Hillary Clinton’s “firewall” could morph into Donald Trump’s safety valve if the two face off in November’s general election, in spite of what happened over white nationalist David Duke’s endorsement of the New York businessman over the weekend.
This startling projection flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which puts black voters almost entirely with the Democrats. Nevertheless, it is grounded in data from this cycle’s most reliable polls and qualitative evidence adduced from careful reporting and personal interactions.
Three trends point toward the iconoclastic billionaire springing yet another surprise: black-voter proportions in several key states, black self-reporting in a September poll that showed Trump getting 25 percent of the black vote against Clinton plus a Quinnipiac University survey released just last week showing him at 12 percent, and waning interest in Democratic candidates as evident in relatively low Black turnout in South Carolina for last weekend’s primary.
The third trend, I have found, implicates a simmering anger not unlike that experienced across the white electorate in recent years. As a black employment-discrimination lawyer, law professor, and ordained Baptist deacon who interacts with all kinds of black people nationwide – and, who, like almost every other black person in America, voted twice for President Barack Obama ’91 – I hear and address the range of African American rage all the time. In fact, I have never seen our angst so high.
Black Democratic drift
In 2008, Obama took 95 percent of black votes nationally and 93 percent in 2012. However, a 2012 nationwide Gallup poll found that only 64 percent of U.S. blacks identified as registered Democrats. A significant 29 percent identified as Independent/Other/Don’t know, and five percent as registered Republicans. Now flash forward four years. In the Quinnipiac poll from August, 21 percent of blacks refused to state an “unfavorable” view of Trump.
With his focus on black unemployment and underemployment at the fore, Trump could exploit cracks in the presumed Democratic stronghold on the black vote.
Blacks are tired of being stuck on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, unemployed or underemployed, and frequently just an afterthought as emerging matters such as gay rights come to dominate the nation’s “diversity” discourse. They regard pro-homosexuality, which became a cornerstone of ideological orthodoxy when same-sex marriage was added to the Democratic platform amid the party’s Charlotte, N.C., convention in 2012, as a serious issue of civil liberties calling for moderate updating, rather than a bona fide civil rights cause mandating a moral revolution.
Lately, blacks are facing this particular challenge to their very worldview even in their mainline Protestant denominations. Here, they are being nakedly dismissed as oppressive bigots for refusing to abandon ancient family values common among 99 percent of the Christian church globally simply because the Supreme Court now requires every state to license same-sex marriages (despite preemptively enacted state constitutional amendments and statutes to the contrary in nearly 40 states). This blind-siding attack from previously allied left-leaning elites in their churches was a lament I was repeatedly asked to address when I presented last year at the national Black Methodists for Church Renewal Conference in Orlando. This kind of commentary from informed black voters never airs on television, but you will hear it at the barbershop, in Sunday school, and among colleagues and clients.
Swing voting has happened this way among whites to considerable effect. President Nixon’s “silent majority” had grown profoundly disturbed by the urban rebellions of 1968 and the attention civil rights had gotten when whites decided to vote their disgust without talking openly of it, having quietly left their central cities in retreat. Similarly today, an underlying sense of persecution for merely holding to, and upholding, mainstream principles has now finally spread into the black community. This unique form of racial tension is new and hardly acknowledged, but Trump, more than any previous Republican or Democrat, has demonstrated the independence to sense and to speak to it.
Thus, Trump’s David Duke flap is fading fast. Independent-minded black Democrats figure that the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, who just endorsed Trump, has voted for plenty of previous Republicans, and they trust that Trump is not himself a white nationalist.
Moreover, black people are accustomed to being boogey-manned, even by usual allies. Notice that innumerable blacks back Clinton today even though in 2008 she criticized Obama’s failure to gain traction among the “good, hard-working white voters” while he and she were battling neck-and-neck during the Democratic primary.
White politicians in the South have often played to a lower element to get as many votes as possible, as President Ronald Reagan did when he launched his 1980 General Election campaign in tiny Philadelphia, Miss. That was where three young black and Jewish voting-rights organizers just 16 years earlier had been assassinated in a then-unsolved Ku Klux Klan wave of terrorism. “I believe in states’ rights,” Reagan told his people in Mississippi shortly after winning the Republican nomination at his party’s convention. (Reagan still won 14% of the black vote that year.) GOP contenders Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz ’95 can’t stop extolling Ronald Reagan, but they are still bashing Trump over the disavowed Duke endorsement.
Democrats have done it, too. Fighting in a competitive Democratic primary in 1988, then Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee gave us Willie Horton against former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis ’60. Horton was the black murder convict from Massachusetts who raped a white woman in Maryland while on a weekend prison furlough. That tactic wound up cannibalizing Democratic hopes for Dukakis in the general election, after then-Vice President George H.W. Bush adopted it. Bush ran a television ad that frightened many swing voters, Horton’s menacing expression and black features underlining the us-versus-then, law-and-order inference. Dukakis got trounced.
