Why Democrats are worried about these voters of color drifting to Trump in 2020

Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON — An overlooked voting bloc is emerging as a potential problem for Democrats: young men of color.

Male African American and Latino voters — particularly those under the age of 35 — are showing a surprising openness to President Donald Trump’s reelection bid, according to interviews with leading Democratic and Republican strategists and a review of polling data.

Driven by a once-strong economy and a greater acceptance of the president’s behavior, their interest is significant enough to alarm Democrats that the overwhelming support they traditionally count on from this group could be diminished in November, with potentially serious consequences in a tight election.

Critically, many Democrats who have done research on this voter group say the concern runs deeper than young minorities simply not turning out in the upcoming election — an issue that plagued Hillary Clinton in 2016 — but casting their ballots for Trump.

“Democrats need to take this seriously,” said Michelle Mayorga, a New Mexico-based pollster who has conducted extensive focus groups with Latino voters. “Democrats can’t take the Hispanic vote for granted.”

Even Republicans who are optimistic about making inroads with these voters caution that a willingness to support Trump in the spring doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll vote for him in the fall, not after a long campaign in which a well-funded Democratic operation could persuade them to rejoin the party.

Republicans are also quick to concede that the coronavirus pandemic has unsettled everything about the 2020 election, including the attitudes of young voters of color, and that even in a best-case scenario for the GOP, the overall improvements they’d make with them would likely be measured in the low single-digits.

But even small gains can have big consequences in battleground states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, each of which has a sizable black electorate.

“You’ve seen, especially among men, that there are some demographic splits for President Trump that are more along gender lines than racial lines,” said Mike Shields, a former chief of staff to the Republican National Committee. “There is an opportunity for him to grow his vote.”

The observations from strategists are matched by public polling data. A survey in April from the Pew Research Center found concentrations of undecided voters were highest among African Americans, Hispanics and young people. Data gathered last year by a handful of leading Democratic polling firms found the margin of support for the party was nearly twice as high among young female Puerto Ricans as young male Puerto Ricans in Florida.

And a new study from the Institute of Politics at Harvard University found that many young and male minorities belong to a group it called the “multicultural middle,” where approval of Trump ran far higher than most other young voters.

In the Harvard survey, Trump trailed Joe Biden with “multicultural middle” voters 36% to 51%. By comparison, Trump won just 21% of all nonwhite voters in 2016, according to exit polls.

Democrats and Republicans who have analyzed the data say the relative affinity young male voters of color have for Trump is rooted in both an acceptance of his bellicose persona and an optimism about the economy.

Whether Trump acts in an acceptable way isn’t even in dispute for many men of color, said Mayorga, who said that in many focus groups she’s conducted, even many self-identified male Republican Hispanics will concede that they think the president is a racist.

But she said that for many of these same men, they’re willing to look past the president’s attitude because they think he’s helped build an economy from which they can benefit.

“Their number one concern is that they have a job, help provide for their family,” Mayorga said. “That’s what they’re looking for, and they see opportunity in the Trump economy.”

Mayorga cited polling data her firm helped compile last year as evidence of the stark split between genders in the Latino community: Among rural men in eight battleground states, for example, 64% approved of the Trump economy while 29% disapproved, compared to just 38% approval among rural women while 54% disapproved — a 51-point difference. The gender division among urban and suburban Latinos was less stark, but still evident.

Mayorga added that although many Latinos might not think that the president is trying to directly help their community, he’s not trying to actively block their progress, either.

And for all the harm Trump has done to his image with Latinos, some strategists say his career outside of politics remains a significant positive for some voters.

“Some of the stylistic elements of the president that a lot of people find off-putting are not particularly off-putting to some portion of the male minority vote,” said Wes Anderson, a veteran GOP pollster who works for the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action.

“Why would they be responsive to Trump on that message when they have not been responsible to other Republicans on that message for decades?” Anderson added. “The answer is Trump is wrapped in a populism that is appealing of them. Trump is not the establishment. And with the Republican establishment, the trust factor cannot be overcome.”

Anderson pointed to the 2018 Senate race in Florida as proof of the GOP’s opportunity. Republicans Rick Scott effectively split the Latino vote with Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in that race on his way to victory.

Anderson readily acknowledged that much of Scott’s success was attributable to his well-funded campaign and the unique makeup of Florida’s Cuban-American population, adding that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Trump to repeat the same margins in the state in 2020.

But Anderson said he’s convinced the relative openness to the GOP under Trump was part of the reason for Scott’s success — and now Republicans need to explore whether it can work in other battlegrounds.

“What does it mean in Nevada?” Anderson said. “That’s where the rubber meets the road there.”

Anderson also noted that this isn’t the first election cycle in which Republicans have been optimistic about winning younger male minorities, hope that has eventually fizzled in prior races.

But Democrats, including some of those in key 2020 roles, are already taking steps to combat the problem. The pro-Biden super PAC Priorities USA, for instance, has partnered with the group Color for Change Action to start a $3 million program aimed in part at reaching out to and persuading these voters in the African American community.

In a February briefing with reporters, Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil said his group was closely monitoring Trump’s support with younger African Americans, which at the time was in the low 20% range, a relatively high figure for a GOP president. And to reach them, he said the party would need to do more than talk about issues like criminal justice reform.

“I think one of the mistakes that we see a lot of times on the Democratic side is the minute that people start talking about black voters or voters of color, however you want to describe them, the conversation immediately goes to criminal justice reform,” Cecil said. “Which is an essential element but not a sufficient one.”

Some Democrats caution that although Trump’s favorability is higher with some younger voters of color, they’re not yet panicked about the 2020 election. Neither the Trump campaign nor its allies have yet to launch a serious effort to persuade them, some Democrats pointed out, and for the most part, many of these voters still agree with Democrats on individual issues.

“I don’t think Democrats can take those votes for granted by any means,” said Tom Bonier, a leading Democratic data operative. “I think there’s cause to be at least somewhat concerned and to ensure that the campaign and Democrats in general are investing accordingly in communities with these voters. But at this point, I don’t see a reason to panic or a reason to believe is already happening for Republicans, especially with young voters of color.”


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