Hillary Clinton’s South Carolina “firewall” could morph into Donald Trump’s safety valve if the two face off in November’s general election.
This startling projection flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which puts black voters almost entirely with the Democrats, but it’s grounded in particular polling that has proven the most reliable this election cycle.
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 and waning interest in Democratic candidates as evident in relatively low black turnout in South Carolina last weekend.
In 2008, Obama took 95 percent of black votes 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 5 percent as registered Republicans.
Now flash forward four years. In a Quinnipiac University poll from last 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 may exploit cracks in the presumed Democratic stronghold on the black vote.
As the primaries end, so will silly season
Last week’s Ku Klux Klan flap is fading fast. Black Democrats figure that white nationalist David Duke has voted for plenty of previous Republicans and that Trump is not himself a white nationalist. Many blacks back Hillary Clinton today even though she in 2008 lamented Obama’s failure to gain traction among “good, hard-working white voters” when he and she were battling neck-and-neck during the 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 activists just 16 years earlier had been assassinated in a then-unsolved KKK crime wave. “I believe in states’ rights,” Reagan told his people in Mississippi. If anything, Trump has simply out-Southern-strategied previous Republicans, winning big on Super Tuesday.
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. And this focus could explain why turnout among South Carolina’s heavily black Democratic electorate was down by nearly one-third compared with 2008. According to a Newsweek analysis, South Carolina was the first real test of how African-American voters respond to the post-Obama era. A third of them stayed home. And those Obama folks who stayed away from the Democrats this time could go post-partisan in the mold of Trump come November.
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 and 12 percent of Pennsylvania. In these states known for razor-close contests, black voters may hold the key vote.
Appealing to these blacks will be important because Trump could easily gain a national victory if he attracts 20 percent 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.
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 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 while foreign interests forge 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, which they swung against recognizing legalized same-sex marriages while overwhelmingly backing Obama.
As a black employment-discrimination lawyer, law professor and ordained deacon who interacts with all kinds of black people nationwide – and, who, like virtually every other black person in America, voted for Obama twice – I hear this African-American angst routinely, and it’s a widespread refrain. They 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 convention in 2012, as an issue of mere civil liberties calling for moderate updating, rather than a bona fide civil rights cause.
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. This blind-siding attack from the leftist elites in 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. You won’t hear this angst on television, but you will hear it in the barbershop, in Sunday school and among cautious colleagues.
President Nixon’s “silent majority” had grown profoundly disturbed by the urban rebellions of 1968 and the attention civil rights had gotten when they decided to vote their angst without talking openly of it, quietly leaving the cities for the suburbs in retreat. In short, the underlying sense of persecution for merely holding to mainstream values has now affected the black community. This is new, and Trump, more than any previous Republican, has the independence to speak to it.
Donald Trump’s tell-it-like-it-is, fix-it-fast style speaks to these blacks, who identify, in light of their own experiences, 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 in recent 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 talk of jobs is music to the ears of blacks, who have long understood jobs to be their best hope for economic 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.
Last month, 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 added.
Channeling tenets of the Protestant work ethic he spectacularly personifies, where one’s work 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 do something about it.
Amos N. Jones is associate professor of law at Campbell University. These views are his alone.