At a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Thursday, Donald Trump tried a new strategy to reach out to black voters, simply asking, “What do you have to lose by trying something new?”
In the past, Trump’s messaging for African Americans has centered on employment, predicting last August that he’d win black voters because, he says, “I create the jobs, and they want jobs.”
Omarosa Manigault, who is a former "die-hard" Democrat whose current party affiliation is "undeclared," a pastor, and a breakout contestant on Trump’s hit The Apprentice, echoed similar messaging when she announced her appointment as Trump’s director of African-American outreach at the Republican National Convention.
This week, Trump appears to be turning away from employment to instead follow black voter outreach strategies of Republican candidates before him: Point out how little loyalty to Democrats has done to push African-American voters to change up the ballot.
But even if black voters remain ambivalent about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, Trump’s statement underestimates what drives African Americans to the polls and, often, away from the GOP. Trump and the Republican Party have over the past half-century, and especially over the past year, all but completely alienated black voters and made it damn near impossible for Trump to be recognized as the better option in November.
Richard Nixon made a similar case to black voters
Trump has absolutely no political experience to back up his presidential run, but his campaign’s similarity to Richard Nixon’s is almost uncanny. Like Nixon, Trump is exploiting social unrest and protest to mark himself as the “law and order” candidate. Similarly, Nixon made a case that Democrats, unable to resolve the problems African Americans face, justified a Republican push.
Since 1964, African Americans have been a consistent voting bloc for the Democratic Party, after Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), an opponent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ran against incumbent Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the act into law.
And while Republicans typically won at least a third of black voters prior to 1964, that year an unprecedented 94 percent of black voters voted for Johnson.
Nixon, who won 32 percent of black voter support in 1960 against John F. Kennedy, tried to recover from Goldwater’s losses. And in a 1968 Jet magazine questionnaire, Nixon cited endorsements from black people like Sen. Ed Brooke (R-MA), the first African American popularly elected to the US Senate and well-known as an “independent thinker,” as “symptomatic of what I hope will be an increasing political phenomenon in this country; the realization by black people and their leaders that their best hope lies not in the Democratic plantation politics of the past, but in the kinds of programs as I have put forward.”
As Leah Wright Rigueur, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, noted in The Loneliness of the Black Republican, Nixon’s black voter outreach strategy hinged “on making gestures toward black respectability — one that emphasized self-help, and personal accountability — and elastic tradition embraced by various black communities, ranging from the wealthy, to the militant, to the religious.”
But Nixon’s simultaneous dog-whistle politicking to appeal to white Southerners’ racial resentment, now known as the GOP “Southern strategy,” didn’t bring back the numbers.
Nixon triumphed in the general election, but he only received 15 percent of votes from African Americans, faring better than Goldwater. But after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the highest percentage of black voters Republicans have managed to win was another 15 percent in 1976 for Gerald Ford’s campaign.
And despite his love for “the blacks” and his reassurance that November will prove the feeling is mutual, Trump has yet to grapple with the fact that his racist politicking has exacerbated his virtual loss of a portion of the electorate he wasn’t historically set up to win.
Last month, none of the black people polled in swing states Ohio and Pennsylvania said they supported Trump. He’s currently averaging about 2 percent support from black voters, but he’s still trailing behind the Green Party’s Jill Stein (5 percent) and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson (4 percent), let alone Hillary Clinton (86 percent).
Trump and the GOP did not make themselves a viable option for black voters this election
The fact of the matter is that Trump is quite literally his own worst enemy, and the Republican Party’s, this election. This is especially clear when it comes to black voter outreach.
Black voters are strategically pragmatic. As Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, told Vox during the Democratic primaries, there are a number of black voters who are ideologically moderate or conservative who vote Democrat because the party is better at addressing race issues. Rigueur also noted that black Republicans have one of the highest voting crossover rates for similar reasons.
Indeed, regardless of party affiliation, black voters are caught deciding on the "best" candidate on the grounds of one being the lesser of two evils. And yet the GOP squandered a ripe opportunity to prove they were the better of the two this election.
In 2004, George W. Bush won reelection with 11 percent of the black vote. After Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) pulled only 6 percent of black voters in 2012 (which was slightly better than Sen. John McCain’s record low in 2008 of 4 percent), the party ordered an “autopsy report” to reevaluate what it needed to do to be viable to that section of the electorate moving forward, flagging messaging as a point of focus.
To thwart the sense that the Republican Party simply shut out certain groups, the report sought to make itself synonymous with the “growth and opportunity party” by having Republicans at the federal level take notes from the successes of local and state-level GOP lawmakers, who’ve won by trumpeting economic growth over exclusionary social policies. The report also pushed for a major rebranding, reaching out to voters of color and LGBTQ voters who had all but given up on the idea that the GOP had any interest in them.
Clinton wasn’t a bad candidate to test this new strategy against, either.
Without a doubt, Clinton benefits from national name recognition, beginning as first lady during Bill Clinton’s two terms in the White House, then serving as US senator for New York state and secretary of state under President Obama.
But her name resonates differently along generational lines. Clinton has had to reckon with black millennials rallying against comments like her 1996 speech decrying “superpredators,” which bolstered support for Bill Clinton’s tough-on-crime policies that reflect the increasing trend of mass incarceration.
African-American voters came out to the past two presidential elections in droves. The New York Times reported that the surge nearly erased the racial voter gap in 2008. In 2012, black women had the highest turnout rate (70 percent) of any other voting demographic, making them key to Obama’s reelection.
Nonetheless, Republican voters chose Trump, whose career before this campaign includes multiple racist scandals. On the campaign trail, Trump has retweeted white supremacists, and even declined to disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s endorsement in February on the grounds that he "didn’t know him." Like most things Trump says, this was a lie.
Even Telly Lovelace, the national director of African-American outreach appointed in April shortly after all the GOP’s top black staffers quit, admitted, “This is a crisis.”
Black voters know the stakes are high in elections, mostly because they always have been. This year is no different. But that means they can’t just roll the dice on candidates, because risk simply isn’t a luxury black voters of any political affiliation can afford. Their decisions are typically calculated, based on who is likely to do the least harm in an electoral system.
Trump’s expectation that black voters simply hop aboard his sinking campaign is not only patronizing, presuming black voters don’t know what’s best for them. It also demonstrates, once again, how inept Trump is at knowing what is best for himself.