Why Black Voters Are Rejecting Trump

Polling within the margin of error among African Americans, the Republican tries new outreach—but his approach seems doomed to failure.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Although Donald Trump has long claimed to “have a great relationship with the blacks,” the polls tell a different story, with Trump frequently polling in the single digits among black voters. Over the last few days, the Republican nominee has added a new passage to his stump speech, reaching out to the African American community.

Speaking in Akron, Ohio, Monday night, Trump said:

Our government has totally failed our African American friends, our Hispanic friends and the people of our country. Period. The Democrats have failed completely in the inner cities. For those hurting the most who have been failed and failed by their politicians—year after year, failure after failure, worse numbers after worse numbers. Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing, no homes, no ownership. Crime at levels that nobody has seen. You can go to war zones in countries that we are fighting and it's safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats. And I ask you this, I ask you this—crime, all of the problems—to the African Americans, who I employ so many, so many people, to the Hispanics, tremendous people: What the hell do you have to lose? Give me a chance. I'll straighten it out. I'll straighten it out. What do you have to lose?

He added, “Look, it is a disaster the way African Americans are living .… We’ll get rid of the crime. You’ll be able to walk down the street without getting shot. Right now, you walk down the street, you get shot.”

But Trump’s outreach faces several key hurdles. The Republican Party has long struggled to win over black voters, a problem exacerbated by Trump’s flirtation with white supremacists throughout the presidential campaign. Trump’s dour, bleak message is increasingly at odds with attitudes among black Americans, who, while concerned about racism and other problems, are more optimistic about the future than their white counterparts. Finally, Trump has chosen to pair his outreach to black voters with simultaneous racially charged accusations about rigged elections.

Trump’s low standing with black voters is unprecedented in the modern era. Political scientist Larry Sabato observes:

After months of blithely asserting that black voters will support him or else simply ignoring his poor standing, Trump has recently begun to address it, approaching the problem with a mixture of humility and bravado.

“In recent days, across this country, I've asked the African-American community to honor me with their vote,” Trump said in Virginia over the weekend. “I fully recognize that outreach to the African-American community is an area where the Republican Party must do better.” Yet he also predicted he’d sweep the black vote during his 2020 reelection campaign. “At the end of four years, I guarantee you that I will get over 95 percent of the African-American vote.”

That would be truly remarkable. As I reported in November 2015, the best any Republican has done with black voters in the last few decades was Gerald Ford’s 17 percent in 1976, running against a Southern Democrat in an era when Dixiecrats and Democratic support for segregation were still within recent memory. (At the time, one poll showed Trump pulling 25 percent of the black vote; most analysts predicted the real numbers would be much lower, and here we are.) What’s more, a 95 percent total would match only Barack Obama in 2008, and would exceed his 2012 showing among African Americans.

Nor do his recent appeals seem likely to close the gap much. First, Trump’s approach risks coming across more as lecturing than as reaching out. His comments in Akron were similar to a riff he delivered in Michigan on Friday, calling on black voters to give him a chance.

“You're living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?”

This paternalistic tone has been Trump’s hallmark of late—for example, in his nomination-acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, where he told listeners, “I alone can fix it.”

Trump’s caricatures of black communities as dens of crime, poverty, and shiftlessness are not likely to win him many fans. (In May, when the journalist Robert Draper asked him the most dangerous place he’d ever been, he quipped, “Brooklyn.” He was probably not referring to the threat posed by Williamsburg gentrifiers.) Not all blacks are living in poverty. While some black Americans live in rough neighborhoods, others do not. And African American voters are widely concerned with racial discrimination, both at the hands of the police and criminal-justice system and otherwise. Calling for more stringent policing is not necessarily the solution that black communities want. Trump, in contrast, has made praising the police a regular part of his speech, and when asked whether he believed African Americans were subject to bias, he said he could empathize because the election system was “rigged” against him.

Trump might be able to craft a more effective outreach message if he were spending meaningful time seeking out African American voters and leaders. But Trump has tended to avoid black organizations and black communities. He skipped the annual convention of the NAACP, which is typically not a friendly audience for a GOP candidate, but which Mitt Romney visited in 2012. Trump supporters complained to The Wall Street Journal that the candidate had skipped out on other chances to speak to black audiences.

