Steve Phillips, The Guardian, March 10, 2020
Donald Trump understands the importance of African American voters much better than Democrats and progressives do. Trump and his team are making sizable and smart investments in efforts to chip away at black support for Democrats. Yet those who want to oust Trump from the Oval Office are spraying millions of dollars in election spending in every direction except the African American community.
Had African Americans turned out to vote in 2016 like they did in 2012, Hillary Clinton would be the president of the United States. Instead, Democrats overlooked and underisnvested in the community, resulting in a cataclysmic drop-off in black voter turnout. The percentage of eligible African Americans who voted dropped to its lowest level in nearly 20 years, allowing Trump to eke out his razor-thin electoral college victory.
I titled the penultimate chapter of my book “Conservatives Can Count,” and Republicans have indeed done the math and are working overtime to reduce the margins by which they lose the black vote. During the Super Bowl, Trump’s re-election campaign spent $11m on a very effective ad featuring an African American woman who’d been released from prison after criminal justice reform legislation. She says in heartfelt fashion to the millions of people watching the ad: “I want to thank President Donald John Trump.”
That ad is not the sole foray into what was once forbidden territory. Trump’s campaign is opening field offices in 15 cities with large black communities. Conservative donors have bankrolled the creation of The Black News Channel, a new 24/7 news station with reach into tens of millions of homes.
On the other side of the aisle, the silence is deafening. Investment in black-focused political outreach is nearly non-existent. While Trump spent $11m on a single television ad, Democrats can’t even cough up a fraction of that for a voter mobilization program targeting African Americans, 90% of whom vote Democratic.
The largest Democratic Super Pac, Priorities USA, has announced plans to spend $150m on ads trying to convince Trump voters of the error of their ways. Another Democratic Super Pac, American Bridge, has launched a $10m initiative also focused on ads designed to persuade Trump voters to switch allegiances. Billionaire Mike Bloomberg spent hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat Trump, but he has not announced plans to back a major, at-scale, black-focused voter effort. (To his credit, Bloomberg has given $5m to Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight Initiative, which is combating voter suppression across the country and just announced an additional $2m for black voter registraton work.)
The consequences of continuing to overlook the cornerstone of the progressive coalition could be catastrophic in November. It may be tempting to dismiss Trump’s efforts to make inroads into a community that regularly, overwhelmingly rejects Republicans; that, however, misses the real goal of Trump’s strategy. Its objective is not to win majority support, but rather to bring down the amount of black support for Democrats just enough to tip a close contest. Lost in all the analytical obsession over white working-class voters is the fact that black male support for Hillary Clinton was 5% lower than that for Obama in 2012.
The other objective of black-specific messaging is to reassure white voters that Trump isn’t racist (which he is). By showing ads with diverse communities and inclusive content to those more moderate suburban Republicans who defected to the Democrats in 2018, it softens the edges of the most repulsive and racially-charged components of this administration. The Democrats, on the other hand, completely let Trump off the hook for his attacks on communities of color – putting brown children in cages at the border, banning Muslim travel, etc – by refusing to even bring up the issue of racism, for fear of alienating the chimera of the white swing voter.
It is not too late for progressives to course correct and intercept Trump’s plan. The first and most important thing they can do is make sure that whichever old white man wins the Democratic nomination is joined by a black woman as his running mate. Second, progressives must insist that African American civic engagement efforts receive hundreds of millions of dollars – as opposed to the hundreds of thousands typically given as an afterthought.
One thing is crystal clear – Republicans are not waiting around to see if Democrats enthusiastically embrace black voters. The election hangs in the balance, and the clock is ticking.