Are Republicans changing their complexion?

By Sam Patten | Sep 09, 2020

If 2016 taught us anything, it is to be careful about assumptions. Based on how both parties are courting the African American vote this year, the degree to how that lesson was learned is mixed.

A young, self-described Black American living in Biddeford told me she voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary, but switched to Donald Trump for the general election, and is even more enthusiastic in her support of him today.

This woman predicted Trump will win at least 20% of the African American vote in November, and polls following the Republican convention last week pegged current support at 24%, a 60% increase over what a Republican presidential candidate usually enjoys from the black community.

“He talks to me about things that matter for me and my family — the economy, opportunity zones and school choice,” she explained.

Criminal justice reform, such as the First Step Act that the White House pushed through Congress 2018, is a key issue for the African American community, she added, pointing out “many of us remember who passed the 1994 crime bill,” which led to exponentially more African Americans incarcerated for non-violent crimes.

What offends her are the assumptions politicians make about how she should vote. Such assumptions like Joe Biden’s offhand remark to a radio host that "if you don’t already support me, then you ain’t black" is one of many comments she doesn't stand for in a politician.

“It’s like he doesn’t believe we can think for ourselves,” she lamented.

The Defund the Police movement pushes this Biddeford local further into the Republican column. Having moved to Maine from New York City and constantly worrying about her relatives still there, she disputes the assumption that allowing protests to spin into riots is a concession to the African American community.

Biden must have read her mind, because earlier this week, he traveled to Pennsylvania to speak out against the violence raging in cities across the country. Thomas Friedman of The New York Times implored Biden Sept. 2 to “listen to Minneapolis,” the ground zero of the George Floyd protests, where there is little support for defunding the police.

About eight years ago, I helped a friend running for the Senate in Maryland as an independent. Walking the streets of Baltimore, and traveling “Gorgeous” Prince George’s County, it became clear to the candidate that Democrats took African American support for granted — a message that bounced back with fervor during the GOP convention, when pro-Trump congressional candidate Kimberly Klacik urged African Americans to join her as she runs to “save Baltimore” from the decay and violence that beset Charm City today.

“Do you care about black lives,” Klacik asks, “well, the people who run Baltimore don’t, come with me and I’ll prove it.” Baltimore’s last mayor resigned and pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Meanwhile, the downtown “vacants” popularized in the HBO series “The Wire” remain a blight on the city’s past and future.

Just as Trump speaks to our Biddeford subject, Klacik spoke to me.

Older African Americans saved Biden’s candidacy when he won South Carolina and staged a comeback earlier this year. South Carolina, a Southern Democrat consultant told me, is “very much old school machine politics.” The old ways, like assumptions, may not be as compelling to younger, more urban voters this fall.

But what about the recurring charges that Trump is a racist and has failed to condemn white supremacists?

“I’ve seen no hard evidence” of racism, said African American columnist Thomas Sowell last year.

Our Biddeford spokesperson brushes off Trump’s rhetoric as his being rough around the edges. Focus on what he does, not what he says, she counsels, pointing to record low unemployment among African Americans before COVID-19 hit.

Even if prospective black support for Trump is ticking upwards, the numbers remain relatively small. Growing Republicans’ share that the African American vote has long been a dream of consultants who want a party that looks more like the country as a whole. Many have suggested that Sen. Tim Scott may be the future of the party, whose first president signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

A Reuters poll released Sept. 2 contradicted others that showed a four-point bounce for Republicans after their convention last week, and instead painted the race as largely unchanged, with Biden retaining a seven-point lead. That same poll also showed handling of the COVID-19 virus as more important, to more people, than the law and order message Trump is pushing. The virus has disproportionately impacted African Americans.

Assuming that any group — racial, ethnic or religious — will vote monolithically is a mistake. Big data and micro-targeting cut more finely, down to groups that share changing beliefs, habits and aspirations. There is close to no chance that Trump will win half the African American vote, but if he wins more than any Republican before him, it might be enough to make you wonder what other assumptions we should question.

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Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.

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