WASHINGTON – When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, he made many promises that seemed unlikely to come to fruition. Perhaps the most exaggerated of all was a statement he made during a visit to Michigan that August: “At the end of four years,” he said, “I guarantee you I will get over 95 percent of the African American vote.”
In the election three months later, Trump received 8 percent of the black vote while Hillary Clinton got 88 percent. Now, 10 months before the 2020 presidential election, Trump’s bold prediction from his first election campaign will be put to the test.
The notion of Trump receiving 95 percent or more of the African American vote is absurd. However, people close to the president believe he has a realistic chance of improving his levels of support from 2016 – maybe even getting more than 10 percent of the black vote. Some, in fact, say such an improvement will be critical in order for Trump to secure reelection.
Against the confidence of the Trump campaign, experts who spoke with Haaretz about the role African Americans will play in this year’s election predicted the opposite scenario: High motivation among African Americans to “vote out” Trump and replace him with a Democratic candidate. The only thing on which both sides seemed to agree was that this constituency will have an important – perhaps even decisive – impact.
In the 2008 and 2012 elections, African Americans accounted for about 13 percent of all votes cast – with more than 90 percent of them voting for Barack Obama, according to polling by Gallup. Those numbers were unprecedented, and 2016 saw a slight drop in both the level of participation by African Americans and the level of support for the Democratic candidate: Black voters accounted for 12 percent of votes cast, and Clinton got less of their support compared to Obama.
The 8 percent Trump received was an improvement on the Republican nominees in 2008 and 2012, senators John McCain and Mitt Romney. However, the last Republican to win the presidency before Trump, George W. Bush, received 9 percent of the African American vote in 2000 and 11 percent in 2004.
“Trump made a big deal of the 8 percent he received in 2016, but when you look at historical numbers that’s actually a regular – and even slightly low – level of support for a Republican presidential nominee,” says Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at Brennan Center for Justice and a professor at Georgetown University.
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Johnson, who has written on the priorities of black voters for the Washington Post and other leading U.S. publications, tells Haaretz that “Trump got more than the two Republicans who ran against the first-ever African American president, but he underperformed other Republican nominees. The question we need to ask is, can Trump get to 10 percent of the African American vote – which is what a normal Republican candidate not running against Barack Obama should get.”
Swing state votes
The Trump campaign hopes the answer to that question will be positive. Two months ago, as the U.S. media began counting down a year to Election Day, Trump held an event in Atlanta with black supporters. “We’re going to campaign for every last African American vote in 2020,” he promised the crowd, adding that “We’ve done more for African Americans in three years than the broken Washington establishment has done in more than 30 years.”
The event drew about 400 people, according to press reports – a very small number compared to Trump’s standard election rallies. He is likely to hold more events of this kind as the election gets closer, especially in swing states with considerable African American populations such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida.
“After the president won the 2016 election, he put together a team that was focused specifically on policies that are important for the African American community,” a senior official in the Trump administration tells Haaretz. “The reason for it was not political – it would have been easy for him to say, ‘This community overall didn’t vote for me.’ It was about making things better on issues like criminal justice reform, economic opportunity, school choice and more,” the official says.
Three years on, these issues will be at the heart of Trump’s pitch to African American voters. The criminal justice reform, which was led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, is one of the administration’s only bipartisan legislative achievements over the past three years. The legislation – also known as the First Step Act – received rare support from organizations that are usually battling the administration’s policies, such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
“This reform was a step in the right direction,” says Purdue University’s Nadia Brown, who has written extensively on politics in the African American community, specifically about women. “My view is that we should welcome good policies even if they come from a president who has done terrible things. When he gets something right, we should welcome it.”
Brown, however, tells Haaretz that “this isn’t going to get him a lot of black voters. He’s fundamentally unpopular for how he has disrespected black voters and communities, it’s at a level of no return. There is a 30-year history of him making racist comments – you can’t make that go away with one piece of legislation.”
Taken for granted?
The Trump campaign will make several arguments to try to improve his level of support among African Americans, according to a senior source involved in the campaign. Criminal justice reform will be one argument. Another will be the historically low level of unemployment among African Americans under the Trump presidency. But a big part of Trump’s strategy will be to attack the Democratic Party and whoever ends up being its presidential nominee.
“The opportunity for the president to grow his level of support exists not only because of what he’s accomplished, but also because of how the Democrats have taken the black vote for granted,” says the senior official. “You also look at some of the Democrats’ new policies such as the Green New Deal – that’s basically going to raise the cost of living for people. We are going to talk about that.”
