Political analysts have spent recent days asking whether Donald Trump's outreach for African-American support last week at consecutive night rallies in Michigan and Virginia will produce electoral benefit with voters who, according to a raft of surveys, are rejecting him at rates matched only by the poor showing of Barry Goldwater in 1964 after Goldwater's high-profile opposition to the Civil Rights Act.
Those analysts are asking the wrong question, however. The real target of Trump's comments is not African-American voters at all, but, instead, upscale white voters with whom he also continues to perform poorly.
On one level, Trump's appeal was nothing new. For several cycles before Barack Obama's candidacies cemented again African Americans' connection to the Democratic Party, Republican presidential candidates occasionally made overtures to blacks, arguing that they should "come home" to the GOP. In July 2004, for instance, President George W. Bush appeared before the National Urban League and asked these questions: "Does the Democrat Party take African-American voters for granted?" and "Is it a good thing for the African-American community to be represented mainly by one political party?" Bush then went on to list an array of issues, arguing his stance would benefit the black community, punctuating each with: "Take a look at my agenda!" While Bush's inroads were limited nationally, the 16 percent of the African-American vote he gained in the pivotal state of Ohio (partly through targeted mail emphasizing Bush's support for a constitutional amendment to protect "traditional marriage") was vital to sewing up his re-election.
Coming in the immediate aftermath of the overhaul of his campaign leadership, Trump's move was directed by Kellyanne Conway, a veteran of past GOP campaigns. Being Trump, the appeal was made in a decidedly more hamhanded (and factually inaccurate) manner than those by previous Republicans. Trump asked of African-Americans in Dimondale, Mich., Friday evening: "You're living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs. Fifty-eight percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?" In addition to its inelegance, there were two key differences from the outreach of Bush and other GOP presidential candidates. First, aside from an appeal for more charter school access and an odd linkage between immigration policy and the challenges facing blacks, there was little in the way of specific policy proposals to back up Trump's appeals. Second, and more telling, the appeals were made to nearly all-white audiences in almost entirely white communities.
No matter the challenges created by Trump's anemic standing with voters of color in a rapidly diversifying nation, the bigger electoral problem facing Trump, as a GOP standard bearer, is his relatively poor showing among more affluent, well-educated white voters. Among others, a central challenge with that group is that his campaign contradicts an accepted norm of American life: equality as a fundamental American value. As shown by a series of political psychologists, led by Tali Mendelberg, implicit race-based appeals still have the power to move large numbers of white voters by activating hidden racial stereotypes. But, once these voters become aware of what's going on, those same voters recoil and rebel against those violating this "norm of equality." The perception that Trump's campaign is partly fueled by racial and ethnic resentment (not traditional racism, but a "new racism" driven by a sense that racial and ethnic minorities are gaining societal advantages of which they are undeserving) has become baked into the cake of Campaign 2016. From Trump's own rhetoric to epithets spouted by his followers at rallies to new evidence this week of key Trump staffers sharing racist posts on social media, race-based politics has come to define Trumpism. (As I was writing this over a slice of pizza, I overheard a man tell his date: "I don't like [Hillary] that much, but she's normal ... . She's not a racist.") Because they know that voters of color and white voters who take pride in the norm of equality alike will react, the Clinton campaign has made every effort to point out these linkages.
Trump adviser Conway is smart enough to know that racial resentment has carried the Trump campaign as far as it can. Thus, the dramatically different speeches from Trump last week. Now, a man who has shown so little message discipline must keep it up across the closing 10 weeks of the campaign. Even if that occurs, we do not know the answer to this key question: Can enough of the damage with white voters who typically vote Republican be undone to allow them to take a risk on Trump?