Former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden
CNN  — 

Democrats have been growing increasingly anxious about public polls showing former President Donald Trump making unprecedented inroads among Black and Hispanic voters. But there may be reasons for Republicans to feel uneasy about these polls too.

Surveys now consistently show Trump leading President Joe Biden nationally and in almost all of the key swing states. But those same surveys generally show Biden matching or even exceeding his winning 2020 share of the vote among White voters. Trump’s lead in polls is often based solely on him significantly improving on his 2020 showing among voters of color – and in fact, running better among Blacks and Hispanics than any Republican presidential candidate in decades.

These results have provoked a fierce debate about whether those numbers are accurate. But the more important question may be whether Trump can sustain whatever level of support he now has among non-White voters as more of them learn about the aggressive agenda he has adopted on race-related issues.

The presumptive GOP nominee is now benefiting from the best of both worlds politically: he is energizing his base of White social conservatives with incendiary ideas such as the largest deportation drive against undocumented migrants in American history and attracting historic numbers of non-White voters on other issues, principally the economy. If Trump can continue to do both things through November, he will be very hard to beat. Biden’s position would look much better if Democrats can push Trump off of that tightrope by raising unease in minority communities about the former president’s most militant proposals and rhetoric – like his claim that undocumented immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

“I don’t want to say it’s going to come down to any one group, but to me getting these voters of color, especially Hispanic voters, back to the margins where they have been historically for Democrats may be the most important thing” Biden must do to recover, said Democratic pollster Andrew Baumann.

Under any scenario, Trump in 2024 will receive the vast majority of his votes from Whites. But the incremental improvement from 2020 that could carry him to a second term now looks to be concentrated preponderantly among non-Whites.

Both national and battleground state public polls consistently show Trump, at this point, drawing more support from Black and Hispanic voters than any Republican nominee since at least 1960. When The New York Times/Siena College, NBC News, Wall Street Journal and CBS News/YouGov all released national polls a few days apart earlier this month, each of them found Trump winning from 20% to 28% of Black voters and 45% to 48% of Hispanic voters. That’s far more than the 12% of Black, and 32% of Hispanic, voters he won in 2020, according to the Edison Research exit polls conducted for a consortium of news organizations including CNN. (The Pew Validated Voters study found Trump winning slightly fewer Black, and slightly more Hispanic, voters in the 2020 election.) A CNBC poll released Tuesday showed Biden drawing just 57% of all voters of color, compared to 71% in the 2020 exit poll.

Polls in the key swing states are returning similar results. The CNN/SSRS polls released last week showed Biden drawing only 55% of all non-White voters in Michigan and 69% in Pennsylvania – down in each case from about 80% in 2020. Marist College polls released last week showed Biden winning three-fourths of Black voters in Georgia and about four-fifths in North Carolina, well below the roughly 9-in-10 exit polls showed him winning in each state last time. A recent Fox News Poll in Arizona showed Biden winning only about half of Hispanics there, down from over 3-in-5 in the 2020 exit poll. Biden won over 9-in-10 Black voters in Wisconsin according to the 2020 exit poll, but a compilation of the two most recent Marquette Law School polls in the state showed him holding only a little more than 6-in-10 of them.

Some Democratic pollsters who focus on voters of color question the size of the minority polling samples that produce these results and insist they do not find nearly this much erosion for Biden in their own polls. But others in the party acknowledge the trend of diminishing non-White support for Biden is real (even if they do not believe it is always as pronounced as these public polls find.)

The convergence of long- and short-term trends has brought Biden to this perilous point. Alfonso Aguilar, the director of Hispanic engagement for the conservative American Principles Project, said Hispanics are simply following the tracks of earlier immigrant groups like the Italians and Irish who became less likely to instinctively align with the Democratic Party as each successive generation assimilated more fully into American society. Initially those earlier immigrant groups “identified with the Democratic Party but with time they started voting like other Americans, and I think that is happening with Hispanics,” Aguilar said. As the cultural identification with Democrats has waned, Hispanics who hold conservative views have become more willing to “vote their principles and values” by supporting Republicans, Aguilar said; his assessment is supported by Edison exit poll data showing that Trump in 2020 won a much higher share of Hispanics who identify as conservative than he did in 2016.

