Donald Trump is rapidly trying to turn around his presidential campaign with a vigorous and at times strained effort to shed a label applied to him by a substantial portion of the electorate: racist.
Guided by his new campaign leadership, the Republican nominee has ordered a full-fledged strategy to court black and Latino voters and is mobilizing scores of minority figures to advocate publicly for his candidacy.
Trump is planning trips to urban areas — with stops at churches, charter schools and small businesses in black and Latino communities — and is developing an empowerment agenda based on the economy and education, aides said. Under consideration is an early September visit to Detroit, where retired neurosurgeon and former Republican primary rival Ben Carson would guide him on a tour of the impoverished neighborhoods where he grew up.
Trump’s team also hopes to exploit what the campaign’s internal poll of black voters nationally shows to be a potential vulnerability for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton once voters are informed of the crime policy record of former president Bill Clinton, according to two Trump associates.
At his rallies, meanwhile, Trump has been spotlighting black supporters and making a blunt pitch to minorities. He has described blacks in sweeping and categorical language, suggesting that they are mired in poverty, living in dangerous neighborhoods and have nothing to lose by giving him a chance. He also has changed his tone on immigration by saying he would swiftly deport “the bad ones” living in the country illegally but would use the existing legal process for others — after vowing for more than a year that he would deport them all.
Asked Tuesday whether he might change his hard-line deportation policy to accommodate immigrants who contribute positively to society, Trump told Fox News Channel anchor Sean Hannity, “There certainly can be a softening because we’re not looking to hurt people.”
[Trump’s deportation plan: Do what Obama is doing but ‘with a lot more energy’]
For Trump, the objective is twofold, according to his aides and allies. He wants to make inroads with minority voters, who polls show overwhelmingly support Clinton. He also believes that a more measured approach on race can convince white voters now shunning him — especially women — that he is not the racist that his inflammatory rhetoric might indicate.
“What you’re seeing here is the real Donald Trump: Somebody who wants to make sure that his record of inclusion, his views on keeping all Americans safe, on improving the economy of all Americans comes across,” said Jason Miller, Trump’s senior communications adviser. “It’s very much something that he believes in personally and he wants to make sure that folks realize that he will be an inclusive president for all Americans.”
The challenge for Trump is daunting. Sixty-five percent of all American adults believe the word “racist” applies to Trump at least slightly well, and 35 percent say it applies very well, according to an Associated Press-GfK Knowledge Networks poll in July. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month found that 56 percent of registered voters believe Trump is biased against women and minorities.
Clinton led Trump by 91 percent to 3 percent among blacks and 70 percent to 25 percent among Hispanics in an average of July and August Post-ABC polls.
“After 15 months of denigrating every nonwhite minority in sight, it’s hard to believe that he can actually do significantly better among nonwhites,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres said. “But he may be able to soften his image a bit with some Republican and maybe a few independent whites who have been put off by his harshness thus far.”
Trump made an overture to black voters early last week in Wisconsin and repeated it at subsequent rallies in North Carolina, Michigan, Virginia and Ohio. The crowds at each event were overwhelmingly white.
[‘Racialists’ are cheered by Trump’s latest strategy]
On Monday night at a rally in Akron, Ohio, Trump described the minority experience as: “Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing, no homes, no ownership. Crime at levels that nobody has seen. You can go to war zones in countries that we are fighting and it’s safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats.”
“Look,” he added, “it is a disaster the way African Americans are living, in many cases, and, in many cases the way Hispanics are living, and I say it with such a deep-felt feeling. What do you have to lose?”
Clinton’s campaign released a video on Tuesday that accused Trump of having “built his candidacy on demonizing immigrants” and that featured more than a dozen of Trump’s most incendiary comments. The campaign also organized a conference call with reporters featuring black and Hispanic politicians.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said that after a career spent “insulting and ignoring our community, he has decided now to finally reach out . . . . But he is not talking to us, he is talking at us.”
Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) said Trump is stereotyping: “To him, we are all poor, we are all uneducated, we are all unemployed. . . . Donald Trump has repeatedly proved himself to be a bigot.”
Trump’s advisers said his message should be seen as an opening play in a robust push.
“It’s wise before you start going into these places to put things out there for people to cogitate about, and not just walk into an environment where people might be so hostile they won’t listen to you,” Carson said. “That’s what he has been doing: prepping the ground for what’s to come.”
