Do Black Votes Matter to Donald Trump?

The Republican frontrunner’s abrupt cancellation of a press conference with 100 black pastors is symptomatic of his struggles with African American voters.

Donald Trump speaks with members of the black clergy before a rally near Atlanta in October. (Tami Chappell / Reuters)

“I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.”

So Donald Trump claimed back in 2011. But his bravado induces renewed skepticism this week. Last Wednesday, Trump announced that he’d hold a press conference on Monday to announce his endorsement by a coalition of about 100 black religious leaders. It turns out that wasn’t quite what the black religious leaders had in mind. On Sunday, Trump abruptly canceled the press conference, though the meeting was still on.

Never one to avoid throwing gasoline on a fire when there’s a jerrycan handy, Trump didn’t just chalk the reversal up to a miscommunication, as Darrell Scott, an Ohio pastor who helped arrange the meeting, did. Instead, Trump suggested that the ministers had been subverted. “Probably some of the Black Lives Matter folks called them up, said ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be meeting with Trump because he believes that all lives matter,’” he said.

If that seems like an odd way to win over their support, it’s of a piece with Trump’s general record with respect to black voters. He continues to say he plans to win the crucial demographic, even as he does little to court such voters on the issues—and on occasion goes out of his way to alienate them. The weekend before, when a Black Lives Matter activist was roughed up at a Trump rally in Birmingham, Alabama, the Republican frontrunner had strong words of condemnation—for the victim. “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing,” Trump said.

Despite all that, Trump does have some black support. The question is how much. It can be tough to tell, because some of the best pollsters on the primary race so far don’t release crosstabs, but also because there are so few black Republican primary voters that the sample sizes are small and often weighted, creating some ambiguity. A Public Policy Polling survey in mid-November found that 75 percent of African Americans had an unfavorable opinion on Trump, versus just 9 who held favorable views. A Fox News poll in November found that in a head-to-head matchup against Hillary Clinton, only 13 percent of non-white respondents would pick Trump—the lowest in the Republican field. (Ben Carson, at 24 percent, did best among non-white voters.) Only 10 percent of black respondents thought Trump was trustworthy. Going further back, an August Quinnipiac poll found substantial skepticism toward Trump among black voters.

There was at least one result that showed more positive outcomes for Trump. A SurveyUSA poll in September showed Trump taking a quarter of the black vote in a head-to-head matchup against Hillary Clinton. At the time, Philip Bump laid out some reasons to be skeptical about that figure. Among them is that if Trump truly won 25 percent of the black vote, it would be an incredible reversal of the general trend over the last few decades. The best any recent Republican has done with black voters was 17 percent—and that was Gerald Ford in 1976, competing against a southern Democrat and helming a very different Republican Party. In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama won 95 and 93 percent of the African American vote, respectively, and while that number is likely to go down with a white Democratic nominee, it probably won’t go that far down. (Trump stressed his “great relationship” with the black community in 2011 to make the point that black support for Obama had produced “very, very frightening numbers.” He argued that voters were backing Obama on the basis of his race alone, and so might not be as open to supporting Trump on a hinted but never launched 2012 bid.)

The problem for Republicans who want to win the black vote is that African Americans just don’t agree with them on that much. As true as that is for the mainstream GOP, it’s even more acute for Trump. Go back to the Fox News survey. Solid majorities of blacks opposed Trump’s signature initiatives, like building a wall on the Mexican border and deporting all illegal immigrants. Seven in 10 did, however, support a path to legal status for unauthorized immigrants to the U.S. It can’t help that Trump has become the favorite candidate of white supremacists. Trump’s message of grievance and return to the mythical good old days plays well among working-class whites who have seen their status slip in society, but it doesn’t have the same appeal for African Americans, for whom the good old days were rarely all that good.

Perhaps black evangelicals are one group with which Trump might do better. His support among evangelicals overall has been unexpectedly strong. Black churches tend to be conservative on social issues, and President Obama’s backing for gay marriage in 2012 created worries that black voters would desert him in his quest for reelection. Instead, the opposite happened: The campaign heavily courted black pastors to keep them in the fold, the president’s share of the black vote barely budged, while African American support for marriage equality moved upward.

Trump’s not much of a social-issues candidate, but courting black pastors is, if successful, an efficient way to improve outreach in the black community, because of the influence that ministers hold. On Saturday, Trump offered some black pastors VIP passes to his rally in Sarasota. One of them, Sheila Griffin, told Bloomberg she wasn’t upset about Trump’s comments about Black Lives Matter. “Oh goodness. Donald Trump is not a racist—that's just the press looking for a story. What was it? A couple of knuckleheads in a crowd of thousands? It's a non-issue,” she said.

Even if he can win over pastors like Griffin over, though, Trump faces plenty of hurdles to winning the black vote in the general election—something he has pledged to do. And the endorsement fracas suggests he may not even be able to win over the pastors.