WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump isn’t known for fostering deep connections with the Black community.
From his earliest days as a New York real estate developer, Trump has faced accusations of racist business practices. He spent years spreading the lie that Barack Obama, America’s first Black president, was ineligible to hold office. When he was president, Trump derided “shithole countries” in Africa and said four congresswomen of color should go back to the “broken and crime-infested” countries they came from, ignoring the fact that all of the women are American citizens and three were born in the U.S.
But as he seeks the presidency for a third time, Trump is aiming to win over an unlikely constituency: Black voters.
“Have you seen our poll numbers with African Americans and with Hispanic Americans? But I’m not that surprised because I see it, I feel it,” Trump declared during a rally in Atkinson, New Hampshire, days before the state’s primary. “We did great in 2016, we did much better in 2020 but there is much more enthusiasm now.”
There’s little evidence that Trump is making significant inroads with Black voters, who polls show remain overwhelmingly supportive of President Joe Biden. But even minor changes in voting patterns in critical states could shift the race in unexpected ways.
For Biden, the biggest risk isn’t a dramatic move among Black voters toward Trump. It’s that such voters — frustrated by a range of issues, including the lack of progress emerging from the 2020 racial justice movement — simply don’t show up at all. In some of the most narrowly divided states that could decide next year’s election, including Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan, even minor shifts in turnout could sway the results.
Nationally, only 50% of Black adults said they approve of Biden in a December AP-NORC poll, down from 86% in July 2021. That shift represents a larger drop than among adults overall and white adults in particular. At the same time, however, only 25% of Black adults said they have a favorable view of Trump.
Trump’s campaign advisers insist they’re aiming to jump on such shifts to spur a political realignment that would upend the Democratic Party’s decades-long advantage with Black voters.
“We are creating a massive problem for the Democratic Party’s base that … could be altering for a generation,” said Chris LaCivita, a senior adviser on the Trump campaign. “That’s just an opportunity that we would be remiss if we didn’t exploit.”
Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster, noted that Obama faced similar challenges with young voters and voters of color during his 2012 reelection campaign, when many in the Democrats’ base were frustrated by his perceived slow pace of progress on key goals.
“I’m not surprised that Joe Biden right now starts off underperforming among young voters and voters of color. I’d be surprised if he didn’t. But that’s what campaigns are for,” Belcher said. “I’m not panicked that he is down 15 points from where he should be with these voters. Because I’ve seen this play before. I’ve seen it with Barack Obama.”
Trump is hardly moderating his rhetoric on race as he quickly becomes the GOP’s dominant presidential front-runner. Just this month, he mocked Republican rival Nikki Haley’s birth name, repeatedly referred to the American-born daughter of immigrants from India as “Nimbra.” The episode had strong overtones of his earlier efforts to rely on racist tropes to question Obama’s citizenship and eligibility to serve as president.
Trump often highlights endorsements from Black celebrities, including the rappers Kanye West and Lil Wayne, as evidence of his appeal to the Black community. He recently touted the endorsement of a Black Rhode Island racial justice advocate as an endorsement from Black Lives Matter, a move the Black Lives Matter Grassroots organization denounced.
But as he prepares for a rematch against Biden, Trump is stepping up his efforts to present a more diverse group of supporters than during his years in the White House, when he presided over a nearly all white Cabinet. When he won the New Hampshire primary this week, Sen. Tim Scott, the chamber’s only Black Republican, stood prominently behind him. Scott, who once challenged Trump for the GOP nomination, has emerged as one of his most prominent surrogates and speaks often about his record on race.
As Trump closes in on the Republican nomination, his vice presidential pick could be a key opportunity to try to expand his appeal beyond the party’s overwhelmingly white base. Scott is among those who are frequently mentioned as a potential running mate for Trump.
Biden and his fellow Democrats aren’t ceding Black voters to Trump. The president kicked off his reelection bid earlier this month at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where in 2015 nine Black parishioners were shot to death by the white stranger they had invited to join their Bible study.
During his visit, Biden denounced the “poison” of white supremacy in America and noted some of the accomplishments of his administration, including the appointment of Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman to serve as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Biden has also spoken of improving economic conditions for people of color and upended his party’s election calendar to put South Carolina at the start — instead of predominantly white Iowa and New Hampshire — to recognize the diversity of the Democratic Party.
Jaime Harrison, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, accused Republicans of promoting “fairy tales about their plan to win over Black voters.”
“Back here on Earth, the reality is this: Their leader, Donald Trump, pals around with white supremacists, is fighting to overturn Obamacare and throw millions of Black families off their insurance, and celebrated when his right-wing Supreme Court justices voted to block President Biden from delivering massive student debt relief to Black families,” Harrison said.
Both parties are fine-tuning efforts to win over Black voters. Since 2013, the Republican National Committee has established outreach centers focused on minority areas; there are currently 38 such outposts in 19 states catering to various communities. The GOP plans to add two more outreach centers in 2024.
And in contrast to past Democratic efforts, the Biden campaign has opted for an early engagement strategy with core constituencies like Black voters. The campaign rolled out large investments in African American media and other outreach in key swing states.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, said DNC chair Harrison, “won’t rest until we earn every vote because the stakes are that high.”
Matt Brown is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on social media.
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Matt Brown, The Associated Press