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Analysis: For Clinton, Deploring Trump’s Racial Views Part of a Broader Strategy

Hillary Clinton apologized last weekend after saying, “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.”

But the comment was just a blunter version of one of Clinton’s core strategies to get elected president.

She and her team have spent months highlighting what they view as the racism and intolerance of Donald Trump, some of his supporters and the broader Republican Party—in turn casting the former secretary of state as a leader in fighting racial injustice.

Was Hillary Clinton's 'deplorables' comment 'out of touch'? 2:42

Clinton constantly makes reference to Trump leading the so-called birther moment in 2011. Trump has stopped falsely suggesting President Obama was not born in the United States, but Clinton is determined to make sure that voters don’t forget it.

She regularly condemns voter ID laws that have been adopted by Republican governors and legislatures across the country.

Clinton spent much of August attending private fundraisers but returned to the campaign trail to blast Trump for his connections to the “alt-right” after the real estate mogul tapped Brietbart’s Steve Bannon as one of his top campaign aides.

“Trump attacked a federal judge for his Mexican heritage. He bullied a Gold Star family because of their Muslim faith. He promoted the lie, and he still is promoting the lie, that our first black president is not a true American. He calls women ‘pigs’ and ‘bimbos.’ So I’m going to keep calling out the bigotry and hateful rhetoric that he’s brought to this campaign,” Clinton said in a Thursday interview on the Tom Joyner Morning Show.

She added, “I also accept the responsibility of making sure that we do everything we can to try to heal these divides, to bring people together. But it starts by standing up and calling out the bigotry and the hatred that we see coming from Trump.”

Her comments are a big break from the campaigns of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Trying to avoid being defined as a black candidate, Obama rarely directly addressed the birther movement or the broader racial backlash that emerged during his campaigns.

Clinton’s emphasis on race is an illustration of both a broader shift in American politics and the specific dynamics of this campaign. Views about race and its role in American life are increasingly driven by partisanship, not race. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that white Democrats hold similar views to African-Americans on a range of racial issues, such as supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and believing that the United States needs to make more policy changes to ensure blacks have equal opportunities.

White Republicans were much less supportive of Black Lives Matter and were more likely to say that the country has made enough policy changes to ensure equality for blacks.

So Clinton, in taking progressive views on racial issues, is speaking to an issue that unifies her core supporters: white liberals and people of color. About 44 percent of the people who voted for Obama in 2012 were non-white, and Clinton is expected to also rely heavily on minorities.

Democratic Party convention in USA
President Barack Obama and the nominee of the Democratic Party for President of the United States, Hillary Clinton, wave to Democratic Party supporters in Philadelphia, USA on July 28, 2016. Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

In this campaign, Trump has exacerbated a divide that was already emerging in American politics: white college graduates versus whites who did not attend college. White college graduates tend to have more liberal views on racial issues. A recent poll by the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute showed that 54 percent of whites without a college education supported a ban on Muslim immigration, compared to just 33 percent of whites who attended college.

Many election analysts have suggested Donald Trump’s recent outreach to African-Americans was really aimed at convincing white swing voters that he is not a racist.

Similarly, Clinton’s strong rhetoric on racial tolerance, while an obvious appeal to people of color, may also be aimed at white swing voters, trying to convince them Trump is a racist that they can’t support.

“If economics were dominating this campaign, you'd hear a lot about how Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine are selling out the Democrats by cozying up to corporate elites for money and endorsements. But by keeping the campaign about Trump's racism, these divisions have been silenced,” political scientist Lee Drutman wrote recently.

He added, “Democrats are more and more a coalition of identity groups, all with their specific policy demands. But all these groups can get behind a politics about inclusion and tolerance and anti-racism, since such a politics serves them all well.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with former Attorney General Eric Holder and the Mothers of the Movement, have a panel discussion about gun violence at St. Pauls Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Wednesday April 20, 2016. Melina Mara / The Washington Post/Getty Images

Clinton needs black voters-perhaps even more than Obama did

To be sure, Clinton’s racial messages are also aimed at minorities.

Polls suggest Clinton is weaker than Obama among millennials of all races and among white-working class voters in states like Iowa and Nevada.

If Clinton can’t win Iowa and Nevada, two states with small black populations, she will be more reliant on winning five states with large black populations: Florida (17 percent) North Carolina (23 percent) Ohio (13 percent) Pennsylvania (12 percent) and Virginia (20 percent.) It’s not an accident that Clinton’s first stop after recovering from pneumonia is in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Tar Heel state was not a core focus for Obama’s 2012 campaign, and he narrowly lost the state.

But the huge populations of well-educated people in the Raleigh-Durham area and African-Americans in Charlotte (32 percent of the population) make North Carolina an ideal state for Clinton against Trump.

Democratic National Convention: Day Two
Mothers of the Movement Lucia McBath (R), mother of Jordan Davis delivers remarks as Geneva Reed-Veal (C), mother of Sandra Bland; Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner (2nd-L) and Annette Nance-Holt, mother of Blair Holt look on during the second day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 26, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Will blacks vote for Clinton in huge numbers? Like most Democratic presidential candidates, she is expected to get about 90 percent of the African-American vote. The question is turnout. In 2012, blacks voted at a higher rate than whites, for the first since the U.S. Census Bureau has been collecting such data. (The black turnout rate was 66 percent, compared to 64 percent for whites.)

There has been a lot of anecdotal reporting suggesting that black voters, like many others, are not particularly enthusiastic about Clinton. Such reporting also emerged before the primaries, only for Clinton to overwhelmingly win the black vote over Bernie Sanders in state-after-state.

The key demographic for Clinton is older, black women. In 2012, when Obama won with a huge advantage in black votes, 66 percent of black women voted, as did 69 percent of blacks of both sexes who were between ages 45 and 64. In contrast, only 46 percent of blacks between ages 18 and 24 voted, and only 57 percent of black men cast ballots.

The Clinton campaign is subtly suggesting that voters, particularly black ones, don’t need to like the candidate to strongly support her. Clinton’s very enthusiastic and constant praise of Obama and her comments on birtherism and suggestions of Trump’s intolerance are directing African-Americans to back her as a way to defend Obama and his legacy and stop Trump.

“My concern is just making sure that folks, particularly African-American folks, don’t suddenly say, ‘well, you know, we’re not as excited because Barack and Michelle are leaving, and so we’re just going to not register and we’re not going to vote.’ If we have that attitude, then we will turn back a lot of the progress that’s been made,” Obama said in an interview Tuesday with two black radio hosts in the Miami area, after speaking at a campaign rally for Clinton in Philadelphia.