The Westside Gazette bills itself as “Broward County’s oldest and largest African American owned-and-operated newspaper.” For five decades, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla. weekly has catered to a staunchly Democratic readership.
So when readers opened an edition last month to find a full-page ad from President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, many couldn’t believe it. Why would he even bother?
“I thought it was quite abnormal,” said Bobby Henry, the newspaper’s publisher and CEO. He said a reader sought him out at church last weekend to ask what was up. “For [Trump] to reach out to the broader African American community is what surprised me.”
Yet that’s precisely what Trump is doing.
The president’s reelection campaign has spent $1 million in an effort to make inroads with black voters, and more is coming, according to a person with direct knowledge of the planning. The initiative, dubbed “Black Voices” by the campaign, so far has included ads in black-run newspapers and on radio stations, volunteer training seminars and a kickoff event hosted by Trump in Atlanta last month.
The Trump ads tout low unemployment among African Americans, Trump’s support for historically black colleges and universities, and the White House-backed criminal reform legislation that passed earlier this year.
The spots, which encourage voters to sign up for Trump 2020 updates by texting “Woke” to a campaign phone number, are concentrated in big cities located in battleground states, including Philadelphia, Detroit and Atlanta.
Trump received just 8 percent of the black vote in 2016, and his campaign aides concede he’s never going to win more than a narrow slice of African American support. But that’s not the point, they argue. If Trump can nudge his way into double digits among black voters and potentially into the low teens, it would eat away at Democratic margins in key swing states and possibly alter the outcome in a close election.
Florida is a case study in how a small shift in the black vote can make a big difference in a key battleground. According to exit polls, black voters made up 14 percent of the electorate in Florida in 2016, and Trump won just 8 percent of them. Had Trump received 12 percent, it would have netted him more than 50,000 votes, roughly half of his total margin of victory in the state.
“It’s not about whether or not he can change enough minds to get him to 98 percent of the black vote,” said Paris Dennard, a Republican strategist who is advising the Trump campaign on the effort. “You can move the needle ever so slightly in certain cities and certain counties.”
Dennard, who worked in the George W. Bush White House and at the Republican National Committee, said Trump is courting African Americans far more aggressively than previous Republican presidential candidates.
“It’s historic because this just doesn’t happen,” he said.
Democrats dismiss the idea that Trump could make serious inroads. Trump's job-approval rating among black voters was 10 percent in the latest POLITICO/Morning Consult poll. And a Quinnipiac University survey released Tuesday showed the Democratic polling leader, former Vice President Joe Biden, leading Trump among black voters, 87 to 7 percent.
Doug Wilson, a Democratic strategist in Charlotte, N.C., where Trump is running radio and newspaper commercials, scoffed at the Trump initiative, calling it “half-baked.”
Yet some Democrats are concerned. While Trump is unlikely to receive substantial black support, they worry his outreach could dissuade African Americans from turning out in force for the Democratic candidate. For some Democrats, the prospect brings back nightmares of 2016, when Hillary Clinton failed to turn out voters in heavily black Detroit, paving the way for Trump’s upset victory in Michigan.
“The end goal is to create doubt in the minds of black voters, doubt about the Democratic Party and doubts about the Democratic nominee,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of Black PAC, a super PAC aimed at mobilizing black voters. “It really is about suppressing the black vote more than it is about bringing black voters out to support Trump.”
Democrats say they’re on high alert against potential voter suppression. Many in the party remain shaken by Russian-led efforts to dampen black enthusiasm for Clinton, and one Democratic strategist pointed to a brochure that surfaced recently in Virginia describing how “modern-day Jim Crow Democrats are keeping Black Americans under heel.”
The pamphlet did not identify who paid for it. A Trump 2020 spokesman said the campaign was not behind it.
In response, liberal organizations say they’re reaching out to black voters well before the 2020 political season intensifies. In February, meanwhile, the Congressional Black Caucus will convene African American leaders from around the country to discuss a range of issues, including the upcoming elections.
Justin Myers, CEO of For Our Future, a union-funded super PAC focused on field organizing, called Trump's messaging "empty," but acknowledged: “If we are not taking Trump’s paid program seriously, it is to our detriment.”
Trump’s push for the black vote is being encouraged by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner. Trump's son-in-law, who helped to shepherd through criminal justice reform, has privately made the case that the president can expand his base of support from 2016 — and potentially grow the Republican Party.
The president's advisers say the new program has enlisted around 2,000 members. After years of virtually ignoring or often antagonizing black voters, party strategists say they are finally making tangible investments that could earn them support.
Republicans say Trump has an opportunity to woo black men in particular, who are seen as more conservative and receptive to the president than black women. A September CNN poll found that 15 percent of black men approved of Trump’s job performance, compared with just 3 percent of black women.
"I do believe there is some potential with black men,” said Republican strategist Shermichael Singleton, a former deputy chief of staff to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.
Katrina Pierson, a Trump 2020 adviser who is helping to spearhead the project, said she was aware of the skepticism. But by reaching out to black voters, she argued, Trump is finding people willing to hear his message.
“It’s going to be tough work,” said Pierson, who serves as the narrator in the radio ads. "No one thinks it’s going to be easy."
But Henry, whose Westside Gazette paper received just over $5,000 for the full-page ad, expressed uncertainty. He said he didn't know whether the ad, which prominently featured an image of two black women holding Trump campaign signs, would move the publication’s readers.
“If you asked me from my personal standpoint,” he said, “I would have to say no.”
Steven Shepard contributed to this report.