So far, Trump has declined appearances before minority audiences that many past Republican nominees have made, such as the NAACP convention. Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, said on CNN on Monday that Trump stopped trying to address such large gatherings after he canceled a March rally at the University of Illinois at Chicago because so many protesters showed up.
“You know what happened?” Lewandowski said. “The campus was overrun, and it was not a safe environment.”
[In the latest shift, Donald Trump’s campaign seems to waver on mass deportations]
Carson said he has had several conversations with Trump about his upbringing in a poor, mostly black section of Detroit, which led to discussions about Trump visiting there. Carson said Trump intends to develop and promote policies on school choice and vouchers, public aid programs that can help keep families together, and potentially prison reform.
“He recognizes that what’s been going on for the last 50 years in major cities has not uplifted anybody,” Carson said. “He’s going to talk about a different way, about empowering people through education in the inner cities, where failing schools have been protected by politicians.”
Last Thursday, the Republican National Committee hosted a conference call with nearly 100 black leaders, RNC chief strategist Sean Spicer said. On the call, Trump’s director of African American outreach, Omarosa Manigault — a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” the NBC reality television show that starred Trump — outlined a plan to boost the GOP nominee.
“The Democrats continue to take the African-American community for granted,” Manigault said in a statement provided by the campaign. “It is disconcerting that they would rather pander than formulate substantive policy plans that would actually improve conditions as opposed to continue down the current path of the last eight years.”
In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney won just 6 percent of the black vote, according to exit polls.
“We have to do better,” said Spicer, who now spends a few days a week in New York working in concert with Trump’s senior staff. “Luckily this is something the campaign is on board with, and you’re going to see a lot more engagement down the stretch.”
[Clinton plans to tie Trump to the ‘alt-right’ and the worst of the Web]
One variable is how Trump’s mostly white base of fervent supporters, who were drawn to his candidacy in the primaries because of his politically incorrect rhetoric, might react to his latest positioning.
Michael Steele, a former RNC chairman who has advised Trump and his team to visit historically black colleges or hold town-hall meetings in cities like Baltimore, said public and private polls this summer showing Trump’s low support among nonwhite voters served as stark warning signs.
“Those numbers will force you to get smart,” Steele said. “They said to each other, ‘We’re going to be active in getting that vote.’ ”
Trump’s new posture is being influenced by his new campaign captains, chief executive Steve Bannon and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who were brought in last week amid a staff shake-up.
He also has been motivated by a private poll of black voters conducted by campaign adviser Tony Fabrizio. The survey found that blacks have a lesser affinity for Hillary Clinton than they did for her husband and that their support dips once they learn about her advocacy for a 1994 crime bill signed by Bill Clinton, according to two people briefed on the poll’s findings.
Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant, has urged Trump to exploit Bill Clinton’s crime record, arguing that “an entire generation of young black men are incarcerated” because of the law, which imposed tougher prison sentences for a range of drug-related crimes.
“Black voters have no affinity for Hillary Clinton,” Stone said. “She’s done nothing for them. . . . Bill Clinton has an affinity to black voters, and it’s stylistic: He slips on the shades, plays the saxophone, how cool. But most black voters don’t know about the 1994 crime bill, and they need to be educated.”
Both Clintons have since said they regretted the crime bill.
[The Fix: Dear educated white America, Donald Trump is really trying to reach you]
When Trump began his campaign, he was confident he would do better with black voters than Romney — mostly because African Americans form part of his commercial base for “The Apprentice” and his casinos. People who have helped manage the Trump Organization’s brand said the company’s private research over the past decades showed that many black people admired Trump’s ostentatious lifestyle.
But that image changed once Trump became a political figure in 2011 by making himself the face of the “birther” movement, which sought to delegitimize President Obama by questioning his birth in Hawaii.
Now, Trump is turning to a cast of black surrogates for rehabilitation. At a rally last Thursday in Charlotte, Clarence Henderson, a civil rights activist who participated in the 1960 Woolworth’s sit-in in Greensboro, N.C., led the crowd in prayer. Then sisters Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson — YouTube stars who go by the names Diamond and Silk — gave an enthusiastic endorsement.
Hardaway exhorted, “I want to say to all of my black brothers and sisters: It is time for you to make a change and join the Trump train, baby.”
Emily Guskin and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this report wrongly characterized a finding from a Washington Post-ABC News poll. The survey found that 56 percent of registered voters, not all American adults, believe Donald Trump is biased against women and minorities.