The other long-term trend lifting Trump is that non-White voters appear increasingly subject to the same long wave of educational realignment that has reshaped voting preferences among Whites for over half a century. Since 2016, Republicans have increased their vote more among non-White voters without a college degree than they have among those with advanced education, according to the exit polls and the detailed voting projections by the Democratic targeting firm Catalist. That has placed minority voters more in line with what I’ve called the “class inversion” among Whites, in which Democrats run better among voters with advanced education than those without  it.

Biden’s immediate challenges have compounded these long-term shifts. His numbers are especially weak among younger Hispanic and Black voters, a reflection of the president’s difficulty connecting with young voters of any race. Biden is “a poor fit generationally for a non-White electorate that skews young,” said Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini, author of “Party of the People,” a recent book on the GOP’s gains among non-White voters. “He’s the anti-Obama in his appeal to different segments of the Democratic electorate,” he added.

Inflation, analysts in both parties agree, has also disproportionately hurt Biden with Black and Hispanic voters, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck. And conservative analysts believe Biden is also being hurt because many non-White voters view Democrats as too liberal on cultural issues including LGBTQ rights, crime and even control of the border – although polls make clear a majority of non-White voters side with Democrats on other marquee social issues, particularly abortion and gun control.

Together all these factors have converged to produce the slippage for Biden among non-White voters that has drawn enormous attention in political circles. But there’s been much less focus on the other column in the racial ledger: the polls that now mostly show Biden matching, or even exceeding, his support level among Whites from 2020 – when he comfortably won the national popular vote and carried six of the seven most closely contested states.

The same four national polls that earlier this month showed erosion for Biden with minority voters each put him between 30% to 34% among White voters without a college degree and 50% to 56% among White voters with a degree; both of those results virtually replicate the 2020 exit polls that showed him winning 51% of Whites with a degree and 32% of Whites without one. The latest CNN poll in Pennsylvania, Marist polls in North Carolina and Georgia, the Fox poll in Arizona, and Marquette polls in Wisconsin all showed Biden close to his 2020 share of the White vote. In some of these polls, Biden declined slightly compared to 2020 among Whites without a degree and gained slightly among Whites with a degree, but after those small offsetting shifts, his totals among Whites showed little overall change. In the CNBC national poll released this week, Biden drew 40% of the vote among all Whites, virtually unchanged from his 41% in the 2020 exit poll. (The biggest exception to this trend was the latest CNN Michigan poll, which did show a meaningful decline for Biden among Whites there, although another recent Quinnipiac University survey in the state did not.)

Ruffini, the GOP pollster, said that Biden’s White vote is so stable largely because the two previous presidential elections have already pushed the process of educational resorting among Whites about as far as it can go. “White voters are pretty well sorted after two straight cycles of education polarization,” Ruffini said.

Even a small additional decline among the non-college White voters present in such large numbers in the key industrial states could doom Biden. But today, many Democrats believe Trump has less opportunity for further gains among non-college Whites than Biden has to expand his margins among college-educated Whites, who mostly take liberal positions on social issues like abortion and are more receptive to Democratic arguments that Trump represents a threat to democracy.

If Biden can hold his current overall support among Whites, the key question in the race may flip to whether Trump can sustain his support among non-Whites while offering such a bristling message and agenda on race-related issues.

Even as polls show Trump posting unprecedented Republican numbers among Hispanics, he is promising the largest deportation drive of undocumented migrants in American history, including the creation of detention camps and the use of the National Guard to participate in mass round ups; military action against Mexico, including a naval blockade, to combat drug cartels; the end of birthright citizenship; and the possible reinstitution of his policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border.

Activists working in the community say that very few Hispanic voters know that Trump is proposing any of this. “I don’t think people are really tuned into it at all,” said Melissa Morales, founder and president of Somos Votantes, a group that mobilizes Hispanic voters.

Matt Barreto, a Democratic pollster and political scientist advising the Biden campaign on Hispanic voters, said “there’s no chance” Trump can maintain his elevated level of support in the community as more learn about his language and proposals. Barreto maintains that Trump improved among Hispanic voters in 2020 because he dialed back his anti-immigrant rhetoric from 2016 and focused instead on reopening the economy from the Covid pandemic – a position that appealed to many economically struggling Hispanics. But now, Barreto said, Trump is “definitely running a more extreme cultural White supremacy … agenda than he did in ’16.”

Given that two-thirds of Hispanics in Barreto’s polling say they know someone who is undocumented, he believes the threat of mass deportation and detention camps will prove especially damaging to Trump’s support as more voters become aware of it. “I’m not saying Trump’s going to lose all his voters, but the worse and the louder he gets on immigration, the harder it is for a financially conservative Latino … to stick with Trump,” Barreto said.

