Trump Bets on More Black Support in 2020. (He Might Need It.)
Behind and, by most accounts, a bit desperate in August of 2016, Donald Trump made a wager.
The bet was with the black electorate, but the candidate made it in front of a mostly white crowd in a predominantly white suburb of Lansing, Michigan. His opponent, he said, didn’t care about black people. She only saw black communities as reliable political reservoirs and their citizens as blindly loyal Democratic voters who get little in return.
Why not do something different? Trump asked on stage, reading carefully from twin teleprompters and directing his remarks to “every single African American citizen” who wanted to see a better future.
“What do you have to lose by trying something new like Trump?” he said. And then, after watching the crowd erupt, he went off script and doubled down: “You're living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58% of your youth is unemployed — what the hell do you have to lose?”
Hillary Clinton would later call that pitch “so ignorant it’s staggering.” But Trump made it a stump speech staple and, three months later, went on to win Michigan, win over more black voters than either of the last two Republican presidential nominees, and win the White House.
With another election around the corner, the Trump campaign has returned to the question, albeit with a slight adjustment: What do black voters have to lose by voting against the incumbent?
According to Republicans, a lot.
Kamilah Prince, who directs African American engagement for the Republican National Committee, rattled off a list of Trump accomplishments, from near-record-low unemployment numbers for black workers and a healthy business environment for black entrepreneurs to support for historically black colleges and criminal justice reform.
The black voter calculus will boil down, Prince told RealClearPolitics, to either “four more years of record-setting growth and opportunities or a return to Democrat policies that have failed the black community in the past.”
It is a convenient dichotomy that Trump will soon present in one iteration or another on the campaign trail. Whether it will work, and to what degree, remains to be seen, of course. But the president certainly cannot expect, as he promised at that 2016 rally in Michigan, to win 95% of the black vote. According to data analysis by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the party of Lincoln hasn’t won more than 40% of the black vote since 1956. A hugely popular war hero, Dwight Eisenhower, set that high mark in his reelection race, and no other GOP candidate has come close.
All the same, Trump managed 8% black support in 2016. And despite the GOP’s unpromising history, his campaign manager thinks the president can more than quadruple that number next year.
This time around the Trump wager has more weight behind it, as his camp is hyping criminal justice reform as its hallmark achievement. After black voters learn about that accomplishment, 2020 Campaign Manager Brad Parscale told RCP, “we notice a significant uptick in support.”
Specifically, the Trump team recorded support for the president in the “low double digits” while knocking on the doors of 1,200 black households. When those same households were told about criminal justice reform, things changed. According to Parscale, support jumped to nearly 38%.
The campaign knows that gaining majority support is impossible. They don’t need it, though. To win a second term, the president must do one of two things. Either improve on his 2016 record slightly or ensure the opponent, whoever it may be, does not rally black turnout in 2020.
This means winning at the margins, explained Ken Blackwell, a former Republican mayor of Cincinnati and Ohio secretary of state, because “it is a mistake to think there will be a seismic shift in black voter behavior.”
“At the end of the day, Democrats know this is the one voter base they cannot afford to have fractionalized,” Blackwell told RCP. “We know they have to get a 93%-7% split, but a win for us, a technical knockout for us, would be something like 88%-12%.”
Reviewing the last general election, it is clear that Trump didn’t win the black vote so much as Hillary Clinton failed to win enough of it. A New York Times analysis found that 4.4 million Obama voters stayed at home on Election Day, and more than a third of those no-shows were black. Trump has admitted as much. He even said thanks.
“We did great with the African American community,” the president said a month after the election as he took a victory lap. “So good. Remember the famous line, because 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.”
Democrats don’t intend to let turnout lag twice. They aren't likely to nominate a historically unlikable candidate again, either. Unlike Clinton, former Vice President Joe Biden enjoys solid support in the black community. A national Quinnipiac University poll in May found that 46% of black voters backed the front-runner in the crowded field.
