Read: When the president lashes out
Most dramatically, a Quinnipiac University poll from late last month tested one of the harshest possible phrasings of the question by asking flatly, “Do you think President Trump is racist, or don’t you think so?” In that poll, a 51 percent majority of registered voters said they believe that Trump is a racist (while 45 percent said he is not). The share describing him as a racist included 54 percent of college-educated whites, 55 percent of Hispanics, 56 percent of independents, 80 percent of African Americans, and a majority of respondents from every age group.
By contrast, nearly three-fifths of whites without a college degree, three-fourths of white evangelical Christians, and more than nine in 10 Republicans said Trump is not a racist.
In 2016, Belcher was among the Democratic strategists who warned that some white voters who described Trump as racist would vote for him anyway. But Belcher now believes that Trump will have more trouble winning such voters in 2020, because they have been unnerved by all of the racial conflict during his presidency, from the white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, to the El Paso, Texas, mass shooting.
In 2016, Belcher says, many white voters “didn’t have skin in the racism game. It was okay for them to not disqualify him over it. What Trump is doing now is putting skin in the game for middle-of-the-road white voters.”
“You talk to suburban college-educated white women—yes, they are concerned about health care, they are concerned about the economy,” Belcher adds, “but I got to tell you, a dominant part of their conversation is, ‘What does the future hold if we continue along this divided path? What kind of America are my kids going to have with this sort of division?’”
Similarly, Geoff Garin, a senior adviser for the leading Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, told me that focusing on the consequences of Trump’s words may prove more fruitful for Democrats than debating whether they are motivated by racist feelings on his part. “Leaving aside what his intentions are and what’s in his heart,” he said, “I think many Americans feel that Trump has made the country more divided and more polarized, including along racial lines, and that is very unhealthy and worrisome.”
The recent Quinnipiac poll indicated that very few voters who see Trump as racist are finding other reasons to support him. In that poll, fully 94 percent of these voters also said they disapprove of his performance as president, according to unpublished results provided to me by Quinnipiac. Just 3 percent of those who called Trump racist said they approve of him. The share of voters who said Trump is not a racist but disapprove of him anyway was higher than that: 9 percent.
Taken together, Quinnipiac found that 38 percent of registered voters said Trump is not a racist and approve of his performance, which may be a good approximation of his hard-core base. But he faces the stark reality that a much larger group—48 percent—both said he is a racist and disapprove of his performance in office.