Elections

Asking for the Black Vote

President Donald Trump at a campaign event in Montoursville, Pa., October 31, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Unlike most Republicans, Trump has done it. It’s a necessary first step. The next steps will be harder.

Whatever happens after tomorrow, Donald Trump has done one thing that more Republicans should do. Standing in at his various rallies across the battleground states in the final weekend, Donald Trump addressed himself to African Americans and said the simplest thing possible: “I’m asking for your vote.”

It sounds hokey to political junkies. Maybe even desperate and delusional. But this is in fact the first thing Republicans should express when they get in front of black audiences: We want to earn your vote. Black voters have many good reasons to believe that Republicans aren’t even interested, namely because serious and ambitious Republicans hardly ever run in local races where black voters decide the outcome. Republicans either participate in efforts to limit voting rights, a big red flag for black voters, or they fail to speak to the black community enough to challenge the perception that they do.

The first step to changing that is to simply say out loud, “I’m asking for your vote.” Saying it out loud is the first step toward hearing back from black voters about what use they have for Republicans.

Trump has been more than occasionally ham-handed about his appeal to black voters. Progressive media outlets have often highlighted what they take to be the most cringe-worthy line Trump has used in the effort, “What do you have to lose?” They have pointed out that there’s an undeniable tension in the Trump pitch to black voters. Trump sells himself as the man who passed a criminal-justice-reform bill, and he accuses Joe Biden of passing a racist Crime Bill in 1994. At the same time, he also has made himself the enemy of Black Lives Matter protesters and pronounced his candidacy as a law-and-order one.

Those tensions are real, but they cut both ways. Many progressives do believe that the 1994 Crime Bill was racist, though it had majority support in the Congressional Black Caucus. And the cringe in “What do you have to lose?” can run both ways, too. Many black voters reacted to the election of Barack Obama with a burst of enthusiasm, disbelief, and gob-struck awe and gratitude. No politician could have delivered on the aspirations and dreams that moment stirred up. Many black Americans, loyal to their party, blamed obstructionist Republicans for Obama’s failure to deliver more of his promised change. But it’s also possible that black Americans, seeing their community’s circumstances unchanged by the first black president, may change their voting behavior after a political comedown like that. Trump has pitched them on bread-and-butter issues, namely historically low unemployment numbers and rising wages, pre-COVID.

If the polls are to be believed, his campaign, even if Trump loses reelection, features a Republican coalition with a larger percentage of black and Hispanic voters than other modern Republican presidential campaigns have been able to assemble. Polls also show him losing a substantial portion of educated white suburbanites. What this suggests is that educational and class divides may begin to transcend racial ones.

If it is possible to build on this, it is vitally important that Republican politicians begin to do so. Right-wing racialists and progressives alike wondered whether Trump’s historically high support among working-class and downwardly mobile white voters was a prelude to “Southernizing” the white vote, or the transition of the GOP to herrenvolk democracy — master-race democracy — which is their way of saying racist welfarism. In the cotton South, voting has been extremely polarized along racial lines. On this theory, the Republican Party would become a white-identity party.

But if Trump wins a larger share of black and Hispanic voters, it could mean that the move of some white working-class and downwardly mobile voters to the Republican Party is only a prelude to the rightward move of working people and small owner-entrepreneurs of other races as well.

These gains could be reversed if Republicans in a post-Trump world simply defaulted to their old orthodoxies and spent all their political capital trying to win back affluent suburbanites. Upwardly mobile, college-educated voters have learned that they have the controlling hand over the Democratic Party. They were able to turn back and rebuke President Obama when he hinted at making reforms that would scale back tax cuts to college savings accounts. And Democrats in affluent suburban districts are running to restore the deductions for state and local taxes — and thereby lower the taxes of the affluent who live in the richest parts of the country where state and local taxes are highest.

Donald Trump took a first step at changing — and possibly expanding — the Republican coalition. He did it primarily by extending and deepening the Republican vote share in rural counties and in struggling areas. The next step will be significantly harder. It would mean running Republican campaigns in districts where there are more black voters. It would mean finding policies that black voters care about that Republicans can deliver on. (This might mean ditching “opportunity zones” and other well-meaning gimmicks that originate in the minds of incumbent Republicans.)

If Democrats win a major victory in 2020, this next step may not look optional anymore.  The combined pressure of Democratic victories in Georgia and North Carolina, and recaptured states such as Michigan, plus a season of redistricting that favors Democrats, will force Republicans who want to confront this head-on. There won’t be an option to “Southernize” the vote, as there won’t even be many Southern states where a coalition of almost exclusively non-college-educated white voters can win.