ATLANTA (AP) — During the 2016 campaign, candidate Donald Trump stood in front of largely white crowds and asked black voters to consider, “What the hell do you have to lose?”
Four years later, the president has a new message for black voters: Look what I’ve delivered.
Trump and his campaign launched a new “Black Voices for Trump” outreach initiative in Atlanta on Friday dedicated to “recruiting and activating Black Americans in support of President Trump,” according to the campaign. Much of that effort will focus on highlighting ways that African Americans have benefited from the Trump economy, according to advisers.
“The support we’re getting from the African American community has been overwhelming,” Trump told the crowd, which included supporters wearing red “BLACK LIVES MAGA” hats.
He predicted victory in 2020, and said, “We’re going to do it with a groundswell of support from hardworking African American patriots.”
That prediction is met with skepticism from critics, however, given Trump’s consistently dismal approval rating with black voters, who overwhelmingly disapprove of the job he’s doing.
Trump has spent much of the last four years engaged in racially charged attacks, going after minority members of Congress, claiming “no human being” would want to live in rat “infested,” majority-minority Baltimore and claiming that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the deadly Charlottesville protest against white supremacists.
Shortly after landing in Georgia on Friday, Trump retweeted a call from one black supporter for submissions for a “#MAGACHALLENGE” competition featuring Trump-friendly rap songs. Trump said he would be announcing the winners and inviting them to the White House to meet with him and perform.
“I think black Americans are not the audience for these outreach efforts,” said Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice who is an expert in race and politics. While Trump might be able to maintain the low level of black support he received in 2016, or perhaps expand it by one or two points, he sees little evidence the president can change many minds.
“I think this is not going to move the needle at all,” Johnson said.
Before launching the new effort, Trump met with supporters at a fundraiser that was expected to raise about $3.5 million for a joint committee benefiting the Republican National Committee, the Trump campaign and the campaign of Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga. Nearby, a small group of protesters chanted, “Lock him up!”
Scores of protesters also gathered outside the convention center where Trump was speaking, chanting, “Impeach and remove.”
Carl Dix, of the group Refuse Fascism, said he thought the launch was aimed at trying to send a message to Trump’s white supporters that he’s “not a racist. ‘I’ve got black friends.'”
In 2016, 6% of black voters supported Trump, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of people who participated in its polls and were confirmed to have voted. There is no indication his support is growing. Polling shows that African Americans continue to be overwhelmingly negative in their assessments of the president’s performance, with his approval hovering around 1 in 10 over the course of his presidency, according to Gallup.
Yet Trump’s campaign dismissed the numbers, insisting the campaign has seen favorable movement and arguing the president can increase his margins with black voters by bringing new people into the fold.
“The polls have never been favorable for Trump, and the only poll that matters is on Election Day,” said senior campaign adviser Katrina Pierson.
The campaign has launched similar coalitions for women, Latinos and veterans.
Darrell Scott, a black Ohio pastor and a longtime supporter of the president who is co-chair of the new coalition and spoke at Friday’s event, said that in 2015 and 2016, supporters trying to sell Trump to black voters could only point forward to share things they anticipated from Trump.
“Now that it’s 2020, we’re able to point backwards and to some very definitive accomplishments that the president has done,” Scott said. “He delivered on promises he didn’t even make.”
The campaign and White House point to a list of achievements, including passage of bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation, which Trump signed into law last year, along with his ongoing support for opportunity zones in urban areas and new investments in historically black colleges.
“I don’t know anyone who’s done that kind of work outside of the president on attacking those big issues or trying to stop drugs from coming into the neighborhood and, at the same time, giving people second chances,” said Ja’Ron Smith, deputy assistant to the president and one of the White House’s few minority high-ranked officials.
Advisers also point to a series of economic gains, including the fact that black unemployment hit a record low last year, with fewer blacks living in poverty. But Trump and his campaign also have a tendency to exaggerate the gains, giving Trump credit for trends that were years in the making, seizing on momentary upticks, cherry-picking favorable statistics and ignoring more troubling ones, such as black home ownership and net worth.
Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass, D-Calif., said Thursday that contrary to Trump’s claims, in the three years of his presidency, African Americans have lost a lot.
“He has never had support from African Americans, but what we know about the president is that he will lie and say that he has,” said Bass, who noted that Trump rarely appears before black audiences.
“He has to identify a handful of African Americans and take them with him wherever he goes,” she said.
If he were any other Republican incumbent who inherited declining unemployment numbers and was able to sustain them, Trump would have a legitimate case to make to black voters, said Republican strategist Shermichael Singleton. But “because of some of his racial pronouncements … I think a significant percentage of African Americans are completely turned off.”
A September AP-NORC poll found that only roughly 3 in 10 Americans say the things Trump has done as president have been good for African Americans. And just 4% of African Americans said they think Trump’s actions have had a positive impact on African Americans in general, while 81% said they think they’ve been bad.
Yet even if he can’t win over black voters, some suspect that’s not the point. As long as the campaign can keep on-the-fence voters from casting their ballots for the eventual Democratic nominee, the campaign will be helping Trump inch closer to a second victory.
Some analysts have pointed to a precipitous drop in black turnout in 2016 as one of the reasons Trump beat his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who was far less popular — especially among black men —than former President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 60% of non-Hispanic blacks voted in 2016, versus about 67% in 2012. And that drop was seen in cities with significant African American populations in critical swing states that helped Trump eke out a victory.
“I do think the main objective is to discourage turnout,” said Johnson. “I absolutely think this is about creating doubt in black voters’ minds about the Democratic nominee” so people feel like “there’s almost no one worth voting for.”
And he said that fears were growing it might work.
“There is a pretty tangible fear among black Americans that Trump is going to win again because black turnout won’t be enough to mute the white turnout,” he said. “There’s a sense that in 2020 he’s going to win again.”