“This entire conversation had to be had. Republican presidential nominees usually aren’t bold enough to go into communities of color and take the case right to them, and compete for all ears and compete for all votes. They’ve been afraid to do that. So, Mr. Trump deserves credit for at least taking the case directly to the people.”
— Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, interview on “Good Morning America,” Aug. 26, 2016
In this interview, Conway was asked about Trump’s speech last week on the state of black communities, delivered to a mostly white audience. She said that Trump deserves credit for “taking the case directly to the people,” and that even though the audience was mostly white, she hoped black voters were listening.
The Trump campaign has begun its outreach to black communities. In the interview, Conway pointed to an Aug. 25 meeting held at Trump Tower with African Americans in a Republican National Committee leadership program. There were 13 people who were not with the RNC or the Trump campaign there. Conway painted Trump’s outreach as unique, because “Republican presidential nominees usually aren’t bold enough to go into communities of color and take the case right to them.”
Readers wanted to know: Is that accurate?
Richard Nixon narrowly lost his first presidential bid in 1960, winning the white vote 51 percent to 49 percent over John F. Kennedy. But Nixon lost the nonwhite vote by 32 percent to 68 percent, and attributed his loss to his results in the black community. (Republican Dwight Eisenhower, whom Nixon served as vice president, won 39 percent of the black vote in 1956.)
In a 1962 interview with Ebony Magazine, geared toward black readers, Nixon lamented not reaching out to the black community more aggressively. He had decided not to comment on an arrest of Martin Luther King Jr., nor call the family, as Kennedy had — and his silence reverberated more than he had imagined.
Nixon said that Republicans can’t just sit and assume that black voters would judge them based on their record, whatever it may be. He learned he had to go out and make a case.
“We can’t say to Negroes, ‘Come to us,’ we’ve got to go after them,” Nixon said in the 1962 interview. “We’ve got to change the image of the GOP among Negroes. The Democrats are well organized and well financed — but we’ve got to get into the Negro areas if we expect to mold a party for all people. We’ve got to convince Negroes they’re better off economically under a GOP president.”
In his successful 1968 campaign, Nixon made an effort to win over black voters, visiting black communities and speaking to various black groups, including the Booker T. Washington political club in Portland, Ore. Nixon, and Ronald Reagan in 1980, took out full-page advertisements in JET and Ebony magazines, geared toward African American readers, about issues that affected black communities.
Every Republican presidential nominee since Nixon has made a direct overture to make their case to the community. They weren’t always greeted with enthusiasm, but black leaders and audiences nonetheless heard them out.
At the very least, nominees attended conventions of major gatherings of African American professionals or communities, such as the NAACP, National Urban League and National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). They also have gone to black religious organizations or talked to pastors.
By contrast, Trump has declined the invitation of the NAACP, National Urban League and NABJ to speak at their 2016 conventions.
Since 1976, three presidential nominees other than Trump have declined to speak at the NAACP convention in an election year, according to the organization. Reagan did not speak in 1980, but he did in 1981 and apologized, saying the invitation in 1980 had arrived late. Reagan instead spoke to the National Urban League in 1980. Reagan once visited the South Bronx and told residents he would work to rebuild the area — though he ultimately ended up in a shouting match with residents.
George H.W. Bush spoke to the NAACP during his 1988 campaign but not during his reelection campaign in 1992. George W. Bush spoke to the NAACP during his first run for the presidency in 2000. In 2004, he attended the National Urban League’s meeting.
Robert J. Dole did not speak at the July 1996 NAACP convention, citing a scheduling conflict. But he also had said that the president of the NAACP was “trying to set me up” to be embarrassed. Dole’s aides suggested that attending the meeting would have been like walking into a lion’s den, and his rejection was seen as a snub to black leaders. Two months later, Dole and his vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp attended the NABJ convention, where Dole apologized for declining the NAACP invite.
John McCain and Mitt Romney also spoke before the NAACP, in 2008 and 2012 respectively. McCain also spoke at the National Urban League in 2008, where he faced skeptical questions about his record on issues affecting black communities.
Talking directly to African American communities and audiences has been a routine part of general-election campaigning for both parties, said Leah Wright Rigueur, an expert on black Republican politics and professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. It hasn’t always been sophisticated or nuanced, and it doesn’t always work, but the candidates have still made their pitch. There’s been no such direct outreach effort by the Trump campaign, Wright Rigueur said.
“One of the constants, one of the common threads that run throughout all of this is actually getting up and going into black communities, and not just talking about black people,” Wright Rigueur said. “Not just lecturing. Not preaching. But actually listening to African Americans and saying, these are the kinds of issues that you’re facing and I want to put forward solutions to really address these issues.”
Conway said in a response to The Fact Checker that Trump has taken steps to reach out to communities of color. Last week, there was a roundtable with black and Latino Republican leaders, where they laid out their concerns to Trump, she said. Trump is scheduled to speak at a black church in Detroit, where he will talk about issues affecting the community, such as unemployment, education and safety in the inner city, she said.
“It is important that Mr. Trump is taking his message to these communities of color,” Conway said. “In the past, Republicans have occasionally shown up at different forums, but they do not continue with this message trying to reach all Americans.”
Up against Barack Obama, the first African American president, “John McCain got 4 percent of the African American vote, and Mitt Romney improved that to a whopping 6 percent. We are fighting for every single vote,” Conway added. “That includes going where the voters are and not just checking the box; taking the case directly to them. Detroit is the first step; in the coming weeks you will continue to see Mr. Trump becoming more active in these communities.”
We noted to her our finding that every previous Republican nominee made a direct case in some way, such as the forums she mentioned, and our conclusion that her claim was inaccurate. Conway responded: “The claim is correct, unless one conflates official forums with ‘communities of color.’ They are different. We are saying the same thing, but your conclusion is different.”
The Pinocchio Test
As a longtime Republican pollster, Conway should know more about the history of Republican outreach to black communities than most others at the Trump campaign. On its face, this claim is not correct. Republican presidential nominees have routinely made a direct pitch to communities of color, taking their case right to them — at the most basic level, they have done so through a speech to the NAACP, National Urban League or religious groups.
Conway clarified her claim to say that Republicans “have occasionally shown up at different forums, but they do not continue with this message trying to reach all Americans” in communities of color. Trump is gearing up his black community outreach, and he certainly is doing it in his own way — like he has done so with the rest of the campaign. It remains to be seen whether Trump deserves credit, or whether he’ll go beyond what Republicans have done in the past. So far, by declining to speak at the NAACP, National Urban League and NABJ, Trump has not met the basic level of what his predecessors have routinely done.
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