Ruffini and Aguilar both express confidence that Trump’s hardline immigration proposals and rhetoric won’t hurt him among Hispanics nearly as much as Democrats expect – largely because Hispanics also feel Biden has lost control of the border. When Trump talked about mass deportations in 2016, “that became an issue immediately. This time it’s not,” Aguilar said. “And why is that? I think it’s because the circumstances have changed and people are open to a deportation campaign because of this mass wave” of asylum seekers at the border.

Leaders of several groups that work to mobilize Hispanics told me that they believe Trump’s immigration proposals will damage him, but they still anticipate that the centerpiece of their message this year will be the populist economic contrast with Trump that Biden drew in his State of the Union address this month. “I think the economic arguments are really top of mind for people,” Morales said.

For years, the most effective force organizing and turning out Hispanic voters in Nevada has been the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents 60,000 workers on the Las Vegas strip and in Reno. In an interview, Ted Pappageorge, the local’s secretary-treasurer, told me that higher prices for food, rent and gas are by far the top concerns for his mostly Hispanic membership. “For Democrats, this idea of taking on big food, big oil and Wall Street landlords, that is their lane,” Pappageorge said. The union, he added, will make the case to its members that “Trump is a boss and a landlord, and those are all his buddies.”

“When we roll out our program and talk to working class voters face to face, workers talking to workers, that’s the path to victory here,” Pappageorge said. “We beat Trump before and we can beat him again, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”

The situation with Black voters is similar. Even as Trump is posting historic numbers among Blacks, he has proposed, as a condition of receiving federal funds, to prohibit school districts from discussing “critical race theory” in classrooms, and to require local police departments to implement the “stop and frisk” tactics that civil rights leaders say unfairly target young Black men. Many Black leaders see Trump’s unwavering defense of the January 6, 2021, rioters as a clear signal of his embrace of White supremacists – including those who evoked dark memories of lynching by constructing a gallows outside the US Capitol that day.

For all those reasons and more, Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who advised Barack Obama’s campaigns on reaching Black voters, believes Trump will not receive anywhere near as much Black support on Election Day as polls now show for him. “If the story doesn’t make any sense you have to question it,” Belcher said. “Someone who has a well-documented history of discrimination and racism and corruption, along with being fundamentally mispositioned on almost the entirety of African American issues … that person is going to do better than George W. Bush, than Ronald Reagan, than John McCain, than any Republican over the last four decades?” Belcher said. “It’s absurd on its face.”

Ruffini agrees that he would not be surprised “to see some movement back to the previous historical norm among Black voters.” But he added that emphasizing the claim that Trump is racially biased is unlikely to provoke the turnout Democrats need unless they can also convince Black voters that Biden has a plan to improve their economic condition – which polls show many of them now doubt. “Leaning into cultural and racial identity as a motivator has been a losing strategy,” Ruffini said.

Belcher and other Democratic operatives focusing on Black voters acknowledge that even if Trump’s vulnerabilities ultimately limit his African American support, frustration over high prices and a sense that Biden has not accomplished much for the community could still threaten him. “Really people are looking for an offramp because they feel the president hasn’t done enough, and that offramp is third-party candidates,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, a group that organizes Black voters. “That’s the thing [the Biden campaign] needs to really pay attention to.”

Most of the arguments Democrats are hoping will recapture minority voters look forward – to create a contrast between what Biden and Trump would do with a second term. The risk for Democrats is that many voters of all races primarily may be looking backwards – to compare their lived economic experience under Trump’s presidency to Biden’s.

Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster who advised Obama’s campaign on courting Hispanics, already sees that comparison opening more Hispanic voters to Trump. “The nightmare phrase I keep hearing in focus groups … is ‘I really dislike Trump, I don’t like what he says, I don’t like what he stands for, but if I’m being honest, when he was president prices were a lot lower and I was doing a lot better economically,’” Amandi said.

Biden is undoubtedly facing much deeper discontent over his performance than Democratic presidents have usually confronted in minority communities. But from the “birther” slur against Obama, to the echoing of Nazi imagery about immigrants “poisoning the blood” of the country, Trump throughout his political career has systematically stoked White racial resentments with inflammatory and racist language.

The supreme irony taking shape is that Trump’s fate in the 2024 election may turn on whether he can hold, for seven more months, more support among Black and Hispanic voters than any Republican presidential nominee since the Civil Rights era six decades ago.