Donald Trump Sets His Sights on Black Evangelicals

But can he win them over?

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Monday plans to meet at his Manhattan offices with about 100 black evangelical pastors, mirroring an effort by rival Ben Carson, who's making a pitch to the community in a bid to win more than double Mitt Romney's share of the African-American vote.

A day earlier, Trump campaign officials nixed plans for a press conference following the meeting after several pastors publicly raised concerns that their attendance was being mistaken as an endorsement. Still, Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said several of the spiritual leaders are still “expected to endorse Mr. Trump's campaign for president” following the meeting, which she described as “an informational meet and greet.”

Even a small percentage of endorsements from black evangelicals could prove significant, said George Farrell, chairman of BlakPac, a conservative super-PAC focused on electing minority conservatives. “The effort by candidate Trump is meaningful and shows that black votes matter,” said Farrell, who is undecided on who to support for president.

Angelia Boynton, another undecided black conservative activist, said it's a mistake to write off the billionaire's meeting with black pastors as merely a public-relations stunt. It comes, after all, just a week after a cell phone video went viral of a Black Lives Matter protestor tussling with a handful of the billionaire's supporters during a Nov. 21 rally in Birmingham, Alabama.

“It's rare for a Republican candidate to reach out to the black community,” Boynton said. “So who cares if it's an endorsement or a meeting? Mr. Trump's attempt in and of itself is honorable. It's a chance for black leaders to tell a leading candidate exactly what we care about.”

Democrats have for decades dominated the black vote, with Republicans garnering about 10 percent. For the last two cycles, however, African-Americans voted nearly unanimously for Obama. Ninety-three percent of the African-American voters backed Obama in 2012. In the general election, Republicans are hoping they'll receive pre-Obama levels of support from the African-American community by appealing to black voters whose views on abortion and same-sex marriage are more in line with evangelicals.

Potentially undercutting Trump's efforts at luring African-American support, however, was the candidate's initial response to the scuffle in Birmingham. While a campaign spokesperson said afterward that Trump “does not condone” the violence, the next day on Fox News Trump himself declared that “maybe [the protester] should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”

That rhetoric follows numerous comments Trump has made about the Black Lives Matter movement during the campaign. In August, Trump decried Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for allowing protesters to interrupt a speech in Seattle. “That will never happen with me,” Trump declared. “I don't know if I'll do the fighting myself or if other people will.”

In September, Trump described the African-American protesters actions as “disgraceful.” “I think they're trouble. I think they're looking for trouble,” Trump told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly. 

Ahead of Monday's meeting with the pastors, Trump said on MSNBC, “Probably some of the Black Lives Matter folks called them up, said ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be meeting with Trump because he believes that all lives matter.’”

Trump's response to the Black Lives Matter movement hasn't hurt him with some black voters. 

“Oh goodness. Donald Trump is not a racist—that's just the press looking for a story. What was it? A couple of knuckleheads in a crowd of thousands? It's a non-issue,” said Sheila Griffin, an evangelical pastor in the Tampa area. “We want news. People are sick and tired of the media saying what they think is happening—just give us what is actually happening.”

Griffin was one of about 10 black pastors who received VIP passes arranged by the Trump campaign to attend a Trump rally in Sarasota, Florida, on Saturday. At that rally, Trump urged his supporters to “be nice” when at least one protester disrupted the event by shouting. “Don't hurt the person,” Trump told the crowd. “You see how diplomatic I've become?”

Trump, who is never shy about making bold predictions, then made another. “I think I'm going to win the African-American vote,” Trump said. “So I think I'm going to do great with the African-American vote... Because you know what? I'm going to bring back jobs to our country.”

Not all of the pastors invited to Monday's event are as supportive as Griffin. Some pastors were frustrated by news reports claiming that the religious leaders were officially endorsing Trump, a claim they have since vehemently denied. “The meeting was presented not as a meeting to endorse but as a meeting to engage in dialogue,” Bishop Clarence E. McClendon wrote in a Facebook post, adding that he wouldn't be attending despite being invited. 

Still, McClendon urged “all serious minded believers to not vote on allegiance to any political party but on the basis of the Judeo-Christian ethic and their spiritually inspired conscience.”

Bishop Hezekiah Walker, who founded the East New York-based Love Fellowship Tabernacle church, circulated an e-mail to prominent African-American evangelical leaders that he wouldn't be attending the meeting. Instead, Walker wrote in the e-mail that he will be attending funeral services for an “untimely tragic killing of one of our youth here in New York City.”

“I was prepared to share my thoughts with him about the injustice and racism that still plague our communities as well as enlighten him about our culture that has been misunderstood for years,” Walker wrote. “Those who invited me never invited me to endorse Mr. Trump, but to be a voice and to stand for what's right in our community.”

Griffin, who is an undecided Republican, called Saturday's rally in Sarasota “an incredible gathering” and added that she was “overwhelmed by the positive energy in the crowd.” She said she's looking for Trump to get more specific on policy issues, but she said she's supportive of what he's saying about immigration and foreign policy.

“I like that he's not cloaked by rhetoric, but I didn't hear how he'd create jobs. What works in business isn't the same as what works in governing. I need to be convinced Mr. Trump understands that,” she said. “I'm not looking for a message just about African-Americans. I'm looking for a message about Americans that does not leave anyone out. I'm looking for someone who understands fairness.”

Trump frequently cites a SurveyUSA poll from September that shows him with 25 percent of the African-American vote. “A great honor to receive polling numbers like these,” Trump tweeted in September.  Still, most national polls won't start seriously polling general election match-ups by demographics until closer to the general election.

Richard Fowler, a black national syndicated radio host and Democratic strategist, called it “absurd” to think that Trump would win the majority of black voters in a general election. Fowler said that on issues such as criminal justice reform and the Black Lives Matter agenda, Trump is “on the opposite side of the majority of the black community.”

“He's trying to find a way to make an entry point in the black community,” Fowler said. “But the jury is out whether it'll work.”

(Adds Trump's MSNBC comments in 10th paragraph.)
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