President Donald Trump is ramping up his appeals to African Americans, including a State of the Union speech on Tuesday that illustrated his campaign’s effort to lure enough black voters from the Democratic Party to secure his re-election.
During his remarks, Trump awarded a young black girl a scholarship to escape what he called “failing government schools.” He recognized a black Army veteran seated in the First Lady’s box for landing a job in an “Opportunity Zone” created by his 2017 tax law.
And in a rare instance of the president sharing credit for a policy, Trump called out South Carolina’s Tim Scott — the only black Republican in the Senate — for devising the Opportunity Zone program. Trump also recognized one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, Charles McGee, and announced he’d been promoted to brigadier general.
Black voters will help sway electoral outcomes in key battleground states from Florida to Wisconsin, and Trump has spent the last week showcasing policies he believes should win their support. An $11 million ad his campaign broadcast during the Super Bowl featured Alice Johnson, a black woman whom Trump granted clemency at the request of Kim Kardashian, and highlighted legislation he signed in 2018 reducing prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
The president frequently claims that he’s driven black unemployment rates to the lowest levels in U.S. history.
“It was quite obvious the effort that was being made to speak to the black electorate” in the State of the Union, Candis Smith, a political science professor at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, said in a telephone interview. “In one way this is a little bit better than in 2016, when Trump basically told black people that they are living in neighborhoods that are burning and that you have nothing to lose.”
Trump’s campaign has developed a more sophisticated approach to winning black support than in 2016, when he famously told black voters: “What the hell do you have to lose?” In November, his campaign formed Black Voices for Trump, an offshoot charged with recruiting and engaging African-American voters.
People associated with Black Voices for Trump have held events in black communities in which organizers praise the president while giving out tens of thousands of dollars in cash to attendees, Politico reported last month.
Trump would make a Democratic victory in the November election much more difficult if he can either increase his share of the black vote from the 8% he won in 2016 or discourage turnout among black Democrats. One model for Trump’s campaign is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who won 18% of votes from black women in his 2018 election in part by promising to expand government scholarships for private schools, a policy Republicans call “school choice.”
William Mattox, director of the J. Stanley Marshall Center For Educational Options at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, said school choice “was the deciding factor in the race.”
But most African Americans consider Trump to be racist and his support among black voters does not appear to have budged appreciably since 2016, according to a January poll by the Washington Post and Ipsos. And Trump’s gestures can come across as pandering, particularly when he dwells on racial stereotypes. During the State of the Union, Trump pointed out that the mother of the girl he awarded a scholarship “is a single parent,” and that the Army veteran, Tony Rankins, landed his Opportunity Zone job “after struggling with drug addiction.”
Smith questioned why Trump didn’t also highlight “black business owners — those folks exist, or what about black college-educated women drowning in debt?”
And while recognizing black beneficiaries of his policies in his speech, Trump also awarded the Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor — to Rush Limbaugh. The ailing conservative radio host has publicly made racist remarks, and played a song on his program about former President Barack Obama titled “Barack the Magic Negro.” He was forced to resign from an ESPN football program in 2003 after declaring that the media “has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well” and saying that former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb didn’t deserve credit for his team’s success.
“Thank you for your decades of tireless devotion to our country,” Trump told Limbaugh.
Smith said that “to honor the Tuskegee Airmen, to honor him that way and turn around and give Rush Limbaugh that medal was in some ways a slap in the face.”
The president’s own rhetoric presents a challenge to wooing black voters. In 2017, he said there were “very fine people” on both sides of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that erupted in violence and left one person dead. Last summer, he called Baltimore — a black-majority city — a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
Trump’s re-election path runs through swing states with large non-white populations. Georgia, Michigan, and North Carolina have significant black communities, as well as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and the president’s new home state of Florida.
Trump will travel to Charlotte, North Carolina, on Friday to speak at an event promoting Opportunity Zone investments.
Black voter turnout decreased during the 2016 election as white turnout rose, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data. It rose in the 2018 midterm elections, aiding Democrats in their successful campaign to take control of the House of Representatives.
Turnout among black women is credited with helping Doug Jones win a special election in 2017 to become the first Alabama Democrat in the Senate since 1997. In 2018, Stacey Abrams narrowly lost Georgia’s gubernatorial race to Republican Brian Kemp, after drawing strong support among black women.
“Anyone who is paying attention recognizes that the Democratic party’s electoral success is contingent upon motivating and engaging the black electorate,” said Corey Fields, a sociology professor at Georgetown University and author of “Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African-American Republicans.”
Traveling With Pence
Fields said that Trump campaign’s outreach may win some black votes or quell some black enthusiasm to vote specifically against Trump. It could also help assuage concerns of white voters who are discomfited by Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and fear being considered racist for supporting him, Fields said.
“The goal probably isn’t to convert everybody, they only need to carve a few people off on the margin in a few key important states,” to help win re-election, Fields said.
The campaign’s effort continued on Wednesday. Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Pennsylvania to speak about the Trump administration’s efforts to expand school choice.
The state’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, vetoed legislation last year that would have expanded a program that awards tax credits to businesses that donate to grade-school scholarship funds. In his speech, Trump blamed the veto for costing Janiyah Davis, a black fourth-grader, a scholarship before announcing she would be awarded one.
Wolf told reporters on Wednesday that the legislation he vetoed “was basically a raid on the taxpayer for private schools, and I didn’t think that was fair,” according to PA Post. Trump’s speech, he said, was “posturing.”
Janiyah and her mother, Stephanie Davis, traveled to Philadelphia with Pence on Air Force Two.