WASHINGTON — The Republican National Committee is upping its outreach to black voters as Donald Trump’s candidacy faces a steep battle to win over minorities.
Concerns that Trump has failed to address issues of importance to black voters have led to low support for the Republican nominee. An August NBC/Wall Street Journal poll puts Trump’s support with registered black voters at 1%.
Trump’s low numbers come as he trails Hillary Clinton in key battleground states and has had trouble overall expanding his reach beyond core GOP voters. Clinton is also campaigning in part to extend the legacy of President Barack Obama, who experienced record numbers of black support in 2008 and 2012.
The RNC knows it has an uphill climb, but insists it remains committed to addressing issues relevant to black voters, said Telly Lovelace, hired in April as national director of African American Initiatives and Media.
“My goal is to make the Republican Party more competitive and to have a genuine effort to go after the African-American vote,” he told CNN. “And I want to make certain that we’re putting in place programs and building those relationships. We don’t want to just be there for this election.”
“Because at the end of the day, you have one party that takes black people for granted and you have another party that just ignores the black community,” he added.
The RNC this week announced Ashley Bell as the senior strategist and national director of African-American political engagement, Shannon Reeves as the senior adviser to the RNC’s political department, and Elroy Sailor as a senior adviser to the chairman. Leah Le’Vell was named the African-American initiatives and urban media fellow.
After more than 90% of black voters supported Obama in 2012, the RNC’s post-election autopsy noted the party’s challenge in winning support of minority voters.
“If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them and show our sincerity,” the report said. “Unless the RNC gets serious about tackling this problem, we will lose future elections; the data demonstrates this.”
Leah Wright Rigueur, author of the “Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power,” said there were noticeable changes at the RNC following the 2012 election.
“Some of the work that those individuals have been doing over the last four or five years has actually resulted in some important gains,” said Rigueur, a public policy professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “The number of registered Republicans has shifted from 5 to 10% directly attributable to the work that the black consultants did.”
Several black staffers joined the RNC soon after including Orlando Watson, former communications director for Black Media; Raffi Williams, former deputy press secretary; and Kristal Quarker-Hartsfield, former national director of African-American initiatives.
But by March 2016, all of those staffers had left for various reasons.
Trump’s controversial statements about Mexican immigrants, a ban on Muslim refugees and black protestors attacked at Trump rallies have likely made some black voters more cautious than normal about Republicans, said Angela Rye, former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“If I were a black GOP staffer, I would not want to be affiliated with the party given everything that’s happening,” said Rye, a CNN political commentator.
High staff turnover can harm long-term engagement. “When you have roughly only three or four people devoted to that at the RNC, to even lose any of those relationships, I believe it undermines trust with African-American communities,” Rigueur said. “It reinforces the outsider belief that something is going on and that the Republican Party is not committed to building relationships with African-Americans.”
A significant focus area for the RNC in 2016 will be on grassroots level outreach.
“A lot of that will be rooted in state parties. And we’ve had a lot of success already in Michigan,” Lovelace said. “And there are others in key states in North Carolina and Ohio — battleground states.”
They also launched a new diversity initiative that will invest in a new generation of black conservative Republicans, including through a paid internship program.
Changes in black voter support will require time, commitment and perhaps most important, patience, Rigueur said.
“If you’re actually committed to serious outreach, you don’t expect changes over night,” she said. “It’s not going to happen in two months or even six months. That’s something that takes years and years of work.”
The most effective way RNC leaders can connect with black voters is by addressing the issues that they say shape their lives most, Rye said.
“You can’t just reflect diversity on its face. What policies are you promoting and pushing that are reflective of my experience,” she said.
Rigueur agreed saying that if the RNC really wants to win over black voters, leaders are going to have to push back aggressively at the rhetoric coming from its candidates.
“You have to take a stance. You have to be a bold outspoken face about radicalized issues,” she said. “You have to say that racism and racist behavior that is targeted at racial minorities has no place in the Republican Party. You have to do it very publicly. You have to use the language of race to say it.”
Shermichael Singleton, adviser on Ben Carson’s presidential campaign, said that even when efforts are made, there’s a lot of baggage that often comes with voting Republican for some black voters which presents a problem.
“I think for many African-Americans, it’s a psychological thing. If you’re going to convince black people to vote Republicans you have to get over the psychological hurdle,” he said. “That has been where the Republican Party has not been able to connect.”