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Could Biden’s problems with Black voters help Trump win?

For half a century, Black voters have been the most loyal and reliable members of the Democratic Party’s coalition. Could former president Donald Trump make significant inroads with these voters in November? Some national polls suggest that it’s possible, but should you believe the polls?

Black voters are poised once again to play a critical role in the presidential election. President Biden needs every vote possible among these voters to secure a second term. He needs to keep his margin over Trump among Black voters at or near where it has been for Democrats in most past elections. He also needs strong turnout at a time when Black participation has declined.

Trump, meanwhile, has prioritized growing his share of support among Black voters, and his advisers argue that inflation and immigration are two issues that could help him do so. They see Black men, and particularly younger Black men, as their best opportunities for adding support.

Assessments of the 2020 results vary slightly. Exit polls estimated that Trump won 12 percent of the Black vote, whereas the Pew Research Center’s analysis estimated that the former president won 8 percent of the Black vote. Neither those studies nor other analyses have shown any notable rise in Republican support from Black Americans in presidential and midterm elections since 2016.

Four recent polls — Quinnipiac, Economist-YouGov, New York Times/Siena and Marquette University Law School, however, have shown Trump with at least 20 percent support among Black adults. Now a new Fox News survey shows him with the support of 26 percent of Black voters. If accurate and if the numbers held until November, Trump would receive the highest share of the Black vote for any Republican presidential candidate since Richard M. Nixon in 1960.

Before the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Republican presidential candidates routinely captured a significant minority of the Black vote. Since the ’60s, Republicans have seen their share drop substantially. The low point for Republicans came during Barack Obama’s two campaigns for president in 2008 and 2012, when their share dropped to about 5 percent.

Pollsters consider the Obama elections atypical, however, given his unique and historic appeal to Black voters as the nation’s first Black president. For that reason, they say it would not be overly surprising for Trump again to win roughly 11 to 13 percent of the Black vote. They are highly skeptical, however, of the current polls showing support of 20 percent or more.

Christopher Towler, a political scientist at California State University at Sacramento who oversees the Black Voter Project, said he is dubious that there is suddenly “a magical shift” in Trump’s direction compared with 2016 and 2020. “I don’t see it happening,” he said.

He said the biggest concern about the recent polls is that the sample sizes for Black voters are frequently tiny, often no more than 100 or so, and thus they have a big margin of error. Political scientists and political strategists alike agree that samples of that size are less likely to be fully representative of the Black community and say that large-scale surveys of Black Americans, of which there are few, are more reliable.

Cornell Belcher, who was one of Obama’s pollsters, said the likelihood of Trump receiving a significantly higher percentage of the Black vote than any Republican since 1960 is “absurd.” He added: “I’ve been doing large-sample-size polls of Black voters … for four years and never in those four years has Donald Trump ever moved above 10 percent.”

Belcher said his disbelief is grounded not only in voting patterns among Black adults over a series of elections but also in Trump’s history. He cited the former president’s racist comments and his positions on issues at odds with attitudes of Black Americans.

“It doesn’t make sense that someone who … is on the wrong side of every issue that is a top issue of concern for African Americans is going to also garner more support from African Americans than, say, George [W.] Bush, who actually did some outreach and tried to move the Republican Party to be more open and inclusive,” Belcher said.

Political scientist Alan Abramowitz of Emory University did an analysis of the recent polls that was posted on the website of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. He, too, cast doubt on the findings about Trump.

Acknowledging that it’s possible there is a short-term swing in Trump’s direction, he said history alone would suggest that the former president’s support among Black voters will fade from current levels by November. “I don’t think it’s real,” he said.

These surveys, however, have spawned a series of news stories pointing to a lack of enthusiasm for Biden among Black voters, especially younger Black Americans.

Biden’s approval rating among Black Americans has declined over time, as it has among Americans overall. In January 2022, the Pew Center found that 60 percent of Black adults approved of the way he was doing his job. In January of this year, his approval stood at 48 percent.

But Biden’s favorable ratings among Black adults, a measure less related to job performance, have softened only slightly. Between July 2022 and this February, his favorability moved from 65 percent positive to 61 percent positive, according to Pew. In contrast, the president’s favorable rating among Hispanic adults dropped 17 points over the same time period.

Trump’s advisers believe gains among Black voters are quite possible and claim they will work for those votes. They acknowledge that there are few Black political surrogates who can make the case for the former president — other than Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who also ran for president but enthusiastically endorsed Trump and is a potential vice-presidential pick — but say there are others in the Black community outside of politics who could act as validators.

“President Trump has made increasing his vote share amongst the Black and Hispanic community a top priority,” Trump campaign senior adviser Chris LaCivita said in a message. He said the contrast between families struggling with higher costs and the accommodations for migrants who have ended up in big cities is something the campaign “will continue to take advantage of.”

Biden’s advisers don’t dispute that they have work to do to boost Biden’s standing among Black voters, but they express confidence that they will get the job done. Jasmine Harris, director of Black media for the Biden-Harris campaign, pointed to administration accomplishments that have been important to Black voters, including record low Black unemployment and historic funding for historically Black colleges and universities.

“Come November, Black voters will once again show up for Joe Biden, and not Donald Trump, who has consistently worked to demean and degrade Black Americans,” Harris said in an email message.

Biden allies appear to worry less about a big shift to Trump among Black voters than about the overall level of Black turnout in November. For example, Black turnout in 2022 dropped by 10 percentage points when compared with the 2018 midterm election.

Towler said Black Americans who are infrequent voters will present a real challenge for Biden. “They really can’t find anything to get excited about,” he said. “They’re still really against Trump but not excited in a way that will really get them out there to vote. They say, ‘Trump is a danger, he’s a racist, but we’re not sure we’re going to get out and vote for Biden.’ That’s the big danger.”

Turnout in Black precincts in Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee will be critical to Biden’s hopes of winning Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, respectively. If he were to hold those three states while losing Georgia, Nevada and Arizona, the three other main battlegrounds, he would still win an electoral college majority.

Turnout in Philadelphia has declined in three consecutive elections. The drop has been most evident in heavily Hispanic precincts but also notable in Black precincts. Democratic strategists fear this could put the state at risk in November. The loss of Pennsylvania alone, with its 19 electoral college votes, could be crippling to Biden’s chances, given challenges he could face this year in Georgia and Arizona.

In Wisconsin, an analysis by the Marquette University Law School found that turnout in Milwaukee’s heavily Black wards “dropped relative to the rest of the city in each of the last two presidential and gubernatorial elections.”

Despite legitimate skepticism about the validity of some of the current polling, no one can say definitively that Trump’s share of the Black vote won’t increase this November, certainly not in a political environment this volatile. Add to that the possibility that some Black adults who vote only infrequently will simply stay home — or even cast a vote for a third-party candidate — and it’s clear why Biden’s team will be intently focused on these voters.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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