Rather than wait for Biden to win the nomination, Trump has unleashed on his potential opponent as if he were already the standard-bearer. His favorite line of attack? The 1994 crime bill.
It is a simple one-two punch: Trump hammers Biden for helping to author and pass that tough-on-crime bill, then Trump plugs his criminal justice reform initiative that addressed the unintended consequences of that original piece legislation.
The goal, explained Ed Rollins, is to turn a small but significant fraction of the black electorate against Biden.
“Democrats can’t win unless they get Obama levels of black voter turnout,” the longtime GOP strategist, who heads the pro-Trump Great America PAC, told The Daily Beast. “Unless they can get back to those levels, it makes it awful hard for them to win the White House. … I think it’s a legitimate weapon that Trump is wielding [against Biden], but I think it’ll be used by [Biden’s fellow] Democrats, as well, during the primary long before we get head-to-head, if in fact Biden is the finalist on the other side.”
But if Trump thinks that talking about the 1994 crime bill will scare voters away from Democrats -- well, good luck with that, said Democratic Rep. Karen Bass. And good luck, she added, with taking credit for historically low unemployment and the new criminal justice reform law.
“I have never met an African American who feels that the reason they have a job is because of President Trump,” the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus told RCP. “I think that it is wrong to think that the African American population would credit Trump with the low unemployment numbers and criminal justice reform.”
Bass doesn’t deny the role played by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, in the new law’s development. She takes care to give him credit. But the California Democrat insisted that criminal justice reform was in the works well before Trump made his way to Washington. She insisted also that Obama and Congress, not the current president, deserve a lion’s share of the credit.
And besides, she asked, how could anyone ever vote for a candidate who has made so many racist statements? Bass points back to the original Trump wager -- noting, in particular, that he did more than just ask black voters what they had to lose.
“He began by describing our communities in such a despicable fashion that it showed he knows absolutely nothing about the African American population,” Bass said.
“It is just offensive to say, ‘Your life is such a mess, your communities are horrible, and you are so stupid that you keep voting for Democrats. What do you have to lose? Why don’t you smarten up and vote for me?’” she continued.
“Now,” Bass concluded, “who would vote for a person like that?”
This is not a new argument. Democrats have been making it throughout the Trump era by condemning first his candidacy, and later his presidency, as racist. This condemnation, in turn, has become something of a litmus test in the Democratic primary, with candidates lining up one after the other to decry the current occupant of the Oval Office.
Biden has made racist accusations a centerpiece of his own campaign, framing his candidacy as part of a larger effort to restore the soul of the nation.
“When white supremacists are walking in the streets of Charlottesville, when neo-Nazis are shooting up schools, when it’s not safe to worship, whether you are Christian, Jewish, of Muslim [faith], we are in a dark place,” senior Biden adviser Symone Sanders told RCP.
Paris Dennard, who is on the president’s Commission on White House Fellowships, says he can’t take that criticism from Democrats seriously so long as Ralph Northam remains governor of Virginia. If liberals really cared about racism, he argued, they would have run Northam out of office the moment he admitted to wearing black face during the 1980s.
Borrowing a colloquialism, he said that Democrats ought “to sweep around their own front door before sweeping around mine.”
What’s more, he continued, the African American electorate views Trump through “one of two lenses.” Publicly, the black community is more likely to criticize the current administration lest they lose friends, face backlash, and risk having “their ‘black card’ be taken away.” Privately, he asserted, those same voters will take a look at the policies of the president:
“There is a great deal of black Americans who look at this president in terms of what he is doing and how their lives are. I think they come away believing that Trump is doing what he said he was going to do for the black community.”
Perhaps a second term for Trump hinges on this silent black majority, assuming it exists. Republicans lost the national popular vote three years ago but won Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania by roughly 70,000 votes, a big enough sum to crack Clinton’s blue wall and carry the White House. And while Trump asked black communities what they had to lose in 2016, their answer in 2020 could say more about what he has to lose.