Trump’s New Minority Outreach Carries Hidden Agenda, Strategists Say
Donald Trump is testing a novel way to fix a problem that no modern Republican presidential nominee has had.
His quest this week to reach out to black and Hispanic voters has a covert agenda, Republican strategists say, of winning back college-educated whites who historically prefer Republicans but seem to be turned off by Trump’s nativist appeals.
“We will reject the failures of the past and create a new American future, where every child—African-American, Hispanic, all children—can live out their dreams together in peace and in safety,” Trump, 70, said Wednesday at a rally in Tampa, Florida. “I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created.”
Despite the campaign’s statements and Trump’s own direct appeals, in which he has softened his rhetoric on mass deportation and promised to bring jobs, security, and housing equality to black communities, some Republicans doubt the new approach is really about attracting minorities.
“White suburban voters think he’s a racist or running a racist campaign. This is designed to make them feel like he is doing minority outreach even though the messaging is completely off-target,” said David Kochel, the former chief strategist for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Racism comes up in almost all the verbatim polling and he’s getting creamed in the suburbs.”
Fifty-nine percent of likely voters agree that “the way Donald Trump talks appeals to bigotry,” while 36 percent disagree, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday.
“This is the big reason he can’t close the sale with educated whites,” Kochel said.
Recent surveys find Trump trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton, 68, among college-educated whites in the swing states of North Carolina, Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Iowa. It’s a key reason he’s tied or behind in these states, and it threatens to choke off his path to victory. But this is a closely contested group with whom Republicans have great potential—college-educated whites have voted GOP in every election since at least 1952, according to the Atlantic. Republican Mitt Romney won them by 6 points in 2012, according to exit polls. Trump trails Clinton by 1 point among college-educated whites in the Quinnipiac poll.
For Trump, who is dominating among whites without a college degree, boosting his support among college-educated whites could close the gap in Virginia, Colorado, and Pennsylvania, where he trails by double digits in recent polls. In Pennsylvania, he would need to increase his margin with college-educated whites by as many as 30 points to close an 11-point deficit in one poll released August (unless he improves with other groups), said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
Trump’s path to victory is narrow, and likely impossible if he doesn’t improve his margins with college-educated whites or minorities. If Clinton—whose strengths are women and non-white voters—wins Pennsylvania, she can afford to lose Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina and still get elected president as long as she holds other states Democrats won in 2012.
Trump’s new rhetoric “seems to be a focus group-tested effort to not sound like a racist so that white Republicans can get comfortable voting for him,” said Katie Packer, a former top adviser to Romney’s 2012 campaign, who co-founded and led a group that sought to stop Trump in the primary.
Trump’s shift drew mockery from Clinton during a speech Thursday in Reno, Nevada.
“In just the past week, under the guise of outreach to African-Americans, Trump has stood up in front of largely white audiences and described black communities in insulting and ignorant terms: ‘Poverty,’ ‘rejection,’ ‘horrible education,’” she said. “It takes a lot of nerve to ask people he’s ignored and mistreated for decades, ‘What do you have to lose?’ The answer is everything.”
The minority outreach effort began days after a shakeup that ousted campaign chairman Paul Manafort and installed seasoned pollster Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager and former Breitbart executive and right-wing brawler Stephen K. Bannon as campaign CEO. Past Republican nominees made a more concerted effort to reach minorities. While Romney addressed major groups in 2012 such as the NAACP and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Trump declined this year.
“Trump’s outreach doesn’t really seem to be serious from the standpoint of past presidential campaign outreaches to minorities,” said Joe Watkins, a Republican former White House aide. “They make a significant investment. They hire people who have significant experience. They make sure they hire people in the individual battleground states. They have a clear message. They engage with opinion leaders in that community and they talk not only to the opinion leaders but they with leaders in the communities that have significant constituencies, like the NAACP and Urban League.”
Watkins didn’t discount Trump's ability to improve with minorities, but said it would require much more effort. He said the most optimistic scenario for Trump would be to creep up from single digits to low double digits with black voters, which would help him in swing states like Ohio and North Carolina.
An NBC/SurveyMonkey poll out Wednesday found Trump trailing by 79 points among black voters and by 51 points among Hispanics. His standing has been marred among Hispanics by a restrictive immigration vision, labels such as “rapist” to describe undocumented Mexican immigrants, and his questioning whether a U.S. judge of Mexican ancestry can impartially rule on his case. African-Americans are turned off by his support from white supremacists, such as David Duke, and his rhetoric in 2011 casting doubt on whether the first black president is a natural-born U.S. citizen.
His pitch to black voters on Friday in Michigan was criticized by some African-American leaders as condescending. “You’re living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs. Fifty-eight percent of your youth is unemployed,” Trump said in Dimondale, a largely white suburb. “What the hell do you have to lose?” he asked.
Indeed, veterans of Republican campaigns that have tried to appeal to minorities know how difficult it is in an era of political polarization where blacks, Hispanics, and even Asian-Americans are flocking to the Democratic Party.
“Trump is like a vegetarian restaurant putting out a sign that they don’t hate steak lovers. Don’t think that will make many steak lovers give it a try,” said Stuart Stevens, a Trump critic and the main strategist for Romney’s campaign in 2012. Romney ended up winning a mere 6 percent of blacks and 27 percent of Hispanics, according to exit polls, even though he offended these groups less than Trump arguably has.
Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t
Republican strategist Brad Todd said Trump is in a no-win predicament.
“Republicans get excoriated for not trying to campaign in black neighborhoods and then laughed at when they do campaign in black neighborhoods,” he said. “At some point, campaigning for votes is campaigning for votes. Democrats believe that demography is destiny and voters don’t have the brain cells to get outside their birth certificate in the voting booth. At some point we have to give them credit for making each decision each election on its own merits.”
“Whether he’s successful or not in this,” he said, “I think you have to take his attempt at face value.”
Democrats dismiss Trump’s minority outreach as a Trojan horse.
Bakari Sellers, a former Democratic state legislator in South Carolina, said Trump’s new rhetoric was less about courting minorities than about “attempting to assuage white voters who believe him to be intolerant.”
“Trump is not serious about getting minority votes,” said Paul Begala, a longtime Clinton confidant who advises a super-PAC supporting the Democratic nominee. “He is a con man, and the con he is running now is to try to convince college-educated whites that he's not the guy who said those racist things, who pushed birtherism, who attacked a Mexican-American judge, who called immigrants rapists and who played footsie with David Duke.”
—With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs.