President Donald Trump speaks during a Make America Great Again rally at Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport in Opa Locka, Florida, on November 2, 2020.
CNN  — 

President Donald Trump appears determined to end this stage of his political career the same way he began it: by promoting a racist conspiracy theory.

Just as he began his long march to the White House by touting the racist “birther theory” that Barack Obama was not an American citizen, Trump and his allies are choregraphing his slow walk away from the Oval Office to a backbeat of accusations that the election was stolen from him in heavily African American cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Atlanta.

These charges of urban voting fraud – the distant bookend to his birther slanders – underscore how much Trump’s political message revolves around convincing his coalition that an insidious combination of disdainful elites and dangerous minorities is unfairly taking away “our country,” as he often calls America.

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“This is in the continuum of the conversation about people losing their country,” says Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster. “When talking about the election being stolen from them, what they are really saying is, again, those people are taking our country. When they say, ‘Let’s disqualify the votes in Milwaukee … the votes in Philadelphia … in Atlanta and Detroit,’ they are all but saying it: The votes of ‘those people’ should not count.”

That Trump and his allies would return to this imagery so quickly after an election in which he made modest but meaningful gains with Black voters, and even larger advances with Hispanics in some areas, shows how difficult it will be for the GOP to disentangle itself from the President’s racist messaging and expand beyond those beachheads in the minority community to truly build the “multiracial working class” coalition that some GOP thinkers yearn for.

“If you look at Blacks ideologically, politically, it’s a stereotype that they are ultraliberal,” says Katherine Tate, a Brown University political scientist who studies Black voting behavior. “Higher percentages of them should have been voting Republican a while ago.”

Had Republicans nominated another candidate, she says, who avoided Trump’s open appeals to racial resentments but offered “the same political agenda, securing the border, skepticism about Covid, withdraw troops from overseas wars and ban immigration as best you can … that candidate would have done better [with Black voters] than Donald Trump.”

Residents cast ballots at an early-voting polling location in Atlanta on Monday, October 12, 2020.

The focus by Trump and his allies on alleged fraud in heavily minority central cities is especially striking both because the President actually improved on his vote in some of them compared with 2016 and also because he suffered greater losses in well-educated and often mostly White suburban areas, where Republicans have not made similar accusations.

“He can’t ever acknowledge or admit that White people let him down, so he has nowhere else to go,” Michael Nutter, the former Philadelphia mayor, told me.

The disparity is especially jarring in Pennsylvania, where Trump, as of the current count, lost Philadelphia by about the same margin as he did in 2016 but Biden won the big surrounding white-collar suburban counties of Montgomery and Delaware by an unprecedented 215,000 votes, almost 50% more than Hillary Clinton did last time. But at a feverish fact-free news conference of Trump attorneys last week, Rudy Giuliani singled out Philadelphia – along with Detroit – for especially vitriolic accusations.

“The only surprise I would have found in this is if Philadelphia hadn’t cheated in this election, because for the last 60 years they’ve cheated in just about every single election,” he charged. “You could say the same thing about Detroit.”

To which Nutter, now a professor of practice at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, responds: “What they are saying is everything but that Black people stole it, and playing into just the worst of the worst stereotypes. What Giuliani said the other day, that Philly has been corrupt for the last 60 years: What … are you talking about? Based on what? These are the worst of their racist tendencies. … “

Trump likely drew more Black support in 2020

No aspect of the election results has caused more head-scratching among Democrats than the evidence that Trump, despite the kinds of appeals to White racial resentment infusing his fraud accusations, clearly appeared to improve on his 2016 vote share among African Americans (as well as Hispanics, especially in Florida and Texas).

Precise comparisons are difficult because the various data sources that measure the electorate’s preferences don’t exactly agree on how Trump performed this time – or his showing last time. But the overall trajectory is consistent. In three major sources of estimates of the 2016 vote, Trump lost African American voters by margins ranging from 81 percentage points (according to the exit polls conducted for a consortium of media organizations including CNN) to 85 points (according to the “validated voters” study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center) to 89 points (in the University of Michigan’s American National Election Studies.)

This time, estimates of Trump’s deficit with Black voters ranged from 82 percentage points (in the VoteCast survey conducted by The Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center), 79 points (in an Election Day survey by the GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies) and 75 points in the 2020 exit polls. Both the VoteCast and exit poll studies found that Trump ran about twice as well with Black men as Black women, but both polls recorded gains for him with each group when compared with the major data sources from 2016.

Perceptions of how Trump performed among Black voters may change somewhat when other studies are completed that rely on analyzing the actual voter files (including Pew’s “validated voter” research and work by Catalist, a Democratic voter-targeting firm.) But the results so far are already spurring heated debate among Democrats.

Some party strategists have raised alarms over the evidence that Trump improved on his showing from 2016 and has established a particular beachhead among Black men as well as some younger Black voters.

