Will African Americans abandon the Democratic Party in 2020? Not a chance. Black voters still have deep ties to the party that finally agreed with Republicans on passing the Civil Rights Act in 1965 and continues to extol “multiculturalism” and black “identity” politics at every turn.
Every time members of the GOP appear to be coddling prejudice or failing to condemn racism against blacks, Democrats’ message that Republicans are the “enemy” of ethnic minorities resonates, dashing the GOP’s hopes of making gains with black voters. But in 2020, Donald Trump clearly has an opening with African Americans that Republicans have not seen in some time.
Despite condemning Trump publicly as a bigot, Democrats are privately worried about this. They should be. Two recent and highly reputable polls have registered an extraordinarily high “favorability” rating for Trump among black voters – about 34-35 percent, far exceeding the 8 percent of the black electorate that actually voted for Trump in 2016. That’s a huge jump from the 9 percent favorability rating among African Americans he earned in 2018 and the 13 percent he achieved earlier this year.
Of course, a 35 percent favorability rating may not translate into 35 percent support in the 2020 election, but it doesn’t have to. Even a substantial gain to double-digit support could provide the margin of difference in key swing states, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, sealing Trump’s reelection.
Trump’s 8 percent of the black vote in 2016 was a notable improvement over Mitt Romney’s 6 percent in 2012 and John McCain’s 4 percent in 2008. But it’s a far cry from where Republicans once stood with African Americans nationally or at the state level, where a GOP candidate sometimes earns 25 percent or more of the black vote.
Historical Black Support for Republicans
The last time a Republican presidential candidate achieved double-digit support from black voters came in the Nixon-Ford years (1968-1976). President Richard Nixon, much like Trump, saw appealing to black voters as critical to his election hopes.
With ultra-conservative George Wallace fanning the segregationism flames on his right, and Democrats calling for an expansion of welfare on his left, Nixon tried to appeal to moderates in both parties and among whites and blacks alike with a message of support for black economic aspirations and social mobility coupled with support for police and “law and order” in the face of riots and other forms of urban violence.
That crossover message didn’t give Nixon majority black support. But it did give him 16 percent of the black vote in 1972, which was unprecedented in the modern era. No Republican — except Jerry Ford in his losing bid to Jimmy Carter in 1976 — has ever come close to achieving that level of support after African Americans switched their support from Abraham Lincoln’s new, antislavery Republican Party to eventually supporting Democrats in the next century. Indeed, modern Republicans since Nixon and Ford have not even done much to try — until Trump, that is.
Trump Has Cultivated Support from Black Voters
Trump’s overtures to the black community have been steady and consistent. Some, such as his support for criminal justice reform, have received considerable publicity. No previous president, Republican or Democrat, has managed to build a bipartisan coalition for reducing the disparities in sentencing for blacks accused of drug dealing and other relatively minor nonviolent crimes.
But Trump did by making the issue a top policy priority and by expending political capital to woo support. Even longtime critics such as Van Jones, who served in the Obama administration, praised Trump’s efforts, much to the chagrin of his fellow Democrats.
Trump has also cultivated public acclaim from popular black celebrities such as Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. (Nixon did much the same with Sammy Davis Jr., who campaigned tirelessly for him). West and Kardashian have nearly unrestricted access to the Oval Office to consult with Trump on racial issues, and they’ve returned the favor by lauding the president and his policies. When Kardashian appealed to Trump in 2018 to grant clemency to an imprisoned 63-year-old black grandmother, Trump met with Kardashian at the White House and promptly commuted the woman’s sentence.
Behind the scenes, Trump has made other unprecedented gestures that also carry real substance. For example, in 2018, the White House moved to designate a number of historic sites with special importance to African Americans as “national monuments.” One of these is the home of Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary and civil rights leader gunned down by white supremacists in 1963. Corey Wiggins, executive director of the NAACP’s Mississippi chapter, praised Trump’s decision.
Trump has also designated Camp Nelson, long considered a landmark commemorating the contributions of black soldiers to the Civil War, as a national monument.
Will Black Voters Swing the 2020 Election for Trump?
None of these gestures might matter much if African Americans weren’t also gaining in the Trump economy. The numbers speak volumes. According to a report by the liberal Brookings Institution, the five metropolitan areas with the largest black populations — New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. — have seen black median household incomes increase substantially, from rates of 7 percent in Washington, D.C., to a whopping 21 percent in Atlanta.
The reason? An unprecedented number of African Americans have secured new jobs. In San Francisco alone, black employment levels have risen by 13 percent, higher than increases for any other racial group.
How much support can Trump actually gain in 2020? It’s not clear. But it’s important to note African American men are far more likely than women to gravitate toward Trump. Past voting numbers bear this out. In 2016, Trump earned 11 percent support from African American men compared to just 4 percent from women. African American women seem to retain a deep underlying hostility toward Republicans generally, and white male Republicans like Trump especially. That may not change.
Still, just a modest swing of African Americans toward Trump in 2020 could prove decisive. Even in 2016, the failure of black Americans to show up in the same numbers as they did for Barack Obama the previous two cycles helped tilt the election in key Rust Belt states. Trump’s ability to win even 15 percent black male support in states like Pennsylvania might provide him the margin he needs, even offsetting some expected losses from suburban women.
Yet with Democrats poised to mobilize their black support like never before, Trump cannot afford to rest on his laurels. The party has already begun spending heavily on a positive GOP message to black voters in 10 key states for 2020. Trump would be wise not only to tout his successes thus far but to announce additional initiatives to demonstrate that his commitment to black aspirations is real and ongoing — and that African Americans can expect even more from him during his second term.
If Trump wins in 2020 with expanded black support – as well as Hispanic support, which also appears to be rising – it won’t just be a personal victory. It could signal the beginning of a new era in national politics, in which Democrats can no longer count on ethnic minorities operating in political and ideological lockstep.