When President Trump takes the stage in Tulsa on Saturday for his first post-coronavirus live rally, 21 members of the Black Voices for Trump advisory board and four of the group’s co-chairs are scheduled to appear with him. This accounts for nearly half of the over 50 surrogates the Trump campaign announced will be on hand for the resumption of in-person “Make America Great Again” events.
Despite daunting poll numbers nationally and in the battleground states, the Trump campaign says it hasn’t given up its drive to increase the president’s share of the black vote from the 8% he won in 2016.
The belief is that even after the coronavirus-induced economic slowdown erased the record low black unemployment seen under Trump, the president can still make some inroads with a subset of black voters, and avoid a surge in black turnout for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, in a few critical swing states by emphasizing jobs, public safety, school choice, and criminal justice reform. Even during the 2018 midterm elections, when Republicans lost the House, several key races saw black men voting in the low- to mid-teens for GOP candidates. This was, in some cases, a return to their pre-Barack Obama voting habits.
“The Trump campaign has a significant advantage because of our long-term investment in data and technological infrastructure. Because of those advantages, our Black Voices for Trump coalition has been able to quickly shift gears and jump right into engaging with black voters and volunteers digitally,” said Trump campaign deputy press secretary Ken Farnaso. “Whether it be our Black Voices for Trump ‘Real Talk’ nationwide conference calls or Black Voices for Trump online panels, our campaign has been on the cutting edge of digital campaigning, not only using existing infrastructure but creating new platforms to reach the black community where they are.”
This includes a defense of Trump’s record from Democratic claims that he has fanned the flames of racial division. “Not only has President Trump made the largest federal investment into funding HBCUs in American history, he’s also led on police reform, criminal justice reform, opportunity zones, school choice, and, not to mention, that during his administration, black Americans have reached record levels of financial success under his leadership,” said Farnaso.
While Trump has emerged as a villain in the Black Lives Matter protests that have broken out all over the country since the death of George Floyd in police custody and has always positioned himself as a “law-and-order” candidate, he has also tried to demonstrate sympathy for black Americans concerned about mistreatment by law enforcement. He met at the White House with black families who have lost relatives due to such violent encounters, including the mother of Ahmaud Arbery. He issued an executive order outlining some basic police reforms and supported legislation by South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott that would go further.
Trump has tried to take a middle ground on police reform, attributing incidents such as Floyd’s death to isolated bad actors in uniform rather than systemic racism. He has defended police officers as overwhelmingly good people and prioritized reforms that will help departments fire bad cops and instill best practices. This has elicited criticism from the Left, which sees this approach as inadequate, but also from some on the Right who would like to see him take a stronger pro-enforcement stance. One such critic, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, is now the most-watched cable news host.
Despite a large number of race-related controversies over the last four years, Trump has largely held steady with minority voters — Biden is doing worse with Hispanics than Hillary Clinton — and lost ground with white voters. Suburban, college-educated whites cost the GOP the House in 2018. Some of these voters, Republican strategists say, and wavering evangelicals can also be soothed by minority outreach.
“We were very pleased to see the president’s very quick, decisive leadership on [police reform] issues,” said Timothy Head, executive director of the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition. “We do like that he is moving quickly and decisively on the things the president can move on.”
Clinton, like Biden, did well with black voters in the Democratic primaries but failed to replicate Obama’s turnout, which helped cost her the election.