Donald Trump’s proposed expansion of the controversial stop-and-frisk policing tactic is the latest example of how his minority outreach effort is often times at odds with his past policy and rhetoric, and provides hints at what may be the real intended audience for his newly inclusive message: College-educated white voters.
A majority of those voters have backed the Republican candidate in every presidential election since at least 1992. But this year, polling has shown them abandoning Trump and viewing Democrat Hillary Clinton far more positively. While Mitt Romney won that demographic by six percent in 2012, according to exit polling, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll out this week found him losing those voters to Clinton by that same margin.
That same survey found that 69 percent of voters have concerns about Donald Trump's comments and language on women, immigrants and Muslims. More than a quarter of respondents said those comments were what concerned them the most about Trump.
Those two results, GOP strategists say, are intertwined.
“There’s a sense with suburban voters that racist attitudes are just a little backwards, and not where we like to think our country’s going,” said Katie Packer Gage, the former deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney who headed an anti-Trump super PAC in part out of concern over Trump’s controversial comments.
She added: “We like the idea that we’re sort of aiming towards a color-blind society and that people aren’t held back or treated differently because of the color of their skin.”
So when Trump delivers his outreach message to black voters in front of largely white audiences, or offers a proposal to address violence in black communities that independent investigations have found disproportionately targets minorities, GOP operatives say he’s focused in part on improving his image among tradition GOP voters.
Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman who chaired the House GOP’s political arm, said there’s “not much any Republican can do to get African American votes” to begin with, considering their entrenched support for the Democratic Party. He also noted in particular Trump may struggle because the theme of his campaign — “Make America Great Again” — is one that “doesn’t really speak to the minority community, who felt excluded throughout history."
But he praised Trump’s outreach because it shows to the broader electorate, “at least I’m reaching out, I’m not trying to be a racially polarizing figure.”
That gets at a key question hanging over Trump’s head in the final stretch of the election: His temperament.
“There are people in the middle who are looking to see if Trump is capable of governing, these things matter and there’s no question that race is a factor in American government and society,” Davis said. And, he adds, “racism is a deal-breaker for a lot of people, black and white.”
Indeed, the Clinton campaign’s focus on Trump’s affiliation with the Alt-Right — a loosely affiliated movement that contains elements of white supremacists, anti-feminists and other controversial figures — is targeted, aides say, in part at suburban voters, especially college-educated white voters.
And though Trump has countered by arguing that Clinton is lobbing race-based attacks to distract from her own controversies, the perception that Trump or his policies are tinged with racism has been hard for the candidate to shake, despite — or perhaps, because of — his minority outreach efforts, which have been marred by stumbles and gaffes.
Trump’s message to minorities -- that Democrats have left minorities with failed schools, crime-riddled neighborhoods, leaving black and Latino voters with a “what do you have to lose?” choice -- has been criticized by some black leaders as condescending. Though Trump has been more scripted on the stump in recent weeks, he has still faced controversy over what some see as incendiary language, like his comparison of inner-city Chicago to Afghanistan, or his son’s tweet likening Syrian refugees to poisoned Skittles.
Polls suggest these efforts haven’t born fruit. An ABC News/Washington Post survey out this week showed 57 percent of registered voters believe Trump is biased against women and minorities — a slight uptick from last month. A recent Quinnipiac poll found 61 percent of likely voters believe the way Trump talks appeals to bigotry — again, a margin that’s gotten worse for him over the past month.
And it doesn’t seem to have improved his standing nationwide with college-educated white voters. In the most recent Quinnipiac, ABC News/Washington Post and NBC News/Wall Street Journal surveys, Democrat Hillary Clinton has either expanded her lead slightly among that demographic, or it’s stayed largely the same, hovering around 6 or 7 points.
That may indicate why, even as Trump has narrowed national and swing-state polls over the past few weeks — in some instances, breaking ahead of her by a point or two — he hasn’t yet managed to pull into a decisive lead.
And it represents a significant challenge to Trump’s White House hopes. In 2012, President Obama lost the white vote by a steeper margin than 2008 across all education and income levels, but still defeated Republican Mitt Romney by about 4 percent.
Nonpartisan elections analyst David Wasserman found that population growth trends suggest an even tougher electorate in 2016. He predicts white college graduates will make up a slightly higher percentage of the electorate than 2012 — 37 percent — while non-college whites could decline three points, to 33 percent.
If those predictions bear out, Trump would need to outperform Romney 3-4 percent among whites with and without a college degree, blacks, Latinos and Asians just to hit 50 percent.
The Trump campaign scoffed at the suggestion the candidate's minority outreach efforts had any ulterior motive, with spokeswoman Hope Hicks calling Trump’s campaign for black votes “a matter of deep, personal and profound importance” to the candidate.
"This ludicrous story is yet more evidence that the desperate corporate media is trying to suppress Mr. Trump's message of change for our inner cities. Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party have brought the inner cities only more poverty, crime and joblessness. It is a matter of deep, personal and profound importance to Mr. Trump to campaign for African-American votes and bring hope, jobs and safety to the inner cities of America -- any false suggestion otherwise reflects only the bias of those who don't want to see this needed any change."
And former RNC Chairman Michael Steele, who has long called for more GOP outreach to black voters, said Trump still has a shot at improving his standing among minorities. He pointed to the NBC News/WSJ survey, which showed Trump drawing 7 percent of African American registered voters nationwide — up from 1 percent in August — as evidence they’re listening.
“They don’t like everything they’ve heard — like [Trump’s] feigned ignorance of David Duke, and they certainly don’t like his revisiting of birtherism — but as one gentleman told me, ‘I’m a small business owner, and I am having a hard time growing my business,” he said.
“There’s an opening there for Trump."