The same official adds that “Trump isn’t a typical Republican. He lived and worked most of his life in New York City, he was surrounded by people of all ethnicities and backgrounds, and this is going to be one of his legacies – transforming the Republican Party; bringing in new constituencies that were taken for granted by the Democrats. People in the D.C. bubble don’t think he can do it, but it’s already happening on the ground in the places that matter.”
Johnson offers a different view. “It has long been the aspiration of Republican strategists to get to a point where they can win one out of every five African American voters. If they can do that, get 20 percent of the black vote, they will never lose another election. But that has not happened since the 1960s, when Democratic presidents supported civil rights legislation and the Republican nominee Barry Goldwater opposed it – which caused African Americans to turn against the Republican Party.”
Since Trump entered the White House, Johnson adds, the evidence all points in one direction: more African American enthusiasm to vote against the incumbent. “In the 2018 midterms, turnout for African Americans went up and the Democrats benefited from that,” he says. Polls published right before the midterms showed that 90 percent of African Americans were planning to vote for Democratic candidates. In one poll, 85 percent of black women and 81 percent of black men said they felt “disrespected” by the president.
Brown tells Haaretz that in focus groups she conducted with African American women, two issues kept hurting Trump and the Republican Party: taxes and health care.
“People said his tax cuts didn’t help black communities,” she says. “Where I live, in Indiana, the Republicans ran ads on urban radio stations about the tax cuts, claiming that Democrats did nothing for communities of color and Republicans were getting things done – exactly the message Trump is trying to put out now. But people didn’t see it in their pockets, and they thought all the benefits of the tax cut went to people who already had a lot of money.”
Regarding health care, Brown says: “It keeps coming up in my research as one of the key issues that black women care about and talk about. Trump’s attempt to cancel the Affordable Care Act [Obamacare] has people very troubled. The ACA has problems that need to be fixed, but people appreciate the fact that they have a safety net. They don’t want that to be taken away from them.”
For the Trump campaign, one potential area of growth is a small but consistent difference in voting habits between African American women and men. “Black women support Democratic candidates in higher numbers, and they also tend to vote in higher numbers than black men,” Brown notes. “Most black men also support Democrats, but there is slightly more divergence. Specifically, in 2016, more black men stayed home and didn’t vote than black women.”
Indeed, according to Johnson, “Will they vote?” is just as big a question as “Who will they vote for?”
“We can’t talk about this issue without addressing the issue of voter suppression,” he says. “There are laws passed in many states that are clearly aimed at decreasing African American participation in elections. It can be voter ID laws that are tailored to depress the black vote; much longer wait times in polling stations that serve African American communities. These things had an impact in 2016.”
Johnson, a retired naval officer who served for two decades, tells Haaretz that such measures are harmful not just to African American voters, but to the entire system. “There is historical importance to the African American vote, because of the very long and difficult struggle that was necessary in order to simply gain the right to vote,” he says. “It’s not just about politics in the present; it’s about what America is supposed to stand for as a country.”
According to Johnson, while Trump isn’t likely to scale new heights of support among black voters, it is not impossible for some Republican candidates to do so. One example he gives is the moderate Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, who received “about a third” of the black vote in 2018 – “something that is almost unheard of at the national level,” says Johnson.
While African American voters could have a decisive impact on the presidential election, their role is even greater in the Democratic Party’s primary. They can make up as much as 25 percent of the primary electorate, and more than half of it in certain Southern states.
Recent polls have all shown former Vice President Joe Biden with a commanding lead among African Americans eligible to vote in the primary. One poll published over the weekend by the Washington Post showed Biden getting almost half of the African American vote. His support among this constituency is a major reason why he is currently considered the leading candidate to secure the Democratic presidential nomination.
“There is a clear generational split when it comes to Biden,” says Brown. “There is a strong ‘Obama effect’ with older black voters, including older black women, who remember him as Obama’s VP and see him somewhat as an extension of Obama. When I talk to younger people, including my own students, it’s very different: They are looking for a candidate who will bring change and are attracted to concrete policy proposals.”
Johnson also says that “a majority of black voters in the primary are over 45 and tend to have more moderate, pragmatic political views. They also have a higher level of religiosity. These voters are more comfortable with Biden.”
This split is also a source of opportunity for the Trump campaign and organizations that support the 45th president’s reelection bid. In 2016, social media campaigns in support of Trump – including fake accounts operated by Russian trolls – targeted younger African American voters on social media, not in an effort to convince them to support Trump but rather, with the aim of getting them not to vote for Clinton. A similar effort would likely take place against Biden if he becomes the eventual nominee.
“For the Republican side, their way to win in 2020 is by having lower turnout among African Americans,” Johnson says. “If the turnout goes up and Trump still gets only 8 percent, it will be very difficult for him to win.”