Meanwhile, he’s delivering his appeals to black voters in overwhelmingly white places. Trump began his latest African American outreach with what was billed as a speech in Milwaukee, where protests erupted recently after police shot and killed Sylville Smith, a black man. But the event was actually in suburban Washington County, Wisconsin, which is 96 percent white. In Michigan, Trump spoke in Eaton County, which is 88 percent white. During an appearance on CNN Monday night, Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski suggested that Trump felt unsafe holding events in African American centers, an argument likely to alienate black voters even further. It’s certainly true that black communities may not be favorably disposed to Trump, but that’s the problem he’s trying to fix in the first place.

Trump continues to view minority communities through an essentialist lens, as groups whose interests can be distilled to economic insecurity. He tends to speak about them as a monolithic and inherently separate group from himself and his campaign—and, by extension, his base. It’s little wonder black voters aren’t flocking to him. “We're going to have great relationships with the Hispanics,” he said in May. “The Hispanics have been so incredible to me. They want jobs. Everybody wants jobs. The African Americans want jobs. If you look at what's going on, they want jobs.” He has since added crime to the list of worries, part of his more recent attempt to position himself as the candidate of law and order.

According to some media narratives, appealing to economic anxiety has been highly successful with white voters. As my colleague Derek Thompson notes, that’s too simplistic a view, and “economic anxiety” is to a great extent inextricable from racial insecurities; moreover, Trump isn’t winning enough white voters to win the election.

The approach is even less likely to work with black voters. Outside of these bread-and-butter economic issues, as I wrote in November, Trump faces the intractable problem that black Americans lean liberal and simply disagree with his signature policies. They, like white voters, have a range of concerns, aspirations, and views, and when it comes to economic insecurity, African Americans (as well as Hispanics) are more optimistic than their white fellow citizens.

As my colleague Russell Berman wrote one year ago, “white Americans—and in particular those under 30 or nearing retirement age—have all but given up on the American Dream.…  By contrast, 43 percent of African Americans and 36 percent of Latinos said The Dream is alive and well.” In a 2015 survey sponsored by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute, barely a quarter of whites deemed the nation on the right track, but almost two-thirds of African Americans felt it was on the right track. For these demographics, “Make America Great Again” sounds like a callback to a Golden Age that never existed; the good old days are in the future.

Even if that were not true, there’s the small matter of Trump’s relationship with white supremacists in America. While he has disavowed the support of former Ku Klux Klan leader (and current congressional candidate) David Duke, just like everyone else, black voters were able to see his vacillation on Duke earlier in the campaign. They’re also able to see the enthusiasm with which white supremacists and “racialists” have embraced Trump. They’re able to see the close alliance between the Breitbart media empire, which has espoused ethnic nationalism, and the Trump campaign, most recently with the hiring of Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon as campaign CEO.

Yet Trump is redoubling his focus on racial dogwhistle politics just as he attempts to court black voters. He’s begun talking repeatedly about how vote fraud is the “only way” he could lose the election. The claim is factually suspect: There’s no evidence for widespread voter fraud in the United States, but worries about fraudulent voting by black voters are a longstanding bogeyman for Republican politicians. Black leaders promptly labeled Trump’s call for poll-watchers to “go down to certain areas and watch and study, make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times” a reference to heavily black urban precincts. As Rick Hasen points out, the Republican National Committee is barred from such poll-watching by a federal consent decree, stemming from intimidation of minority voters in the 1970s and 1980s.

None of this is to say that Trump doesn’t have black supporters. I’ve spoken to many of them at Trump rallies. Another one, Jamie Douglas, wrote an interesting rejoinder to my colleague James Fallows yesterday. Many of these voters have carefully considered reasons for backing the Republican.

That doesn’t change the fact, however, that the overwhelming majority of African Americans are against Trump, for reasons that are not especially obscure. While the vote-rigging talk doesn’t help Trump gain ground among black voters, it’s hard to imagine what he could do at this point to dramatically change his polling. While his standing may regress toward the mean in the coming weeks—and surpass Wallace and Goldwater—Trump’s best chance at uniting 95 percent of African Americans is still likely to be in service of electing Hillary Clinton.