The particularly intriguing part of what Channel 4 found isn’t that latter information, which has been vastly exaggerated in both its contents and its role in 2016. Instead, the most interesting revelation is that the Trump campaign moved voters into five groups: certain Trump and Hillary Clinton voters, persuadable voters who hadn’t chosen a side, Trump voters who would need to be encouraged to vote — and Clinton voters who should be “deterred” from voting.
That latter group had one defining characteristic: It was mostly non-White.
“In total, more than three-and-a-half million Black voters were marked ‘deterrence,’ ” reporter Krishnan Guru-Murthy said in the Channel 4 report. “If you include other ethnic minorities, they made up 54 percent of the deterrent segment.”
At another point, Guru-Murthy said: “Now, we can reveal for the first time that many [Black voters] had been identified by the Trump campaign and its supporters. Their aim? Not to win their votes, it seems, but to get them to stay at home on Election Day.”
This assertion is, in fact, not bolstered by the rest of the report.
It’s not a new revelation that the Trump campaign was hoping to tamp down Black turnout in 2016. Shortly before the election, reporters from Bloomberg News visited the Trump campaign war room, where they were explicitly told that the campaign wanted to limit the number of Black people who turned out that year.
“We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” an official with the campaign told Bloomberg’s Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg. Among the targets were Black voters.
The team was even told specifically how that would work.
On Oct. 24, Trump’s team began placing spots on select African American radio stations. In San Antonio, a young staffer showed off a South Park-style animation he’d created of Clinton delivering the “super predator” line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook “dark posts” — nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as [then-digital director Brad] Parscale puts it, “only the people we want to see it, see it.” The aim is to depress Clinton’s vote total. “We know because we’ve modeled this,” says the official. “It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”
In fact, Black turnout was down in 2016. An analysis of the Census Bureau’s voter turnout data determined that Black turnout was down from 67 percent to about 60 percent between 2012 and 2016, with the density of Black voters declining from 13 to 12 percent. Another review of voter information found that 4.4 million people who had supported Barack Obama in 2012 did not vote in 2016. More than half of that group was non-White and a third Black.
But it’s not necessarily the case that the Trump campaign’s alleged effort to depress Black turnout was why turnout was depressed. Before the election (and the alleged effort detailed above) there were already reports that enthusiasm for Clinton was down among Black voters, relative to Obama. There’s at least one obvious reason that might be the case: Obama was the nation’s first Black president. In 2004, Black turnout was at 61 percent, jumping to 69 percent in 2008 when Obama was first on the ballot. The 60 percent in 2016 was essentially back to pre-Obama levels.
Nonetheless, Trump repeatedly celebrated that decrease in turnout.
“Remember the famous line, because I talk about crime, I talk about lack of education, I talk about no jobs. And I’d say, what the hell do you have to lose? Right?” Trump said of his pitch to Black voters at a rally in December 2016. “It’s true. And they’re smart and they picked up on it like you wouldn’t believe. And you know what else? They didn’t come out to vote for Hillary. They didn’t come out. And that was a big — so thank you to the African American community.”
Trump’s campaign wanted Black people to stay home. Black people stayed home. Trump was happy.
The Channel 4 report never establishes anything more than that the campaign flagged a disproportionate number of Black people as “deterrence” targets. It alludes vaguely to ads targeting those communities (something, again, detailed by Bloomberg News in 2016) but never explains what scale those ads might have reached. You or I could make an ad trying to persuade people to buy something, but if we show it to only 100 people, it’s tricky to take credit for thousands of sales.
Instead, it uses the “deterrence” categorization to build a gauzy allegation of deviousness.
Black voters in Wisconsin, Guru-Murthy says at one point, “made up just 5.4 percent of voters but 17 percent of the deterrence group. More than a third of Black voters were classified as deterrence. Contrast that with the voters the Trump campaign thought it could win over: 75 percent of them were White, but less than 2 percent were Black.”
You don’t need to be an expert on U.S. politics to understand one likely reason that Black voters would largely be categorized by a Republican presidential candidate as voters they would rather see not turn out: Black voters are much more likely to identify as Democrats than Republicans.
Campaigns often use broad demographic categories to identify voters to target or ignore. If you’re a campaign that needs to turn out infrequent voters but don’t have specific polling or voter contact info allowing you to specifically target only your supporters, it might be worth it simply to turn out a demographic group that polling shows backs your candidate heavily. Say you’re winning 80 percent of the vote among those 40 and younger. It’s worth it to simply turn out every voter younger than 40, because for every voter you get to the polls who votes for your opponent, four will vote for you. That’s worth it — just as it would be worth it for your opponent to hope those voters stayed home.
In Wisconsin, there are currently about 4.5 million people registered, according to data from L2, a political data firm, about 4.4 percent of them Black. About 1.4 million of those 4.5 million are probably Democrats and 1.4 million probably Republicans. (The state doesn’t have partisan registration.) Of the likely Democrats, 14 percent are Black. Of the likely Republicans, less than 0.2 percent are. If you’re trying to “deter” voters from casting a ballot based on their likelihood to support Hillary Clinton, the odds are good that the pool of voters you’re targeting is going to be more heavily Black than the voting population overall.
It’s quite fair to object to the idea that Black voters — or any voters — should be targeted in an effort to suppress their turnout. But there’s no indication that anything particularly exceptional happened four years ago. The Trump campaign certainly thought its effort clever enough to boast about it to Bloomberg’s reporters, but its use of negative ads to suppress enthusiasm for Clinton is absolutely a standard tool of any political campaign. (It’s also a tool that may not work particularly well, regardless.)
One of the effects of Trump’s surprising win in 2016 has been to elevate its tactics as unusually savvy or innovative. In reality, the campaign poured massive amounts of money into Facebook, largely to boost fundraising, as its candidate leveraged rhetoric that past Republicans shied away from about immigrants and terrorism. Black turnout fell from 2012, but it is probably smarter to attribute that to the change in the Democratic ticket, more than radio ads run by Trump’s campaign.
At one point in the Channel 4 report, Guru-Murthy shows a Black voter who was on the “deterrence” list a negative ad from the Trump campaign targeting Clinton.
“Isn’t it possible that some of that advertising influenced you at the time?” Guru-Murthy asks the voter.
“It’s possible that it influenced somebody, but it doesn’t influence me,” the voter said. “I’m 100 percent sure.”
“We can’t know what effect these ads had on each voter that saw them,” Guru-Murthy says in a subsequent voice-over. “But for the first time in 20 years, Black turnout fell.”
In case you needed an example of the mantra “correlation does not equal causation” for your introductory Logic class.