President Donald Trump is looking to woo black voters — if he can make them forget about his tweets.
The Trump 2020 campaign has been quietly reaching out to prominent African Americans about joining its latest coalition, intended to boost Republican support in the black community. The effort comes just as the president capped off a month filled with racially divisive language and Twitter taunts aimed at House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings and four freshman congresswomen of color.
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Critics may find the timing of the outreach outrageous. But the campaign hopes that if it can shave off just a few points off Democrats’ overwhelming support among blacks, it can boost voter turnout in eight or so key states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — each of which Trump won by less than one percentage point.
The campaign’s pitch to African Americans is simple: Ignore the president’s words and instead focus on his policies, like the state of the economy and the low unemployment rate, the passage of criminal justice reform or the creation of Opportunity Zones, which are meant to bolster investment in underserved or poorer cities.
When Trump took office in January 2017, the unemployment rate among blacks was 7.7 percent. Friday’s jobs report pegged it at 6 percent for July.
“Do I think some of his verbal formulations are in artful? Yeah,” said Ken Blackwell, the former mayor of Cincinnati, former Ohio Secretary of State and a top Trump transition official. “But for me, as a domestic policy adviser during the Trump transition, it has been all about the agenda, a set of results and tomorrow. You have to believe his policy agenda flies in the face of the false narrative of the racist-in-charge.”
But for others, the Trump rhetoric cannot be divorced from his record, and critics argue he must take responsibility for that as president. A recent Quinnipiac University National Poll, released on July 30, showed that 80 percent of African American voters surveyed considered Trump racist.
“The idea is that, because of his agenda, his comments on Charlottesville, Baltimore or shithole countries do not matter,” said Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and the first African American to serve in that role. “Or that you can say the most racist things in the world, but hey, I got a tax cut. Or you can disparage my homeland, but the unemployment rate is going down.”
“I certainly think we should expect more from our political leaders,” Steele said. “I would think they would expect more from us.”
Trump has regularly defended himself by saying “I am the least racist person there is anywhere in the world.” He told reporters recently that scores of African Americans have been calling the White House to thank him for his work. “What I’ve done for African Americans, no president, I would say, has done,” Trump said this week from the White House lawn, as he left Washington for an event in Jamestown, Va., that all of the state’s black lawmakers boycotted.
Republicans have struggled for decades to make inroads with African American voters. Trump earned just 8 percent of the black vote in 2016, while Democrat Hillary Clinton won 89 percent. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney performed even worse in 2012, earning just 6 percent of the African American vote against President Barack Obama.
President George W. Bush did the best in recent years. He earned 11 percent of the African American vote in 2004, up from 8 percent in 2000, by appealing to conservative, religious voters.
The Trump campaign was criticized during the 2016 campaign for vying for the black vote but never taking the time to visit black churches, black colleges or African American groups. The purpose of coalitions like the African American one is to do a better job of outreach to specific communities.
“I do not have the inside track on it, but the success of the outreach depends on who is running it, how much money they are devoting to it and whether there is a genuine organizational effort, or if it is just a website run by a couple of kids,” said Jennifer Hochschild, a professor of government and African American studies at Harvard University who tracks race and politics. “My guess is that it is mostly a waste of time. Republicans have been trying to do this for 50 years. Latinos are much more potentially movable into the Republican column.”
The hope among Trump campaign officials and advisers is that this time will be different — and not a photo-op.
The African Americans for Trump coalition is being organized by Katrina Pierson, senior adviser to the Trump campaign, and a few campaign staffers. The launch date is tentatively set for after Labor Day. Already the Trump campaign has rolled out two other coalitions this summer including Latinos for Trump and Women for Trump, meant to show the president’s broad support among groups beyond white men.
“The campaign is working hard to get the president’s message to all voters,” Pierson said.
And longtime African American Trump supporters agree with the campaign’s assessment that voters should worry about results over rhetoric.
“I think people get caught up in the emotional with President Trump,” said Georgia businessman and longtime Trump supporter, Bruce LeVell, who led Trump’s National Diversity Coalition in 2016. That group of campaign surrogates primarily made TV and public appearances on behalf of Trump, whereas the 2020 campaign coalition is expected to do more political outreach.
“Don’t get caught up in the emotions, pay attention to the numbers, not the he said-she said. I think black male voters, especially, will be a game changer for President Trump’s reelection,” LeVell said.
Still, the argument of paying attention to the president’s agenda, and not his words, does sit well with all policy experts. Economist Valerie Wilson said that, while the unemployment rate among African Americans has dropped to 6 percent, it’s still far higher than the national unemployment rate of 3.7 percent due to other factors that have not been adequately addressed by the administration.
African Americans continue to suffer from a large disparity in wages relative to whites, including with college-educated blacks. The same disparities exist in wealth and home ownership, making far more blacks vulnerable to economic downturns because they have fewer assets to fall back on.
“I do not think it is a legitimate argument to try to gain support from black voters based on the economic argument. There is little we can point to from the current administration as a reason for where African Americans are economically,” said Wilson, the director of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy.
She said that the African American unemployment rate actually started to decrease under Obama as the economy recovered from the Great Recession.
Steele and others also argue that much of the work of bipartisan criminal justice reform was underway by both liberal and conservative groups before the White House got involved, and the Trump White House has had a poor track record with its hiring of African Americans and other people of color.
“Let’s just look at the way he treated his one and only African American assistant to the president. The president called me a dog. How will he explain that to African American female voters?” said Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former senior official at the Trump White House.
“Now he has a track record, or lack thereof, with African American voters,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what the campaign does, or if it spends millions on outreach, he will not get the black vote.”
In the Trump 2016 campaign, the goal was to exceed Romney’s support among African American voters. For 2020, the goal is to nudge Trump’s support with black voters up as much as possible — especially in battleground states.
Bush in 2004 managed to do this in Ohio, where he earned 16 percent of the African American vote by appealing to conservative evangelicals and Pentecostal voters who had not previously been engaged in politics. These voters came off the sidelines, in part, because of a state amendment outlining marriage as a union only between a man and a woman. Blackwell, as a former Ohio politician and longtime conservative leader, said he was part of that effort to appeal to black voters in 2004.
“If Trump improves his take with the African American community and is able to capture 12 or 15 percent, that would be huge,” Blackwell added.
Back in 2016, then-candidate Trump predicted that if he won a first term and then ran for re-election, he would earn 95 percent the African American vote in 2020.
Even then, he talked about what he called the poor state of inner cities. He promised African Americans better jobs, better schools and greater prosperity.
“You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs. Fifty-eight percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?” he told the audience in the largely white town of Dimondale, Mich., at a rally. “Tonight, I’m asking for the vote of every single African American citizen in this country who wants to see a better future.”
The question is whether African Americans feel like he delivered that based on his 2016 promises.
“If Trump cracks 8 percent of the black vote again, it would be a miracle,” said Steele. “We’re still a year-and-a-half out from the election, but the evidence right now suggests that it will be hard for him to get more than that, especially with African American women lined up against him.”