Trump’s campaign, and some Republican Party activists, have pointed to polls from last fall that showed him with a higher level of approval among black men and say they will compete for those voters. During his State of the Union address in February, Trump invited several black people as guests, who he used to illustrate his administration’s efforts to address prison sentencing reform, school vouchers and economic development in low-income neighborhoods. In November, the president held a Black Voices for Trump rally in Atlanta, which drew a few hundred Republican and conservative elected officials and activists.
African Americans soundly rejected Trump in 2016, with only 8 percent supporting him. But exit polls showed him getting 13 percent among black men, more than three times the support he got from black women. And even though most polls show the vast majority don’t support his reelection, liberal groups are concerned that even a small uptick in his support or a repeat of low turnout numbers from four years ago could work in Trump’s favor.
Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, said that some young black men are more open to the notion of supporting Trump because they view Democrats with “skepticism” and that there was “some sort of opening” to Trump’s message, which has touted low unemployment numbers and criminal justice reform. But, he noted, “among African Americans and Hispanics across all age groups, we’ve seen Donald Trump’s approval rating decline over the last three weeks,” which Cecil attributes to concerns about the racial and ethnic disparities in serious infections and deaths due to the coronavirus.
Still, he said, liberals have to do more than just bash Trump to win over some black voters. “We know it’s not enough just to talk about Donald Trump. We also must lay out a more proactive, forward-looking agenda about what we are going to do when we get in office,” Cecil said.
Arisha Hatch, director of Color Of Change PAC, said in a statement that “Democrats rely on the Black vote, yet too often fail to speak to the specific needs of Black voters.” She cited “the highest rates of unemployment, even in good economic times, crushing incarceration rates, and structures of inequity at every possible turn.”
She said Color of Change PAC was “thrilled to work with Priorities USA to dig into these needs and develop incisive messages to address them.”
The digital ad campaign will initially target young black voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin. Turnout among black voters in those states was down in 2016 from 2008 and 2012, when African Americans rallied to elect and reelect Barack Obama, the country’s first black chief executive.
Some political scientists have said that, generally, black men are more open to the GOP’s message of self-reliance. More specific to Trump, they have cited his bravado and past associations with black male sports and entertainment celebrities as reasons some find him appealing.
But mostly Trump consistently polls poorly with black Americans, who also recall him as a cheerleader for the birther movement that falsely claimed Obama was born in Kenya, and for his comments toward the Central Park Five, a group of black and Latino men who were wrongly imprisoned for the 1989 rape and beating of a white female jogger. After their arrests, Trump took out a full-page ad in New York newspapers calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty, though it did not mention the group specifically. He has continued to question their innocence and has refused to apologize for his remarks, including last year when a Netflix series brought new attention to their case.
In a Washington Post-Ipsos poll released in January, 9 in 10 black Americans disapproved of Trump’s job performance and 8 in 10 said they believe he is a racist and has made race a bigger problem in the country.
Cecil said his group’s surveys during the past several months have shown former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has high favorable ratings across all age groups among black voters.
But turnout will be important and the new program is aimed at sparking momentum early and keeping it going through the general election. In addition to the $3 million for the upcoming digital campaign with Color of Change PAC, Priorities also has aside $17 million to be spent closer to the November election. Engagement will be even more critical this year because of potential disruptions to normal voting procedures because of ongoing efforts to manage the spread of the coronavirus, organizers say.
Cecil said Priorities has had success in the past with engaging infrequent voters, including last year when it spent $4 million to boost participation for local elections in Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
“Just in running an online program that specifically communicated with infrequent voters about issues they care about, we were able to drive up turnout compared to places where we didn’t run the program,” Cecil said.
An earlier version of this story stated that the effort by Priorities USA and Color of Change PAC would target black male voters. The initiative will seek to persuade both male and female infrequent black voters.