank you to the African-American community.

There is no question that black turnout suffered in 2016. Take a look at voting in Detroit, a city that is 78.6 percent black.

In 2012, Barack Obama won the city with 281,743 votes to Mitt Romney’s 6,019. Four years later, Hillary Clinton won Detroit, 234,871 to Trump’s 7,682. Trump modestly improved on Romney by 1,663 voters, but Clinton saw a 46,872-vote drop from 2012.


There is another, even earlier, warning signal for Democrats concerning Trump’s courtship of black voters: the 2004 Bush campaign.

That year, Bush operatives realized they needed to win every possible vote in battleground states, including winning over socially conservative black voters. To do that, they sent black voters who subscribe to conservative Christian magazines and attend socially conservative churches a barrage of messages, through direct mail, contending that Democrats were intent on legalizing same-sex marriage.

It is hard to gauge from poll data how effective these messages were, but in the key battleground state of Ohio, Bush’s margin among black voters rose from 9 percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2004; in Florida, by 6 points, 7 to 13 percent; in Pennsylvania by 9 points, from 7 to 16 percent; and in Illinois, by 3 points, from 7 to 10 percent.

None of this data proves that Trump will make significant inroads among black voters this year, but the record suggests that Democrats should be prepared for a tougher fight than expected, both in turning out African-American voters and in winning by strong enough margins to give their nominee crucial backing.


Ismail K. White and Chryl N. Laird, political scientists at Duke and Bowdoin and the authors of a new book “Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior,” argue that Trump’s efforts to win black support will be futile. In a February Atlantic essay, they write:

Political solidarity has been a crucial political asset of black Americans during a long struggle against racial injustice, and a few symbolic gestures or policy initiatives won’t win significant black support for Republicans.


Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California-San Diego, argued in an email that Trump “will have an uphill battle” actually winning over black voters, and the focus of Trump’s effort will

be more on discouraging blacks from voting at all (by trashing whichever Democrat gets the nomination) than on persuading them to show up and vote for Trump.

Not only are African-Americans’ assessments of Trump “overwhelmingly negative,” Jacobson writes, but “most blacks think he’s a racist, and the proportion expressing that opinion has if anything risen over time.” Jacobson cited a series of Quinnipiac surveys that asked black voters whether Trump is a racist. In February 2018,

74 percent of blacks said yes, 14 percent said no. In July 2018, it was 79 percent yes, 19 percent no. In July 2019, it was 80 percent yes, 11 percent no. In a Washington Post/IPSOS poll taken this January, it was 83 percent yes, 13 percent no. There is no sign that Trump has made any progress in persuading the large majority of blacks that he is not a racist.

John McWhorter, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, examined Trump’s prospects for winning black votes from an entirely different vantage point. In an email, McWhorter wrote:

Trump’s racism is less important to probably most black people than it is to the minority of black people in academia/the media/collegetownish circles. Beyond the contingent we today can roughly delineate as “Twitter people,” the idea that someone is immediately disqualified from moral worth by harboring any degree of bigotry is an abstraction. As such, there is a kind of black person — mostly male, I suspect — who connect with Trump’s Alpha Male routine, which has a lot in common with the rapper persona. It is, therefore, not remotely surprising that Kanye West likes him.

Despite this, McWhorter continued,

I do know this: if Biden is the nominee, no. Most voters, of whatever color, vote on the basis of certain gut instincts. Biden appeals to black people partly because of a certain vernacular glint in his eye and partly now because of his connection with Obama. Wielding that will “trump” all but about seven black voters’ affection for Trump’s “swagger.”

In the case of Sanders, McWhorter wrote, it’s “hard to say. Most black people are not leftists” and “my gut tells me” that “most of those unmoved by Sanders would simply stay home rather than go out and cast a vote for Trump.”


Assuming that the 2020 election is close, any increase in defections, or a repeat of the relatively low black turnout of 2016, could seriously endanger Democratic prospects. Clearly the Trump campaign understands this, but it remains uncertain whether the Democratic Party does.