In 2016, Donald Trump got a lower share of the white vote than the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, and white turnout was stagnant as compared to 2012. Trump was able to win nonetheless because he got a higher share of Black and Hispanic voters than his predecessor — up roughly 3 percentage points with African Americans and 2 percentage points with Hispanics — helping tilt pivotal races in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania toward Trump.
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It may be that many minority voters simply do not view some of his controversial comments and policies as racist.
That is, it was minorities, not whites, who proved more decisive for Trump’s victory.
Going into Election Day in 2020, Trump seems poised to do even better with minority voters. His gains in the polling have been highly consistent and broad-based among Blacks and Hispanics — with male voters and female voters, the young and the old, educated and uneducated. Overall, Trump is polling about 10 percentage points higher with African Americans than he did in 2016, and 14 percentage points higher with Hispanics.
Perceptions of Trump as racist seem to be a core driving force pushing whites toward the Democrats. Why would the opposite pattern be holding among minority voters — i.e. the very people the president is purportedly being racist against?
It may be that many minority voters simply do not view some of his controversial comments and policies as racist. Too often, scholars try to test whether something is racist by looking exclusively at whether the rhetoric or proposals they disagree with resonate with whites. They frequently don’t even bother to test whether they might appeal to minorities, as well.
Yet when they do, the results tend to be surprising. For instance, one recent study presented white, Black and Hispanic voters with messages the researchers considered to be racial “dog whistles,” or coded language that signals commitment to white supremacy. It turned out that the messages resonated just as strongly with Blacks as they did with whites. Hispanics responded even more warmly to the rhetoric about crime and immigration than other racial groups.
That is, on balance, these “racist” messages seemed to resonate more strongly with minorities than whites! Across racial groups, most did not find the messages to be racist or offensive— despite researchers viewing these examples as clear-cut cases of racial dog whistles.
As I pointed out back in 2016, another key factor for understanding minority support for Trump may be that minorities often hold antipathy toward other minority groups. As a consequence, even if we understand many of Trump’s policies and rhetoric to indeed be racist, minorities could support Trump precisely because his rhetoric or policies seem to target other minorities, whom they also dislike.
Academics generally avoid examining bigotry among members of minority groups — focusing nearly exclusively on anti-minority sentiment among whites. And they often approach politics in intersectional terms: Campaigns to assist Muslims, poor people, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, LGBTQ Americans, women, etc. are viewed as fundamentally interconnected — part of the same overarching struggle for justice and equality.
Within this worldview, it would be natural to assume that if Trump says something negative about one minority group, it will likely alienate other minorities, as well. However, as a matter of fact, people from historically marginalized or disadvantaged groups often hold very negative opinions of people from other minority populations — and do not seem to approach social issues in intersectional terms.
Anti-Semitism, meanwhile, is significantly more prevalent among Blacks and Hispanics than among whites. Moreover, many Black and Hispanic Christians are highly distrustful of Muslims. Many American Hindus feel the same way. This antipathy is not just a matter of attitudes. According to FBI statistics, roughly a third of all hate crimes seem to be committed by racial and ethnic minorities.
Intergroup tensions are also expressed in terms of policy. Overall, Black Americans are more supportive of limiting immigration than any other bloc of the Democratic coalition. And Hispanics actually tend to be more concerned about illegal immigration than are whites or Blacks.
Hispanics are generally supportive of legal immigration — however, many insist that people come over “the right way” and worry that illegal immigration has a detrimental effect on Hispanics already living in the United States. More than two-thirds view improving border security as a priority with respect to U.S. immigration policy.
In other words, far from alienating minority constituencies, Trump’s messaging on immigration, law and order and cultural conservativism may be an important source of his appeal to many voters of color — even as it leads many whites to distance themselves from him.
Then again, it may be an error to look at Trump to explain these patterns among voters of color, as they could just as much be a product of minorities’ dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party. In fact, Democratic attrition of minority voters predates Trump. The Big Tent party has seen losses with Hispanic and Black voters for virtually every midterm and presidential election since 2008.
It may be an error to look at Trump to explain these patterns among voters of color, as they could just as much be a product of minorities’ dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party.
The 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections may therefore simply be continuations of trends from the preceding decade — a product of building alienation among minority voters from the Democratic Party — rather than reactions to the particular views or policies of the current commander in chief.
Fortunately for Democrats, Trump has turned off so many non-Hispanic white voters over the last four years that the party can probably avoid a racial reckoning — for now. However, should alienated whites begin to migrate back to the Republican Party post-Trump, Democrats could find themselves in a tough electoral position if they cannot halt the long-running erosion of minority voter support.
Disaffected voters of color helped turn the electoral tide in 2016. They could do so again in future races. One important lesson of the Trump era, then, is that neither political party should write off minority voters or take them for granted.