Terrance Woodbury, a Democratic consultant, said Trump’s showing with both groups represented a “red flag” for the party. While a certain share of Black voters will always vote Republican, he says that in focus groups he conducted throughout the campaign, Trump was widening his support to a circle of African Americans who didn’t necessarily agree with his ideology but were open to him because they believed both parties had failed them.

“This is the red flag for me: It is the young Black man who said to me, ‘My ‘hood didn’t get any better under [Barack] Obama, it didn’t get any worse under Trump, so what’s the difference?’ ” Woodbury told me. Likewise, he said, even some Black voters who considered Trump a racist did not view that as disqualifying because they thought that White Democratic politicians were racist as well, even if they tried better to hide it.

“They say things like ‘They are all racist, but at least I know where this one is coming from,’ ” he says.

Yet even Trump’s success in improving his share of the vote among Blacks compared with 2016 carried him only back to the typical deficits faced by GOP nominees before Obama’s first run in 2008. From 1984 through 2004, every GOP presidential nominee lost Black voters by margins ranging from 72 to 81 percentage points, according to the exit polls – roughly where the major data sources put Trump’s shortfall this year.

Belcher, the Democratic pollster, also points out that Trump’s improved share of the Black vote compared with 2016 is only half of the 2020 story. The other half is that by all indications many more African Americans voted in 2020 than in 2016. That turnout increase means that even as Trump enlarged his share of the Black vote, he almost certainly faced a much larger absolute deficit among them in 2020 than in 2016.

In this September 14, 2020, file photo, President Donald Trump arrives for a Latinos for Trump Coalition roundtable at Arizona Grand Resort & Spa in Phoenix.

If total turnout reaches 160 million, Trump’s absolute deficit among Black voters, based on the exit polls, should reach about 15.6 million votes. That’s significantly more than the roughly 13.4 million vote deficit the exit polls showed for him four years ago.

Belcher says the magnitude of the Black turnout against Trump undermines the contention that he paid no cost in the community for his appeals to racial resentment.

“No candidate in the history of this county has garnered more Black and brown votes in aggregate than Joe Biden, not even Obama,” says Belcher. “But we ignore that piece. We want to focus on 11% of Black people who voted for [Trump] as opposed to the overwhelming majority who came out in droves to vote against him.”

While expressing more concern than Belcher about the inroads Trump made among Black voters, Nutter and Woodbury echo his argument that looking solely at Trump’s margin ignores the magnitude of the turnout he provoked.

For Trump, “the price was the surge in turnout,” says Woodbury. “Even if he did marginally better with men and with younger voters of color, he surged so many [to vote], specifically seniors … and we know that Black seniors are the most loyal Democratic voters in the electorate. While he was able to scrape along the margins [to reduce his deficits], he definitely paid the price by motivating the voters who were the most animated by his racism.”

Polls find conservative attitudes

A critical question is whether Republicans can expand on Trump’s improved margin with Black voters this year – or if his reliance on the kind of racist imagery infusing his post-election arguments imposes a hard ceiling on those opportunities.

Tate, the political scientist, says that given Black attitudes, particularly on cultural issues, it’s surprising that Republicans haven’t made more inroads among them so far.

“I think that Republicans can win a bigger share of the minority vote,” she says.

Previously unpublished results from the latest American Values Survey by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute offer considerable support for that perspective. In that national poll, the share of Black voters who expressed sympathy for Republican perspectives was considerably larger than the share who voted for Trump, according to any of the major 2020 data sources.

Across a wide range of issues, a substantial minority of African Americans embraced Trump-style concerns about the changes in American culture and politics. Nearly 3 in 10 of the men and more than 2 in 10 of the women agreed with the harshly worded statement that “immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background,” according to detailed results provided by the Public Religion Research Institute.

More than two-fifths of both Black men and women agreed that immigrants are “burdening” communities by using too many social services. About two-fifths of both Black men and women agreed that the “values of Islam” are not compatible with American values. Most of the men and a substantial one-third of the women agreed that society these days punishes men just for acting like men. About one-fourth of both the men and women agreed that the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists.

But the poll also shows overwhelming consensus among African Americans that the community still faces persistent racism. Nearly 9 in 10 of the women and almost 8 in 10 of the men said police killings of unarmed Black men are part of a pattern rather than isolated incidents.

Vast majorities of both groups rejected the idea that discrimination against Whites is as much a problem as discrimination against Blacks. On both those questions, the poll found that a significant majority of Trump supporters from all races expressed the opposite view.

Many Democrats say the party’s decline this year among non-White voters shows the need to reassess its tactics and agenda. But the divergence in attitudes recorded in the Public Religion Research Institute poll signals why the GOP may struggle to significantly grow in minority communities while emphasizing a Trump-ian message of anxiety about racial and cultural change. Those are the notes Trump has predictably returned to in his post-election accusations of fraud against heavily Black cities.

“President Trump’s attack on the integrity of the election process is inspiring to racially panicking conservative voters,” notes Tate.

But that same racially incendiary attack shows why Republicans remain likely to leave on the table potential support from many voters of color who might otherwise respond to their appeals.