President Trump’s reelection campaign offered Axios a taste of its strategy for wooing black and Hispanic voters in next year’s presidential contest. The campaign will talk about the economy, as expected, and for black voters will talk about the criminal justice reform bill that Trump signed last year. To make its pitch, the campaign says it will target strategic areas, like Detroit and its suburbs and Arizona.
It’s not clear what the campaign actually plans to accomplish. It seems very safe to say that it understands that it won’t win more black or Hispanic votes than its Democratic opponent. The last time that Democrats earned less than 85 percent of the black vote in House races was 1996. That year, Democrats won 82 percent.
But, of course, Trump doesn’t need to win black voters. There are two strategies that may prove just as useful: Doing a bit better with black voters than he did in 2016 or keeping black turnout down. Or, really, both.
Before we assess the campaign’s 2020 plan, it’s worth reviewing what Trump did in 2016.
Last year, an analysis of voter records found that about 4.4 million people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 failed to vote in the 2016 election. Of that group, 36 percent were black — about 1.6 million people.
In the 2016 election, exit polls suggest that 89 percent of black voters supported Hillary Clinton, meaning that Clinton might have missed out on 1.4 million votes due to black Obama voters staying home. She lost in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by fewer than 78,000 combined.
This corresponds to analysis we did in 2017, looking at precinct-level vote results. Areas that were more heavily black voted more Republican in 2016 than in 2012. (Areas that were more heavily white voted much more heavily Republican.)
This isn’t necessarily a function of black voters supporting Trump more heavily than they did Mitt Romney in 2012. Instead, it likely reflects to some significant extent that black turnout in those places declined more than white turnout from 2012.
We can visualize how that shift in support looked in Michigan and Pennsylvania. Looking at precincts in which at least a quarter of the population is black, according to our analysis, there are a lot more places that showed a shift to the right than to the left.
Trump was very aware of this phenomenon. During his victory tour after the election, he at one point praised black voters for staying home, a function, he claimed, of the appeal of his pitch.
“They didn’t come out to vote for Hillary,” Trump said. “They didn’t come out. And that was a big — so thank you to the African American community.”
According to reporting from Bloomberg shortly before the 2016 election, the campaign was working hard to ensure that they didn’t. A senior campaign official told reporters Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg that they had “three major voter suppression operations under way,” including one aimed at dampening turnout among black voters. In part, the Bloomberg report suggested, that included running under-the-radar ads on Facebook tying Clinton to the 1994 crime bill — a strategy that the new Axios report suggests the campaign will use against former vice president Joe Biden.
There’s another, looser effort underway as well, as The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer reported last week. Trump allies are hyping the idea that black voters are abandoning or should abandon the Democratic Party, seizing upon anecdotal examples to present this as a real phenomenon.
There’s not a lot of evidence that many black Americans are abandoning the Democratic Party. A look at self-identification among blacks as reported in the biannual General Social Survey shows that blacks are more likely to identify as independent than they used to be — but, then, so are Americans overall. Relative to the overall population, black Americans in 2018 reported being about 30 percentage points more heavily Democratic and about 20 points less Republican. In 2016 and 2018, the percentage of black voters identifying as independent lined up with the population overall after being less likely to identify as independent in the prior two decades.
Maybe a slight shift from Democrats to independents, but nothing particularly huge. As the exit poll data at the top of this article show, there hasn’t been any significant jump in support for Republican candidates from black voters, either.
By making this case, though, the Trump campaign isn’t necessarily trying to reflect reality. Instead, it’s doing what its reported suppression effort in 2016 sought to do: Prompt black voters to reconsider their partisan allegiances. Who knows, maybe by arguing that there’s a robust movement by black voters to abandon the Democratic Party the campaign can get a few thousand black voters to be indifferent about voting against Trump in 2020?
So far, there doesn’t appear to be any significant effort to reach out to those black voters in the way that Axios’ report suggested.
In 2016 and again in this cycle, Facebook appears to be the primary vector for Trump campaign spending. The political communications firm Bully Pulpit Interactive tracks Facebook advertising by candidates. So where is Trump’s team putting its money?
Mostly in places where a lot of people live. Heavily black states haven’t been a big focus of ad spending by Trump’s campaign. Neither Michigan nor Arizona has been a particular target either, though the election is still quite a bit in the distance.
What is Trump’s campaign talking about in those ads? Well, Trump, obviously — as well as the president’s upcoming birthday. (Campaigns use events like that to get supporters to “sign cards” — a way of collecting personal information that can then be converted into fundraising requests.) “Criminal justice” ranks 11th, behind “socialism” in those ads.
The campaign does have at least one current ad that involves black Americans, at least tangentially. That’s the one below, in which an African-American model is shown wearing a red Trump cap.
That ad, a fundraising effort, is running nationally.