Why are Black voters backing Donald Trump in record numbers?

Latest polls show 17 percent of Black voters would vote for former president today – more than twice the number in 2016.

United States Congressman Byron Donalds laughs as Republican presidential candidate and former US President Donald Trump delivers a keynote speech at the Black Conservative Federation gala dinner on February 23, 2024 [Alyssa Pointer/Reuters]

He was famously called the “former white supremacist in chief” by Democrat Congresswoman Cori Bush in 2021. Back in 2018, Hillary Clinton called former US President Donald Trump “ignorant” and “racist” after he reportedly made highly derogatory comments about Haiti and African countries.

Even Republican Nikki Haley, who recently dropped out of the race for the presidential nomination, called recent comments Trump made about African Americans “disgusting”.

But despite all this, and as the US prepares for a likely rematch between him and President Joe Biden in the 2024 presidential election later this year, polls show that Donald Trump is only growing in popularity among Black American voters.

Why is that, and how much of a difference could that make in November?

What do the polls say?

In 2016, Trump received 8 percent of the Black vote according to the exit polls, the highest level of support by Black voters for any Republican since George Bush in 2000. By the 2020 US presidential election, support for Trump among Black voters had surged to 12 percent.

And, while current opinion polls vary, a recent survey from GenForward shows that if the elections were held today, 17 percent of Black voters would vote for Donald Trump while 20 percent said they would vote for someone other than Trump or Biden.

The Black voting bloc is unique in the US. Currently, it is the only group of voters which has consistently identified with the Democrat Party – reaching 77 percent of Black voters in favour of Democrats in 2020. By comparison, 42 percent of white voters and 63 percent of Latino voters identify as Democrats. Now, however, only 63 percent of Black voters – an all-time low since GenForward started collecting data in 1999 – say they will support Biden this year, according to the survey.

These numbers could spell trouble for Democrats in November’s presidential election, especially in swing states.

Black voters for Trump
A supporter of then-President Donald Trump waves his sign at a rally at the Minden-Tahoe Airport in Minden, Nevada, in September 2020 since when Trump’s popularity with Black voters has increased [Lance Iversen/AP]

What is the history of the Black vote?

To understand the history of the Black vote and the Republican Party, it is necessary to look back at voting patterns in the early 20th century.

Before the 1930s, the Republican and Democratic Parties received roughly equal support from both Black and White voters. The election of Franklin D Roosevelt in 1932, however, triggered a shift of Black voters to the Democratic Party. According to data from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Roosevelt gained 71 percent of the Black vote for his presidency in 1936. During the Great Depression, African Americans were disproportionally impacted by unemployment. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a set of economic recovery programmes attempted to correct these economic issues and Roosevelt would later say, “Among American citizens, there should be no forgotten men and no forgotten races.”

The Democrats would continue peeling away voters from the Republican Party in the late 1940s when Harry S Truman, another Democratic president, signed an executive order on July 26, 1948, ordering the desegregation of the US Armed Forces. This infuriated a cohort of the Democratic Party, known as the Dixiecrats, however, who were opposed to civil rights legislation and wanted to keep segregation in force in the southern states.

The Dixiecrats held a separate convention in Birmingham, Alabama in July 1948, at which they nominated South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond, a staunch segregationist, for president on what they termed the “States’ Rights” ticket which called for the right to keep segregation. Although Thurmond won more than 1.1 million popular votes in the 1948 presidential election, this amounted to only 2.4 percent of votes cast and he was ultimately defeated by Truman, who won 303 electoral votes against Thurmond’s 39. Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate, took 189.

The Democrats would further capture the Black vote in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 under Democratic President Lyndon B Johnson.

After signing the civil rights legislation into law, Johnson foresaw the backlash from the white Southern voting bloc when he famously said: “We’ve lost the South for a generation.”

Furthering the divide between the Black and white voting blocs, Richard Nixon, a Republican, deployed what was known at the time as the “Southern Strategy” during his presidential bids in 1968 and 1972. The strategy was designed to appeal to white voters in the South who were disenchanted with the Democratic Party’s stance on civil rights and racial integration.

How has this changed?

A Gallup poll last year showed that the proportion of Black adults in the US who consider themselves Democrats had decreased from 77 percent in 2020 to 66 percent.

Today’s Black voters operate a bit more independently from previous generations, especially young Black voters. In the 2022 midterm elections, Biden largely retained the Black vote, however, there was a considerable shift among Black voters towards the Republican Party – from 8 percent at the mid-terms four years previously to 14 percent in 2022.

Historically, the Democratic Party’s legacy with the Civil Rights Movement is what kept it popular with Black voters. However, younger Black voters do not have those same civil rights legacy attachments.

“I think a certain generation of Black voters don’t have the direct experience with the civil rights movement or the knowledge of those things, because to them that’s not memory, it’s history,” said Adolphus Belk, political scientist at Winthrop University. “They’re coming in without an understanding of these historical contours and turns, limitations, opportunities.

“And those frustrations are being made clear in this rising percentage of Black voters that’s taking a different look at the Republican Party in general, and are exploring some curiosities with Trump, despite his racial baggage.”

Furthermore, Black voters are frustrated that they are receiving little from the Democratic Party in return for what they feel is long-term, steadfast support, he said.

“White voters in general, white male voters most especially, are the greatest constituency that the Republican Party has and they tend to be treated well by the Republican Party. You don’t see that same sort of consistent celebration, respect for and rewarding of Black voters and Black women voters [by the Democratic party].”

Tim Scott
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump listens as Senator Tim Scott speaks at a primary election night party at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds in Columbia on Saturday, February 24, 2024 [Andrew Harnik/AP]

How is the ‘Trump-publican’ Party capitalising on this shift?

In October 2023, the New York Times/Siena College poll also found 22 percent of Black voters in six key battleground states supported Trump.

Trump is listening – Tim Scott, the only Black Republican senator, is reportedly on his shortlist for vice president candidates and has been singled out for praise by Trump. Scott, who dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination last November, endorsed Trump in January.

However, some political analysts see his recent efforts to reach out to Black voters as being rife with stereotypical depictions of African Americans. At a recent gala hosted by the Black Conservative Federation (BCF) in Columbia, South Carolina, Trump said he believed he was receiving more Black support due to his four criminal cases because Blacks have been historically treated unfairly by the criminal justice system.

“And then I got indicted a second time and a third time and a fourth time. And a lot of people said that that’s why the Black people like me because they have been hurt so badly and discriminated against,” he said. “They actually viewed me as I’m being discriminated against.”

However, the BCF seemed unconcerned by criticism of Trump appearing to suggest he had a cultural connection with Black people when its official X account posted several days after the gala in defence of Trump.

Similar to the Democratic strategy in the mid-19th century, Trump is trying to pull away disaffected Black voters from the Democratic Party.

Trump has also claimed that Black Americans fared better economically under his presidency with record-low unemployment. Some experts have argued, however, that this was a continuation of a downward trend that started with the Obama administration.

Source: Al Jazeera