Pundits are fixating on the heights Donald Trump must reach with whites and the lows he must avoid with Hispanics. Yet however counterintuitive, the unique dynamics of the 2016 race have positioned blacks to potentially play an unusually critical role in the making of the next President.
In fact, compared to the oft-discussed Hispanic vote, black voters wield far more electoral sway in the states that are most likely to influence the election’s outcome.
African Americans’ potential importance is partly a byproduct of Trump’s ability to break new ground in offending Hispanics — no small feat by Republican standards.
The presumptive GOP nominee, as much as anyone, is taken by polls showing a dead heat between Hillary Clinton and himself. But Clinton retains the stronger position.
That’s not because Clinton’s a great candidate. It’s not even because of Trump’s aptitude to insult (well, mostly not).
To win, Trump must either improve his standing with black and brown voters or he must compensate for the minorities who oppose him by winning a near-historic share of whites.
Indeed, the demographic backdrop is familiar to even casual political observers. Whites were almost nine in 10 voters in 1980. In 2016, whites will constitute about seven in 10 voters.
Political professionals have traditionally read these numbers and concluded Republicans must improve their standing with Hispanics. But Trump’s more realistic goal is to merely maintain recent GOP nominees’ poor performance. And even that much will not be easy. Blame Trump’s rhetoric associating Mexican immigrants with rapists. Or his emphasis on building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Yet here’s what’s intriguing about 2016: Trump is uniquely suited to potentially lose Hispanics at near-historic levels and still win. Blacks could hold the key.
To understand why, it helps to step back and view the entire electoral map. We already know who will win most states. Modern presidential elections come down to no more than a dozen swing states. Those are the states where neither party wields inherent demographic dominance.
Pundits have been bloviating for months about how 2016 could be different. Many say Trump will put new states in play. Yet such hyperbole is undercut by the racial composition of most states. Trump is less likely to put new states in play than to rely on the swing states that have long won Republicans the presidency. Yet that’s not necessarily good news for Democrats.
Trump must merely win a minority of minority voters. And he could circumvent most of his weakness with Latinos. He can afford to lose the western swing states where Hispanics hold the most influence. These are also the same swing states (i.e., Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada) where the Latino vote dwarfs the black vote.
By contrast, the swing states Trump likely needs to win are Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. In three of those four states, as well as in other electoral battlegrounds, African Americans hold immense sway.
In 2012, the black vote was about five times the size of the Hispanic vote in Ohio and North Carolina. In Virginia, it was about four times larger. In Pennsylvania, it was twice the size. Blacks also outnumber Hispanics in smaller states that could impact the electoral outcome, such as Wisconsin.
Yet isn’t winning over African Americans the white whale of Republican presidential politics? Not really. If the GOP is Ahab, Ahab hasn’t sincerely sought this whale for decades.
Today, the Democratic coalition depends on its near-uniform support among African Americans. Blacks constitute about one in four Democratic votes for president.
To chip away at this Democratic keystone, Trump does not even need a third of the black vote. If Trump were to win roughly 15% of African American support, a President Trump becomes significantly more possible.
In the Obama era, black voter participation rose more than other racial groups. For the first time, more blacks voted than whites. Meanwhile, Barack Obama made history by winning nearly all black voters.
But with Obama off the ticket, the black vote could not prove as uniformly Democratic. For example, the 1988 race carried perhaps stronger racial overtones than any other campaign in recent decades. Recall the Willie Horton ad campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Despite it, blacks did not rally behind Dukakis by Democratic standards. He won 86% of the black vote that year.
Trump would likely win states such as Virginia and possibly even Pennsylvania if Hillary Clinton won Dukakis’ share of support with blacks, the black turnout rate fell to about 55% (such as in 1988 or 1996) and Trump won a large share of whites but remained well shy of Ronald Reagan’s performance with whites in 1984.
It’s too early to tell whether blacks will support Clinton more like Dukakis or Obama. More clearly, Clinton could need the black vote to fortify her coalition more than even Obama did.
In 2008, Obama won blocs of voters at levels that Clinton is unlikely to mimic, or prove able to compensate for. Eight years ago, Obama earned historic youth support. By contrast, in the 2016 primary, it’s Bernie Sanders who is monopolizing young voters.
