Can Donald Trump and his campaign win a significant share of the African-American vote in 2020? His campaign insists that they are making inroads in this key Democratic demographic, and the president has gotten some celebrity help in this effort as well. The White House and Trump routinely focus on the historically low unemployment rate among black workers as a key message that his economic policies are paying off for these voters in particular. And although Infrastructure Week has become a kind of running joke, the projects that Trump’s infrastructure agenda will address will likely focus mainly on urban decay, which would benefit these voters most.
So how has that campaign fared? According to a new poll today from the Washington Post and Ipsos, there’s still a lot of work to do. Eight in ten respondents in this sample of over a thousand African-Americans think Trump is a racist, and they’re much more pessimistic about the direction of the country:
President Trump made a stark appeal to black Americans during the 2016 election when he asked, “What have you got to lose?” Three years later, black Americans have rendered their verdict on his presidency with a deeply pessimistic assessment of their place in the United States under a leader seen by an overwhelming majority as racist. …
While personally optimistic about their own lives, black Americans today offer a bleaker view about their community as a whole. They also express determination to try to limit Trump to a single term in office.
More than 8 in 10 black Americans say they believe Trump is a racist and that he has made racism a bigger problem in the country. Nine in 10 disapprove of his job performance overall.
The pessimism goes well beyond assessments of the president. A 65 percent majority of African Americans say it is a “bad time” to be a black person in America. That view is widely shared by clear majorities of black adults across income, generational and political lines. By contrast, 77 percent of black Americans say it is a “good time” to be a white person, with a wide majority saying white people don’t understand the discrimination faced by black Americans.
To some extent, these numbers are about what one would expect in a demographic that has a 70% affiliation with the Democratic Party, and only a 5% affiliation with the GOP. Even the 83% result of the racism questions isn’t terribly surprising; the exact same percentage thinks Trump is racist and has made racism in America worse. This dynamic drives the loyalty of these voters to the Democrats in nearly every cycle, which is why Republicans tend to aim at getting into the double digits rather than having the loftier goals expressed by Team Trump.
The economic argument doesn’t appear to have much foundation, either. Only 19% perceive their own financial situation improving over “the last few years,” with 26% perceiving it to be getting worse. The view is more optimistic when asked broadly, but even so, the voters in this sample score the national economy 42/56, with only 3% calling it “excellent” and 11% calling it “poor.” Simply pointing to the BLS numbers on the monthly jobs reports hasn’t been enough to move the needle, and likely won’t be sufficient for any significant change this year.
So what will it take? This hints at the actual problem perpetuating the divide, emphasis mine:
“As a black person, you’ve always seen all the racism, the microaggressions, but as white people they don’t understand this is how things are going for me,” said Tate, who said he is the only black male teacher in his school. “They don’t live those experiences. They don’t live in those neighborhoods. They moved out. It’s so easy to be white and oblivious in this country.”
This is a point that gets hammered home when talking with black conservatives, too. Republicans can’t expect to make inroads in these communities until they commit to being a part of those communities. That means opening up offices, providing jobs and services to local residents, and engaging voters on their own terms about their issues and concerns. It’s not enough to open a campaign office for a couple of months and cite statistics; all that does is ensure everyone talks past each other.
Team Trump’s not the only one in this election with that problem, either. A CNN panel this morning of black voters in South Carolina talked up their connection to Joe Biden, and their utter lack of connection to Pete Buttigieg:
“There are all sorts of pundits,” Alisyn Camerota says on CNN’s New Day, “that think he has problems with black voters. The poll shows that it’s more than just the pundits. Buttigieg scored second-lowest on favorability in the sample among all Democratic candidates (26/18, with Amy Klobuchar getting 22/10 and Mike Bloomberg 29/23), and comes in dead last in head-to-head with Donald Trump (57%, with Klobuchar at 58%). Joe Biden gets the best rating at 82%.
Trump, by the way, scores no better than 5% against any of these candidates, and that only against Klobuchar. He gets 4% against everyone else, and 35% of respondents say they’d vote for someone else or not at all rather than vote for Buttigieg or Trump. That suggests that the GOP had better prepare itself for another single-digit performance among African-American voters — or find a way quickly to engage them more effectively.
Addendum: Pay attention to what these voters say about African-American candidates, too. Kamala Harris was too abrasive and too disorganized to get their support, and they all but shrug off Cory Booker. During the rest of the conversation, they express unhappiness about getting pigeonholed for voting for Barack Obama, which suggests that the explicit reliance on identity politics by Booker and Harris might have backfired in a big way. That’s what happens when people make assumptions about voting blocs rather than engaging them where they live.