President TrumpDonald John TrumpWinners and losers from the New Hampshire primary Sanders on NH victory: Win is ‘beginning of the end for Donald Trump’ Biden, Warren on ropes after delegate shutout MORE is increasingly highlighting his pitch to African American voters as the 2020 presidential election campaign heats up, trying to sway a key portion of the electorate in his favor despite a history of divisive rhetoric on race.
Trump’s effort was on prime-time display last week, with his campaign’s unveiling of a new Super Bowl advertisement on criminal justice reform followed by a State of the Union address and speech in Charlotte, N.C., peppered with appeals to black voters.
Trump isn’t going to win more of the black vote than his Democratic opponent, but Republican strategists say a targeting strategy that peels away even a few percentage points could have a meaningful impact for the president’s reelection.
“No one expects that Trump is going to win the African American vote,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye. But he noted that if Trump increased his vote total among African Americans by 2 or 3 percentage points, it could make the election “harder for Democrats.”
The Trump campaign has built a grassroots operation to focus on a group of seven to nine states, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, where officials believe they can make inroads with black voters, said Ken Blackwell, a Trump campaign adviser.
“The goal is to use microtargeting for what we consider to be opportunity voters for Trump in the black communities across the nation. We know which demographic groups are challenges. We know which demographic groups are real opportunities,” said Blackwell, a member of the Black Voices for Trump coalition. “We believe that we can get anywhere from 12 to 18 percent in 2020.”
Trump may face challenges in making even small gains among black voters given some of his statements in office. His track record on issues of race has driven away suburban voters — and suburban women in particular. Any efforts to improve his standing among minority groups could have the added effect of bringing some of those disillusioned voters back into the fold.
He has referred to African nations as “shithole countries” and withstood criticism for his response to a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 by saying there were “some very fine people on both sides.”
Trump was also one of the main proponents of the birther conspiracy about former President Obama being born outside the United States and has stood by his calls for the Central Park Five to be executed even after their convictions were overturned.
A Washington Post-Ipsos poll last month of 1,088 black adults found 83 percent of respondents said they believe Trump is a racist, and the same percentage said they believe he has made racism a bigger problem in the U.S. A Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll survey released last week found that 22 percent of African American voters approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while his overall approval rating stood at 46 percent in the survey.
“They’re really trying to soften the president’s image in the African American community,” one GOP strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said of Trump’s campaign effort. “The Democrats are going to remind the voters that the president does not have a good history in the African American communities.”
Democratic strategist Basil Smikle said Trump is likely seeking to depress the African American vote for Democrats.
“I think anything that tamps down African American support is dangerous for Democrats in November,” Smikle said, noting that millions of voters who turned out to vote for Obama in 2012 stayed home when Trump defeated Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWinners and losers from the New Hampshire primary Sanders wins New Hampshire primary Trump swipes at resigned prosecutors, judge in Roger Stone case MORE in 2016.
“We need African American voters to come out strongly for the Democratic nominee,” Smikle added.
Trump seemed to sharpen his appeal to black voters this week, which coincided with the beginning of the presidential contest in earnest with the Iowa caucuses.
The campaign spent millions of dollars to air a 30-second ad during the Super Bowl that centered on Trump’s work on criminal justice reform. The ad featured emotional clips of Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old African American woman who had her lifetime prison sentence for a nonviolent drug offense commuted by Trump in June 2018, reuniting with her family. It also highlighted the passage of the bipartisan First Step Act months later.
“Politicians talk about criminal justice reform,” the ad reads. “President Trump got it done.”
In one of the many made-for-TV flourishes during Tuesday’s State of the Union, Trump recognized Janiyah Davis, a fourth grader from Philadelphia who he said had been unable to attend a better school because the state’s governor had vetoed school choice legislation.
Trump announced that Davis, who along with her mother was a guest of the White House, would be received an “opportunity scholarship” allowing her to relocate to the school of her choice.
The president also made it a point in his address to highlight historic low unemployment rates for African Americans, a stat he cites during nearly every campaign event.
Three days later, Trump delivered remarks in Charlotte to highlight opportunity zones established through the Republican tax cut bill passed in late 2017 aimed at spurring investment in lower-income areas.
Trump in December signed a bill to provide tens of millions of dollars annually to historically black colleges and universities and in November attended the launch of Black Voices for Trump, one of several coalition groups formed by his reelection campaign to target subsets of voters.
The courtship of black voters is more organized and refined than it was during Trump’s 2016 White House bid, when he famously appealed to black voters by asking them what they had to lose by taking a chance on him.
Trump’s allies have repeatedly dismissed charges of racism, and the president has described himself as “the least racist person” in the world.
Still, there are questions about how substantive the approach will be and whether it will sway enough voters to make a difference come November.
Eric McDaniel, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said Trump will face questions about his sincerity toward black voters given past allegations of racism and the GOP’s overall track record on outreach to minorities.
“You’ll see a lot of these things happen where the Republican Party will try to put forward an image of being racially inclusive; however, they won’t change their party platform,” McDaniel said. “So a lot of this is image work.”
“Sometimes it’s not really done to court black voters at all,” he added. “Sometimes it’s to court whites who feel uneasy about the party’s negative racial image.”
McDaniel pointed to Trump’s decision to honor Rush Limbaugh, a highly controversial and influential conservative radio host with a history of making racist remarks, a short time after recognizing Davis at the State of the Union as evidence of how he tends to undercut his own efforts to appeal to African Americans and suburban voters.
The campaign believes that a strategy focused on highlighting issues such as school choice, the creation of opportunity zones and criminal justice reform could help Trump expand on the portion of this voter bloc that he won in 2016.
“At the end of the day, my effort has been to show in very measurable terms what the president’s policy initiatives are and their impact and then work with the president and the administration in making sure that we frame it right rhetorically,” said Blackwell.
Asked whether Trump’s rhetoric is a problem, Blackwell acknowledged that there was work to be done in that area but said that the administration’s agenda would ultimately be more important to voters.
“I think in the final analysis, the achievements and the measurable benefits of his policies will trump rhetoric,” Blackwell said.