Obama also had historic winds at his back eight years ago, none more powerful than the stock market crash. Clinton is unlikely to enjoy such advantages. Therefore, Clinton’s weaknesses make her more dependent on her strengths-or Democratic strengths. And that begins with blacks.
Whoa, liberals might argue, Clinton may not be Obama, but she’s the woman between the presidency and Trump. Against a bogeyman as big as him, surely she can rally and lock in the black vote.
Indeed, that is the most likely outcome in 2016. After all, Trump fervently championed the birther conspiracy about Obama. Trump has become a magnet for whites with strong racial resentment. Most stunningly, Trump resisted disavowing former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke only months ago.
Which is to say, it’s no surprise Trump currently polls with blacks like Republican nominees have before him. His support is in the high single digits according to recent polls by outlets from NBC News to Fox News.
Yet Trump has shown an ability to change minds about him in the past. And in significant respects, he is unlike Republican nominees before him.
Trump positions himself less as an opponent of big government than as the antagonist of those doing the governing – Democrats and Republicans alike.
And blacks are certainly receptive to questioning the status quo. Nearly six in 10 blacks are frustrated with the federal government, while another 12 percent say they are angry at Washington.
Trump’s “America first” rhetoric also could resonate with blacks. Over the years, African Americans have generally been the greatest proponents of lessening the U.S. role overseas to “concentrate on problems here at home.”
Even the controversial side of Trump’s immigration politics is not necessary a hindrance, not to the small share of blacks Trump needs to bolster his candidacy. A third of black voters view illegal immigrants as a “burden” who “take” jobs and healthcare. A quarter of blacks agree with the view that immigrants generally are making American society “worse.” In 1994, the black-brown coalition fissured when about half of blacks backed California’s Proposition 187, an initiative aimed at curtailing illegal immigration.
Trump has hinted that he plans to reach out to blacks by tapping similar sentiments. His immigration plan argues that illegal immigration has had an effect on employment that’s “been disastrous, and black Americans have been particularly harmed.” The plan also emphasizes black youth joblessness, hardly a conventional concern of Republicans.
Large swaths of black voters have forgiven more offensive politicians in the past. Despite being an icon of segregation, a repentant George Wallace was reelected governor of Alabama in the 1980s. And Wallace won with the support of a significant share of African American votes.
This year, even modest gains with blacks would help offset Trump’s weakness with Latinos. Consider Florida. It’s the sole swing state Trump must win where the Hispanic share of the electorate exceeds blacks’, however narrowly, or where Hispanics were critical to Obama’s victory four years ago.
There is a scenario — one that’s a longshot but still realistic — where Trump makes no inroads with Hispanics, Latino turnout reaches new heights of about 55% and Trump still wins states such as Florida.
Trump would need to match Reagan’s performance in 1984 with groups of white voters, though not all whites. He would need to hold Clinton to levels akin to Dukakis’ support with blacks. And Trump would need to earn about 15% of blacks’ support, while also retaining Romney’s modest share of other minority voters, such as Asians.
If he did all that, Trump could even win Florida with only a quarter of Latinos behind him. And Trump likely can achieve that much. He is already winning at least a fourth of the Hispanic vote in Florida, according to recent polls by CBS News/YouGov and Quinnipiac University.
Yet it would be easier for Trump to secure the support of the roughly third of Hispanics who have traditionally voted Republican. After all, those Latinos were siding with Republicans despite the party’s platform, including past hardline stances on immigration.
Assume Trump is able to win Republican candidates’ usual share of Hispanics. In that event, the black vote need only shift several percentage points to the GOP for Trump to win states from Ohio to North Carolina to Florida — and that’s without him winning near-historic support among whites.
Surely, these scenarios are longshots. Blacks’ allegiance to Democrats runs deeper than political positioning. It also concerns identity.
But Trump is arguably not weighed down by the GOP’s cultural baggage to the degree that Republicans were before him.
Thus Trump might not necessarily bear the consequences of the GOP’s fraught history with blacks, or perpetuate it. He could create distance between himself and the worst image of Republicans. Of course, as the campaign progresses, Trump’s offering fewer indications that he will. It appears that, on race relations, Trump does not yet recognize how far he could go, if only he could get out of his own way.
Kuhn is a political analyst and author of the political novel “What Makes It Worthy.”