If anything, Trump, who has re-disavowed the KKK and Duke repeatedly since Sunday, has simply out-Southern-Strategied earlier white candidates, winning big on Super Tuesday last night. And now he is moving on.
Primaries won, silly season over
No longer so easily distracted by heated or lofty rhetoric that pushes emotional buttons very well but does not deliver needed results in their lives, black people this year appear to be all about bread-and-butter issues. Yet, on the Democratic campaign trail there, black issues were largely synonymous with police violence, as Clinton and rival Bernie Sanders racked up televised endorsements from families of blacks recently slain by police officers. Another major theme was criminal-sentencing reform, even though most blacks are not caught up in the criminal-court complex. This focus could explain why turnout among South Carolina’s heavily black Democratic electorate over the weekend was down by nearly one-third compared to 2008.
According to a Newsweek analysis published on Monday, South Carolina was the first real test of how African American voters respond to the post-Obama era. A third of them stayed home. Black voters clearly agree that “black lives matter,” but might the problem of black jobs matter more at this point? If yes, then those Obama folks who are staying away from the Democrats this time could go post-partisan in the mold of Trump in November. He always frames his concern for black interests in terms of the economic disparities under which virtually all blacks struggle.
The states to watch
According to the latest published Census data, blacks comprise 17 percent of Florida and Michigan, 22 percent of North Carolina, 13 percent of Ohio, 12 percent of Pennsylvania, and 20 percent of Virginia. In these elector-rich states recently known for razor-close contests, black voters could carry the day.
Appealing to these blacks will be important because Trump could easily gain a national victory if he attracts 20 to 25 percent of the black vote in just one or two of the several traditional swing states – and a landslide if he does so in more, presuming ordinary turnout. The best that Republicans have done nationally with blacks in the most recent eight presidential elections was only 11 percent, in 1988 and 2004.
So, how does Trump get them? The answer is keeping the agenda combative about Washington’s shortcomings, while showing how his record backs up his economic promises. Trump’s prescriptions – protectionism, immigration-law enforcement, making China pay – play well to black voters who, while proud of having a black president, have bemoaned their economic and social stagnation over the last eight years as foreign interests forged to the fore of the political agenda.
Largely evangelical Christians in worldview and practice while relatively liberal on racial justice and economic policy domestically, black voters have often made the difference at the polls, including on referenda like California’s 2008 same-sex marriage ban, in which they were the decisive demographic in blocking gay marriage, while fully backing Obama.
In 2008, Obama won my state of North Carolina, but in 2012 – the year 61% of N.C. voters passed the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage – GOP nominee Mitt Romney won the state with just 50.6% of the electorate. Black voters might matter more this year for the Republican nominee in such states, especially as a few Romney Republicans decline to vote for Trump.
Trump’s tell-it-like-it-is, fix-it-fast style speaks to the most politically frustrated blacks, who identify with his being unfairly marginalized for so long during his candidacy by a media and political establishment that dismissed his seriousness and his accomplishments. It’s the same sort of prophetic style that has him appealing to, and winning big among, white evangelicals, another big surprise from those Southern primaries.
Listen to Trump’s response to a question at his huge August rally in Mobile, Ala., about what to do to quell the urban unrest that rocked American cities in 2015: “You look at Baltimore. You look at Ferguson. You look at St. Louis over the last week. You look at all of the things that are happening. We’re sitting on powder kegs. There’s no spirit. There’s no jobs. There’s no anything,” he said, adding that he will become “the greatest jobs president that God ever created.”
The frank talk of jobs should be music to the ears of blacks, who have long understood jobs to be their best hope for absolute uplift. Recall that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s most famous 1963 demonstration – held amid the Great Migration of blacks from the South to Northern cities mostly to acquire gainful employment – was named the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
In late February, Trump told CNN’s Jake Tapper that he expects to win “states that aren’t in play” on his way to November, including Michigan and New York, and expects to garner a “tremendous amount” of the African-American vote. “I’m going to do great with the African-Americans,” he declared.
Channeling tenets of the Protestant work ethic he spectacularly personifies, whereby one’s occupation is central to one’s life and legacy, Trump went on: “African-American youth is 58 percent unemployed. African-Americans in their prime are substantially worse off than the whites in their prime, and it’s a very sad situation.”
Amen, Mr. Trump, amen. Now let’s do something about it.
Amos N. Jones ’06 is an Associate Professor of Law at Campbell University in Raleigh, N.C.