Writing for the Atlantic, Salena Zito defined the phenomenon elegantly shortly before the election.
“The press takes [Trump] literally, but not seriously,” she wrote, “his supporters take him seriously, but not literally."
There was an appeal to Trump that pundits didn’t appreciate, a loyalty to the way in which he presented himself, which wasn’t shaken by demonstrations of insincerity or what would in any other context be considered massive political gaffes. To some extent, in fact, the loyalty was self-reinforcing: If you were a Trump supporter, attacks on Trump became a reason to move closer to him, a demonstration of how he was being targeted.
For Trump’s opponents, including the eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, this was frustrating. How could his base be so unshakable that they would take his side even in fights where no other Republican politician would retain similar loyalty? His mocking imitation of a disabled reporter, his fight with the parents of a soldier killed in Iraq, his disparagement of long-standing party figures — none proved disqualifying for millions of voters. On Election Day, Trump’s core base turned out with enthusiasm and, joined by just-enough Republicans who were showing up with somewhat less enthusiasm, Trump narrowly won.
Imagine, then, how frustrating it must be for Trump to see his 2020 opponent benefiting from the same effect.
Former vice president Joe Biden was in trouble after the first few Democratic nominating contests this year. He fared poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada, leading to assumptions that his candidacy was doomed and speculation about whom the Democrats would nominate instead. But those states — Iowa and New Hampshire in particular — weren’t ones where his most loyal base of support, Black voters, featured significantly.
When the race got to South Carolina, where 56 percent of voters were Black according to exit polls, Biden romped. He won 6-in-10 Black votes and quickly demonstrated a significant advantage in the still-crowded field. Other more-moderate candidates collapsed their support into his, and he won the nomination.
This was not because Biden was dominant in the debates or because, like Trump, he suddenly emerged as a contrast to the unpopular party establishment. Quite the opposite: Biden's strength with Black voters was in large part a function of his history with the party, of his more-moderate views and of his existing relationships with and in the Black community.
The result, though, was similar. He had a core base of support that other candidates couldn’t match, giving him a strength that cemented his position firmly. In 2016, Trump’s base was mostly homogeneous throughout the primary contests, while Biden had to stick it out past Iowa and New Hampshire before his base would have a chance to weigh in.
Trump and his reelection team clearly recognize that Biden’s support among Black voters is a potential hurdle for November. The president has repeatedly — and incredibly — argued that he has done more for Black Americans than nearly any prior president, a claim that fails to stand up to scrutiny. His campaign has attempted to woo Black voters with targeted outreach, though it also seems to be replicating its quiet 2016 strategy of undermining Biden’s support with the community where it can. (There are some hints, for example, that Republicans are working to get Kanye West on the ballot in key states to pull away black votes.)
The president has also repeatedly tried to gin up frustration explicitly. When Biden told a radio host that Black voters who support Trump “ain't Black,” the president and his allies amplified the message as disqualifying for several days. When Biden on Thursday said that “unlike the African American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community with incredibly different attitudes about different things,” the response was similar.
“After yesterday’s statement, Sleepy Joe Biden is no longer worthy of the Black Vote!” Trump tweeted on Friday morning, one of a series of tweets focused on the comments.
Biden's campaign quickly argued that the claim was about political and not cultural differences. (It is true that Hispanic voters are less homogeneously Democratic than are Black voters.) But the phrasing Biden used, once again, opened the door for the criticism, however sincere.
Fumbles like these probably don’t do much to encourage Black voters to support Biden more than they otherwise might. It’s not the case that Biden’s base views the media skeptically or with as much hostility as does Trump’s, meaning that critical reporting isn’t as readily transformed into a them-vs.-us fight.
But there’s also no evidence that efforts to use Biden’s awkward comments to tamp down on Black support or enthusiasm have had any significant effect. In June, shortly after Biden’s “ain’t Black” comment, Post-Ipsos polling showed Biden with an 87-point lead over Trump among Black voters. Trump’s support hadn’t changed since a similar poll in January. In 2016, Clinton won Black voters by 81 points.
Black voters (and many Democrats) take Biden seriously, not literally. His gaffes, like Trump’s aggressive rhetoric, are part of the package. They spur enormous amounts of energy from his opponents, who are left gesticulating wildly and exclaiming that, surely, this must be too much. In the finest tradition of analytical throat-clearing, pundits observing the scenario necessarily point out that maybe this time will be different — as the “diversity” comments might be. But, consistently, it isn’t too much and it isn’t different. It’s just Biden.
Of course, Biden is aided by how Black Americans view Trump. He’s deeply unpopular and broadly viewed by Blacks as racist. Trump tried to navigate the recent protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody by decrying Floyd’s death and also offering his support to police. But, when forced to pick between Black Lives Matter and backing law enforcement, he quickly made clear where his sentiments actually fell, calling the phrase “black lives matter” a “symbol of hate.” Pressed to acknowledge racial disparities, Trump instead focused on white victimhood.
Trump was similarly aided by how voters viewed his primary opponents and how they viewed Clinton. He gained the benefit of the doubt from his base in part because of who he was and what it said about him that he took the positions he did. But he also got the benefit of the doubt thanks to his opponents. Trump won voters who disliked both him and Clinton by 17 points.
In recent polling, Biden leads Trump with those who dislike both candidates by 27 points.
For its loyalty, Trump’s base has gotten what it wanted. It took seriously his opposition to the establishment and his single-minded focus on curtailing immigration, and Trump delivered. It didn’t happen literally — Mexico hasn’t paid for the wall — but it happened. Biden’s base clearly expects him to focus on reshaping the country in the ways his campaign has presented, including with specific policies meant to address concerns in Black and Latino communities.