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One of the surprises in the election is that President Donald Trump actually improved his standing with Black voters over four years ago.
According to AP VoteCast, Trump won 8 percent of the Black vote, about a 2 percentage-point gain on his 2016 numbers (using the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, or CCES, a national survey of more than 50,000 confirmed voters, as a point of comparison).
And he may have done even better than 2 percentage points. If you compare the CCES numbers to the results of 2020 exit polls by Edison Research, Trump actually improved by 4 percentage points.
A clearer picture will emerge in the years to come. Confirming whom poll respondents actually voted for takes time — for instance, a Pew Research Center study on the 2016 election’s demographic breakdowns of verified voters was published not months after that contest, but in August 2018. AP and Edison pollsters are still adjusting the weighting on their data to ensure it’s as accurate as possible, but here’s what we know right now:
- Black voters made up about 11 or 12 percent of the electorate, according to the AP and Edison, respectively.
- The AP found that 90 percent of Black voters went to Biden and 8 percent to Trump.
- Edison Research determined that 87 percent of Black voters voted for Biden and 12 percent for Trump.
- Both found Black men were more likely than Black women to support Trump. In the AP’s case, 12 percent of Black men voters backed Trump, compared to 6 percent of Black women; in Edison’s case, 18 percent of Black men voters cast ballots for Trump, while 8 percent of Black women did the same.
The election is still very close, and his gains with Black voters may not be enough to win Trump the presidency, but it is certainly enough to make Democrats wonder about their strategy with Black voters — particularly Black men.
There had been some warning signs.
Ahead of the election, polls showed Trump making inroads with Black voters, particularly younger voters and men. A survey taken by the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape in late September and early October found that 21 percent of Black voters ages 18 to 44 supported Trump, while an October New York Times/Siena College national poll found that 11 percent of Black men backed Trump. Both results were in line with those of other polls, which generally found overall Black support for Trump to be around 10 percent.
Trump pushed hard to win over Black voters in the final days of the race. His first appearance following his hospitalization for Covid-19 was an address to Black and Latinx voters given from the White House, during which he said, “Black and Latino Americans are rejecting the radical socialist left, and they’re embracing our pro-jobs, pro-worker, pro-police — we want law and order, we have to have law and order — and pro-American agenda.”
And he continued to make this case on the trail, promising to bring Black unemployment down to its historic pre-coronavirus lows, as well as making the case that Biden does not have the safety or best interests of the Black community in mind.
Trump has repeatedly — and falsely — said that “Joe Biden called Black Youth SUPER PREDATORS” (a term used by former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, not Biden), and aired ads that featured remarks Biden made during an interview with The Breakfast Club’s Charlamagne tha God, in which the former vice president said, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”
While some Black Trump supporters seemed to have been swayed by the president’s rhetoric — a Black Michigan man voting for Trump told the New York Times he believed the president would make neighborhoods safer, for instance — the most salient points Trump made appear to be economic ones.
Trump’s pitch to Black voters was largely about financial security and prosperity
Ationza Smith, a Biden supporter and co-founder of the activist group Revolutionaries Demanding Justice, told me that in her experience, Black Trump supporters “like how he’s improved employment … they’re kind of basically looking at things on a business level and not necessarily an ethics level.”
And that has been the case with a number of prominent Black Trump supporters.
Rapper 50 Cent, who has vacillated in his support of Trump, noted he was a fan of the president’s tax policies, criticizing Biden’s tax plan — which would raise taxes on those making more than $400,000 per year — and writing on Instagram, “Yeah, i don’t want to be 20cent.”
50 Cent would be hurt by Biden’s tax plan, which stands little chance of passing if Republicans hold the Senate; most Black Americans would not. But there is more to Trump’s economic pitch than lower taxes. D’Angelo Crosby, an undecided voter who ultimately went for Biden, noted his father mentioned he had never made so much money as he had during the past four years, and that Black Trump supporters he’d spoken with had a similar message.
Crosby said people have told him, “It was like, ‘Well, I got a higher pay rate, the highest I’ve ever been paid before. So I definitely think I want to stick with this president, because my money’s looking a little better.’”
As the Economic Policy Institute’s Valerie Wilson has explained, wages for all ethnic groups have risen since the beginning of the Great Recession; Black wages rose the least, by 6.3 percent. Those increases began before Trump was president and were driven largely by rising minimum wages at the state and local levels, as well as a more competitive labor market.
But Trump has been able to capitalize on these increases in part due to his brand — before he became a politician, he worked to convince people that if they followed him, monetary success would come.
“People don’t realize that before President Trump became president, the Black community loved President Trump,” comedian and Black Trump supporter Terrence K. Williams told the Washington Post. “Everybody wanted to be like President Trump, because he was a successful businessman.”
Trump’s self-help books and Trump University classes promised that anyone could be like him, even if they were not born wealthy as he was. By emphasizing rising wages, formerly low unemployment, and his “Platinum Plan for Black Americans,” he made the case to Black Americans that their financial aspirations were not out of reach — as long as he won a second term.
This case was reinforced by Trump’s prominent Black surrogates, including rapper Lil Wayne, who wrote on social media after meeting Trump, “The platinum plan is going to give the community real ownership. [Trump] listened to what we had to say today and assured he will and can get it done.”
Economic promises are front and center in the “Platinum Plan.” It starts with a commitment to “uplift Black communities across the country through a $500 billion investment.” That money, the Trump campaign promised, would fund 3 million new Black jobs, 500,000 new Black businesses, increased Black homeownership, and new opportunities for Black churches to receive federal dollars.
How Trump might get a Congress that has struggled to pass a $500 billion pandemic stimulus package — particularly Senate Republicans, who have again starting claiming that they worry about adding to the national debt — to pass a half-trillion-dollar aid package for Black Americans was not included in the plan. But that lack of specificity never appeared to concern many of Trump’s Black supporters.
“We’ve been voting for Democrats for 50 and 60 years and no progress,” Marco Bisbee, a Black man the New York Times spoke with at a Trump rally in Michigan, said. “Y’all had eight years of a Black man as president — he ain’t give you what you need.”
Kevin Jones, the first vice chair of North Carolina’s Nash County Democratic Party, said Trump’s promise to give Black Americans the tools they need to build themselves a better life speaks to something deeply ingrained in many Black Americans — particularly those who live in the South, as he does.
“Nobody believes in bootstrapping more than Black people in the South,” Jones said.
Trump promised to facilitate that bootstrapping, and his allies have suggested that opportunity awaits all those willing to take it. Weeks ahead of the election, for instance, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner said the president had many “solutions” to Black Americans’ problems, adding that the only thing that would hold Black people back is if Trump “want[ed] them to be successful more than they want to be successful.”
Kushner’s comments were rightly condemned as racist, but the message they contained may have resonated with those who believe in bootstrapping and view success as a matter of grit, effort, vision, and hard work.
Adherence to that view — coupled with other voting trends he’d observed in North Carolina — had Jones worried about a Trump victory, which as of this writing looks to be in doubt, though the race is still too close to call.
“In my 32 years of life, some of the most conservative people I’ve met are Black people,” Jones told me ahead of the election. “I think there are way more Black people who vote for Trump than the national media or national narrative will let on.”
We don’t have an exact figure, but we do now know more Black people voted for Trump in 2020 than did last time — and though Jones’s worst fears don’t appear to have come to pass, Trump managed to eke out gains that will likely be concerning to Democrats.