2020/1936: Can Trump Match FDR's Appeal to Black Voters?
Last week the presidential campaign of Donald Trump announced a six-figure ad buy across black radio stations and in black newspapers. The newspaper campaign targeted 11 major markets in key states across the nation, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Virginia — all states that the Trump team believes will be in play in 2020. The radio ads were run in the same 11 urban markets. Under their theme of “Black Voices for Trump,” it is clear that the Trump campaign is emulating what the Franklin D. Roosevelt campaign did in 1936.
Just as Roosevelt overwhelmingly lost the black vote in 1932, doing worse than Al Smith in 1928, Trump lost the black vote in 2016. But, again like Roosevelt in 1932, Trump did reach out to the black electorate in 2016. Both FDR in ’32 and Trump in ’16 had some limited but encouraging success in winning over these voters: Roosevelt in New York where he had been governor, and Trump in Pennsylvania where his outreach helped provide his margin of victory in that key state.
The groundwork laid in 1932 was crucial to FDR’s success with black voters in 1936. In fact, in that first election, a wealthy oilman and key supporter of the Democrat, Frank Benedum, “saw the conversion of the black vote as a potential means of swinging Pennsylvania into the Roosevelt column,” Nancy J. Weiss wrote in “Farewell to the Party of Lincoln.” Benedum knew the key was longtime Republican supporter Robert L. Vann, editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the biggest and most influential black newspapers in America. By 1932 Vann was fed up with the GOP. In his view, all the Republicans seemingly cared about was black votes, not the goals and aspirations of black Americans.
Sound familiar? It should, as it presciently echoes what would be the frustrations of black Democrats almost 90 years in the future.
Vann gave a key speech in Philadelphia, telling his black audience that Republicans did not care about the rights and concerns of black Americans. “I see in the offing a horde of black men and women throwing off the yoke of partisanism practiced for over half a century,” he said. “I see them casting down the idols of empty promises. … I see millions of Negroes turning the pictures of Abraham Lincoln to the wall. This year I see Negroes voting a Democratic ticket.”
Roosevelt did not, however, win the black vote in 1932, but the stage was set for an all-out effort to win over that bloc in 1936, and that is just what FDR did, earning an astounding 76% of the black vote that year.
Similar to Roosevelt in 1932, Trump broke new ground in 2016 by being the first Republican candidate for president in many years to actively solicit the black vote via speeches, radio ads, and social media advertising. His campaign in black areas and appearances in black churches was unprecedented for a GOP standard-bearer. And it paid off, as he won more than 20% of the black vote in the key swing state of Pennsylvania.
1936 proved to be turning point in American politics. One of the highlights of that year was a rally in Madison Square Garden held by the Good Neighbor League, which drew more than 16,000 black Americans to celebrate the 74th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. At this event Roosevelt was hailed as the “Second Emancipator,” following in the footsteps of Lincoln. This rally was eerily similar to the event held in Los Angeles in January 2019 known as the BLEXIT rally — black exit from the Democratic Party. Just as the Roosevelt rally was filled with former Republicans, the packed house in Los Angeles was filled with ex-Democrats.
And now, on the verge of the 2020 election year, the political battle for the black vote is truly joined, with Donald Trump making an all-out effort to win over black voters who have misgivings about the Democrats similar to those their ancestors had about Republicans in 1936. They feel and say similar things, such as: “The Democrats just want our votes, not our babies. The Democrats don’t care about our children getting a good education, while they send their own children to private schools. They talk about helping us climb the economic ladder of success, but it is Donald Trump that has finally made begun to make that happen.”
Democrats would be wise to ask themselves: Are these disgruntled voters beginning to think like Ohio Pastor Darrell Scott, who said that Donald Trump is the “the most pro-black president that we've had in our lifetime”? And is 2020 going to be 1936 all over again?