In a bid to redraw an increasingly unfavorable electoral map, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Friday crystallized his recent theme: From schools to public safety, black Americans deserve better than what they’re getting.
African-Americans “have sacrificed so much for the national good … yet nearly 4 in 10 African-American children still live in poverty,” Mr. Trump told a mostly-white crowd in Dimondale, Mich. “We must do better as a country.”
His ultimate appeal to the Democratic Party’s most reliable voter bloc: “What do you have to lose” by “trying something new”?
It's a new approach, and possibly a necessary one, given that Trump’s unorthodox campaign style has alienated many Republican men and a quarter of Republican women. And the hurdle for gaining the black vote is Everest steep: 4 in 5 black people have a very unfavorable view of Trump, only 6 percent would be "comfortable" with him as president, and some polls in Ohio have shown zero percent of blacks ready to vote Trump.
But whatever the impact on the outcome, Trump’s direct appeals to black voters do mark an important moment for Republicans, who have struggled to connect with growing blocs of minority voters.
Trump's outreach to black voters cuts to the core of the party’s national struggles to woo America’s growing minority populations. It also serves as an avenue to paint the Democratic Party, and Mrs. Clinton, as uncaring about the plight of African-Americans. And given his recent struggles among the white working class voters he absolutely needs to win, Trump’s comments may also have been aimed at potential white voters turned off by the bigoted tone of his campaign.
Some saw a fundamental shift for the party. The Dimondale speech “will one day be seen as a landmark in the emergence of a new Republican Party – a party finally returning to its roots as the party of Lincoln,” writes conservative writer David Horowitz.
But perhaps more significantly, Trump's appeals to minority voters came amid a major campaign shake-up and poll numbers that show the New York real estate mogul struggling in key battleground states, including some, like Pennsylvania and Ohio, where much of his white working class core lives.
Though chided for his temperament and off-the-cuff style, a real problem for Trump has been his courting of so-called white identity voters, some of whom voice stereotypical views about immigrants and people of color. What's more, Trump’s war on “political correctness,” critics say, has given some Americans free rein to use incendiary racial language in public. And this week, Trump hired Breitbart News chief Stephen Bannon to run his campaign. That site’s comment sections are often riddled with stereotypes about blacks and women.
Perhaps even more critically, many American voters of color remember that Trump headed a “birther” campaign against Obama as Trump began building support for this presidential run.
Meanwhile, Clinton has a huge support base among African-American voters, going back to her time in the White House as first lady. Many African-American voters, too, note that a Trump presidency would be a direct repudiation of the historic election of President Obama as the nation’s first black chief executive.
“Democrats win the support of black voters consistently because those voters like the work that they do and like the fights that they fight,” Philip Bump of the Washington Post writes. He adds: “There’s no reason to think that Donald Trump’s suggestion that black Americans had ‘nothing to lose’ because they ‘are living in poverty’ will do anything to reverse that trend.”
Still, black Trump voters aren’t all that hard to find in places like Georgia, where the Monitor recently talked to Dee Finley, a middle-aged black woman who plans to vote for him. While she takes umbrage at some of Trump’s comments, he does speak to a sense that Democrats take the black vote for granted, at least in her view. Her point, as she told the Monitor, is that she’s not “going to vote for the same establishment that’s been in Washington forever and ever and getting the same results.”
Indeed, as Trump has pointed out, African-Americans have lost disproportionate ground under the first black president. The Federal Reserve says that net worth among African-Americans dropped by 13.5 percent between 2007 and 2010, and then endured a 34 percent drop in the ensuing four years, falling from $16,600 to $11,000.
Yes, black unemployment has dropped meaningfully in the last couple of years, but real median income slid 1.5 percent for African-Americans over the last eight years, as whites saw their income rise by 1 percent. Perhaps most critically, the percentage of black Americans who own homes dropped by 9.5 percent across Obama’s tenure, compared to a 5.6 drop on average.
To be sure, 93 percent of African-Americans said they thought Obama was doing a good job after his reelection in 2012. But after eight years of Democratic economic policies under Obama, Trump’s critiques about black struggles have the capacity to sting.
"The African-American community has been taken for granted for decades by the Democratic Party,” Trump said in Milwaukee earlier in the week, as he began building the theme. “It’s time to break with the failures of the past – I want to offer Americans a new future.”
And on Friday the Los Angeles Times/USC Dornsife poll had Trump at 14.6 among African-Americans, his best numbers yet. On Aug. 11, his support among black voters was less than 3 percent, according to the same poll.
Gianno Caldwell, a black Republican analyst, told the Washington Examiner that Trump can, in fact, move the needle on black support by painting Democrats as racial opportunists. “Trump is running against a career politician who has campaigned for black voters only because she needs them, not because she intends to serve their interests,” Mr. Caldwell said.
Even if Trump’s messages were to take hold in the black community, it may come as too little, too late, some analysts say.
To gain real traction, they suggest, Trump will have to move beyond accusations that he stokes racial tensions and into a deeper personal understanding of what motivates, and troubles, African-Americans in the places where they live.
"The question is what is he doing at a state level, in places like Georgia, Ohio, North Carolina, and Michigan?" asked Tara Wall, who assisted both George W. Bush and Mitt Romney with minority outreach, reports the Examiner. "He's got to be in those areas regularly because when people really start paying attention to the election after Labor Day, those are the states where voters will want to know if he's been there speaking to the issues that black Americans face."