Trump has increasingly welcomed black athletes and celebrities into the Oval Office, and last week he spoke at a graduation ceremony for ex-inmates in Nevada, a state where a majority of prisoners are black or Hispanic men.
“We’re here to reaffirm that America is a nation that believes in redemption,” Trump said during the ceremony, in which he compared the prosecution of his ally Roger Stone with the legal challenges faced by the graduating felons. “These people know more about bad juries than everybody here,” he said.
On Wednesday, the president’s campaign team hosted reporters at its Arlington, Va., offices to announce plans for more than a dozen “Black Voices for Trump” community centers across the country, in cities ranging from Atlanta to Detroit to Jacksonville, Fla.
The advisers — including Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser; campaign manager Brad Parscale; and Katrina Pierson, a senior campaign adviser who is black — showed mock-ups of the spaces, which they said will have the vibe of sleek retail storefronts crossed with campaign field offices in predominantly black areas. Voters will be able to volunteer, attend events, learn more about Trump’s message and buy merchandise, including “Black Voices for Trump” sweatshirts and baseball caps that say “Woke.”
“You’re never going to get the votes you don’t ask for,” Kushner said, adding that after nearly four years in office, Trump has a positive message to share with black voters. “Last time it was, ‘What the hell do you have to lose?’ Now, you show them what they’ve gained from President Trump and what more they can gain if they get four more years of President Trump.”
Some Democrats are concerned that the president’s charm offensive may be wooing black and Latino men to his camp — or at the very least blunting the kind of voter enthusiasm that helped propel Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 and 2012.
“It keeps me up at night,” said Terrance Woodbury, a partner at HIT Strategies, a firm that conducts research on minorities and other under-researched demographic groups. “The Trump campaign recognizes that while the Democratic Party is spending a significant amount of resources and effort to persuade white suburban women back into their coalition, the Trump campaign has found a very susceptible and very different swing voter in black men.”
Woodbury said that in focus groups he conducted recently in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Detroit, he found minority men are “the most susceptible audience” to Trump’s message.
Democrats are relying on high voter turnout in those and other urban areas to compete with Trump in swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — places where even a modest shift in the nonwhite vote share could tip the 2020 race.
Exit polls from 2016 showed Trump won 13 percent of black male voters and 32 percent of Hispanic men, compared with 4 percent of black women and 25 percent of Hispanic women. Combined with a drop in turnout among those traditionally Democratic voters, Trump’s meager minority support — buoyed by male voters — helped him narrowly win key states en route to an electoral college victory over Hillary Clinton.
Now, Trump’s campaign is trying to marginally improve those numbers with a public appeal to minorities that analysts say doubles as a stealth effort to win back suburban white voters turned off by his history of racist rhetoric and divisive politics.
Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee have touted the multimillion-dollar investment the president has approved for minority outreach as a sign he is serious about competing for nonwhite voters in 2020. They point to internal RNC data to make the case that the efforts — and Trump’s record on key issues important to minority men — are working.
Those internal figures, which appear to contradict some public polling, show that Trump’s approval rating has improved 8 points with black men and 12 points with Hispanic men since 2016, according to the RNC.
The campaign, which launched a group called Black Voices for Trump in November, has been holding outreach events to carry Trump’s message into minority neighborhoods in major cities. Most of the attendees have been men, Republican officials said.
Paris Dennard, a campaign adviser who is on the Black Voices for Trump advisory board, said he was not surprised to see the mostly male crowd during a town hall he helped host last month in Philadelphia. Trump’s long history of being cited by black entertainers and athletes as a symbol of unabashed wealth and bombast is part of the reason men of color have been willing to hear his pitch, Dennard said.
“The president is aspirational — he’s just a boss. He’s confident,” he said, referring to the popularity of Trump’s former reality television show, “The Apprentice,” with black viewers. “He’s always had the appeal to black men.”
Trump’s brash behavior partially explains the large gender gap in his overall approval rating, with women of all races consistently rating him more poorly than their male counterparts, said Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report.
“What is appealing to many men about his style — that kind of take-no-prisoners, keep punching, don’t show weakness — is exactly what makes him so unappealing to women,” she said. “The lack of empathy, the lack of consideration.”
Some of Trump’s most acerbic comments during his presidency have been about race, and it is unclear if the president will be able to avoid controversy while his campaign seeks to make a case to minorities.
The president equivocated on condemning white supremacists after a deadly Virginia rally in 2017, referred to African nations as “shithole countries” in 2018 and told four minority congresswomen to “go back” to their ancestral nations in 2019.
Before running for president, Trump promoted the “birtherism” conspiracy theory claiming falsely that Obama was born in Kenya and called for the death penalty for five black and Hispanic teenagers wrongly convicted of raping a woman in Central Park in the 1980s.
A Washington Post-Ipsos poll of African Americans released last month found that more than 8 in 10 view the president as racist. Trump’s approval rating among black male registered voters in the poll was 8 percent.
The president’s allies say his record will help him improve his standing with minority voters, pointing to the economy, criminal-justice legislation and increased funding for historically black colleges and universities as areas where he can make a compelling case.
“There is simply no denying that minority communities are thriving under President Trump,” said Kayleigh McEnany, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign.
Democrats have decried Trump’s minority outreach effort as a cynical election-year gambit that will eventually succumb to the president’s more divisive instincts.
“In the end, the card Trump always plays is to inflame racial tensions and fear in order to divide people and distract them about how he’s picking the pockets of people of all races,” said Ben Wikler, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “When Trump’s back is against the wall, the mask falls away. And I suspect that’s likely to happen now.”
Still, Wikler said he is taking the president’s repeated overtures to minority voters seriously and working to ensure Democrats avoid a repeat of the kind of tepid black voter turnout that cost them the key swing state in 2016.
Woodbury, who conducted a focus group in Milwaukee recently, said he found that black voters have not felt motivated by the field of the Democratic presidential candidates. The Trump campaign is hosting a panel for black voters at a Republican Party field office in Milwaukee on Feb. 29.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former spokesman for the RNC, said such events could boost Trump’s 2020 chances even if they only win over a few voters.
“He doesn’t need to make major inroads with minority voters. He just needs a few cul-de-sacs here and there,” he said. “If you can just peel off some voters here and there, then you’re changing maps.”
Touré, a cultural critic and host of podcast “The Touré Show,” said Trump could peel off a few minority male voters based on the personality traits that have been so controversial with the broader public. He said Trump’s alliance with rapper Kanye West is rooted in their shared egoistic and contrarian personalities, rather than policy.
“There’s an unbridled id to him,” he said. “He seems to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and I think sometimes as humans, especially as men, we kind of look up to the nobody tells me what to do, and that’s definitely been a carry-over from his previous life to this chapter of his life.”
After spending more than $5 million for a Super Bowl ad aimed at boosting his support with minorities, Trump plans to continue making overtures to groups that typically vote for Democrats, campaign officials said.
Alaysia Berton, whose boyfriend was graduating from the HOPE For Prisoners program last week in Las Vegas, said Trump’s mere presence at the ceremony had made an impact. Berton, who is black, said she plans to support Trump in November.
“I don’t really think he’s a bad guy, definitely not the most evil guy everyone is trying to make him out to be,” she said. “And just him being here, speaking out, means a lot.”