It was during a late February sit-down during CNN’s State of the Union broadcast that the still unassuming Republican hopeful Donald Trump was pretty much bragging he could perform well with Black voters.
Between Trump’s usual hyperbole and his tendency toward the outrageous, as well as the historic evidence of how badly Republican presidential candidates perform with the Black electorate, it struck many observers as one of the oddest statements of 2016. There was not much surprise that it fit the mold of Trump’s typical cockiness in front of cameras, but it was all the more striking as Trump attempted to stretched the data.
“And a recent poll came out where I had 25 percent African American,” boasted Trump. “The Republicans usually get about 4 percent or 5 percent. And one of the hosts said, if he ever gets 25 percent, this election’s over. You might as well not run it. I’m going to do great with the African Americans. African American youth is 58 percent unemployed. African Americans in their prime are substantially worse off, you know, economically than a — than the whites in their prime. And it’s very — it’s a very sad situation.”
Now, with the real estate billionaire virtually assured to lock up the GOP presidential nomination, questions naturally arise with respect to Trump’s electability in November. With Hillary Clinton comfortably ahead enough in delegates to also lock up the Democratic nomination (despite a stubborn last-ditch defensive from rival Bernie Sanders), conventional wisdom foresees a Clinton versus Trump match up in the final months of the 2016 election. With so many questions trapped in a swirl of national uncertainty, no question stands out as bizarre, and yet complex as: How will Trump perform among Black voters?
The obvious answer — based on Trump’s high-pitched racial dog whistling throughout a historic and wildly successful primary run — is that he won’t. Assumptions reign that Trump will perform poorly with Black voters — perhaps in a fashion as bad as GOP nominees before him such as John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. Those aren’t bad assumptions considering the candidate draws large, boisterous nearly all-white crowds of voters who occasionally chant bigoted bylines.
Even as Trump rallies grow increasingly violent, with white supporters attacking Black protesters, the presumptive nominee has shown no interest in chiding his base for the outbursts. On the surface, Trump appears to be the most anti-Black presidential candidate since segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s failed 1968 presidential bid as the American Independent Party nominee.
Yet, some Black national personalities, such as Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, a former NFL player and actor, introduced Trump last week at a rally before the Indiana primary. Williamson, a native of Gary, Ind., said he is supporting Trump. Locally, Milton Street, who ran in the Democratic primary for Philadelphia mayor last year, has announced that he is also supporting Trump. Street, the brother of former Democratic mayor of Philadelphia John Street and uncle of Democratic state Senate candidate Sharif Street, also previously switched parties when he was in the Pennsylvania legislature from Democrat to Republican.
Clinton, despite her brand’s relative popularity with Black voters (thanks in large part to husband Bill and longstanding ties with the Black political community), may be watching Black voter numbers carefully as the election shifts into high gear.
In a recent YouGov hypothetical match-up between Clinton and Trump, the GOP nominee snags 8 percent of the Black vote — while low, that’s still roughly double McCain’s number in 2008 and two percentage points higher than Romney in 2012. An additional 6 percent say they won’t vote, and 2 percent are unsure.
And in terms of favorability, Trump is viewed “very favorably” or “somewhat favorably” by a combined 19 percent of African-American voters in the YouGov poll. When asked in a late March YouGov poll who they preferred as a general election winner, 7 percent of Black voters picked Trump, compared to a rather low 50 percent for Clinton and, interestingly enough, 25 percent for Bernie Sanders. An additional 10 percent of Black voters were unsure.
Other polls also suggest problems at the margins for Democrats with respect to Black voters in 2016. A late March Public Policy Polling survey found 13 percent Black support for a generic Republican presidential nominee (at a time when Trump was already solidifying his image as the nominee), versus 86 percent for the Democrat. And while Trump’s favorability among Black voters was just 3 percent, once again he gained 8 percent of the Black vote in a hypothetical match-up against Clinton and 9 percent in a hypothetical match-up against Sanders. Still, Clinton did manage a rather high and comfortable 91 percent support in that contest.
Clearly, a presumptive Clinton nominee (barring any political misfortune) will win the overwhelming majority of Black voters come Nov. 8. Yet, she may find challenges on the margins of that support thanks to an outgoing Black president and a costly primary battle with Sanders. Black voters, many jaded by a depressing political environment and social justice issues, do not appear as enthusiastic about a Clinton candidacy as they did with Barack Obama in 2012. Observers agree she will definitely need aggressive Black voter turnout against Trump in November, and yet African-American voters are the only demographic where she underperforms (net minus 10 points) compared with Obama in 2012, according to a NBC/Wall Street Journal in April.
While Black voters aren’t specifically pointed out in a late March Monmouth University poll, Trump receives a combined 16 percent of non-White support compared to 72 percent for Hillary Clinton.
The Democratic nominee, however, shouldn’t leave anything to chance. If Trump has proven anything this cycle, it’s his talent at defying monstrous odds. Even if, hypothetically, Trump were to manage Quinnipiac’s 12 percent Black support in November, it’s triple and double that, respectively, of what McCain did in 2008 and Romney did in 2012. Abysmal Black support for GOP candidates in 2008 and 2012, in many ways, seemed like an outlier from previous averages of 10.3 percent Black support for GOP presidential candidates in 1996, 2000 and 2004.
That’s low, but it’s better than two recent presidential elections that had a built-in Black voter magnet with Obama.
In 2016, a nervous Black voting bloc clearly understands the stakes are high, but appears politically alienated given this cycle’s racially charged climate and the absence of their beloved first Black president. Democrats will still get much, much higher Black voter support than Republicans. There are also expectations that Hillary Clinton will do massively well among Black voters. But there’s no clear, unambiguous signal of support from the president just yet, the White House, perhaps just waiting to see what the temperature will be in July when Democrats huddle around their nominee at the convention in Philadelphia, or the president waiting for any outcomes in Clinton’s pending email investigation.
In reality, Trump’s February interview on CNN was rife with errors: he did receive 25 percent Black support in SurveyUSA poll but it was from September 2015. Not known for high accuracy, SurveyUSA — a well-known Republican-leaning polling firm — was forced to acknowledge that its margin of error ranged from “plus or minus” 10 percentage points.
Later, much more accurate and respectable polls at the time of that interview showed Trump being clobbered by low Black voter support. Throughout February, Trump was lucky to lock in 12 percent Black voter support, which is what he got in a mid-month Quinnipiac University poll. Other polls, such as Fox News and USA Today/Suffolk University, showed Trump hovering between 7 and 10 percent of Black votes, with, as USA Today/Suffolk put it “error margins increase[ing] for smaller subgroups.”