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Trump’s “Deterrence” Strategy Targeting Black Voters Doesn’t Have to Work

In both his campaigns, Trump has run ads aimed at killing black voters’ enthusiasm for the Democratic nominee and lowering their turnout. The strategy is craven, but the ads exploit real disillusionment. Without a sharp break from their history of failing black constituents, Democrats will remain vulnerable to such opportunistic gambits in the future.

Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona, 2016. (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

On Monday, Britain’s Channel 4 News revealed that the 2016 Trump campaign targeted individual black voters with social media ads intended to keep them away from the polls.

A cache of data used by the campaign’s digital operation shows that 3.5 million black voters were lumped into a category marked “deterrence,” designating people the campaign sought to dissuade from voting. Black people were enormously overrepresented in this “deterrence” group according to an analysis performed by Channel 4.

Trump’s digital campaign strategy relied heavily on data mining, which allowed it to target ads to particular individuals based on information gathered by Facebook, as is now well known. But while the method was disturbingly precise, the principle is familiar. Campaigns tailor ads to specific demographics all the time. And since Republicans know they have little hope of winning most black voters, they run negative ads designed to kill enthusiasm among black people for Democratic candidates instead, hoping even a small dip in black voter turnout could help Republicans in battleground states.

The GOP’s desire to stop black people from voting is also on full display in its aggressive pursuit of more direct forms of voter suppression like strict voter identification laws, purging of voter rolls, and disinformation about voting procedures. It’s a craven and antidemocratic strategy that shows what little regard the Republican Party has for black Americans.

But brute-force voter suppression isn’t the entire story. The “deterrence” strategy relies on, and makes the most of, the Democratic Party’s failure to stand squarely on the side of its most important constituencies. For decades, Democrats tacked to the center, trying to prove themselves tough on crime and anti-welfare in order to win white, middle-class, suburban voters. In the process, they pushed policy that harmed millions of black Americans, and used a lot of rhetoric that dehumanized them. So Republicans have plenty of material to work with.

Facebook doesn’t keep a public record of political ads once they expire, so we can’t know for certain what ads black voters on the “deterrence” list saw in 2016, but they likely included an ad showing Hillary Clinton calling young black men “superpredators.” She’d said those words twenty-five years earlier, during the era when the Democrats — chief among them then-president Bill Clinton and today’s presidential nominee Joe Biden — were pushing the crime and welfare bills that turbocharged mass incarceration and imposed punishing austerity that hit many black communities hard.

We can’t say with any certainty that the Trump campaign’s targeted ads greatly intensified, much less caused, the lack of enthusiasm among black people for Clinton — only that the campaign took advantage of a real vulnerability in its opposition. In any case, a decline in black voter turnout in several key states grievously injured Clinton’s chances at the presidency. For example in Wisconsin, where black voter turnout was down from the previous election by 86,830 votes, Clinton lost by just 22,748 votes.

Now Trump’s 2020 campaign is trying the same strategy with Joe Biden. In a stunning illustration of the Republican Party’s racial opportunism, the Trump campaign has actually produced two ads with opposing messages, one meant for white voters and another for black voters. The ad intended for white voters is called “Break In” and features an elderly white woman whose home is being burglarized calling 911, but nobody picks up. The ad paints Biden as anti-police and pro-mob, an allusion to the Black Lives Matter protests this summer. It promises, “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”

Conversely, the ad intended for black voters, “We Remember,” alleges that Joe Biden “destroyed millions of Black lives.” It highlights the fact that Biden was the main author of the 1994 Crime Bill which imposed harsher sentences for a wide variety of crimes; encouraged the prosecution of young people as adults; gave police and prosecutors a mandate to make more arrests and put people away for longer; incentivized states to build more prisons and jails; and other changes that led to the metastasization of mass incarceration. All of this is, unfortunately, true — as is the prosecutorial background of Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris, which Trump and friends have similarly attempted to use to their benefit.

Spots for “We Remember” were purchased during runs of daytime talk shows popular with black audiences in cities with large black populations (Atlanta, Charlotte, Philadelphia). In short, while “We Remember” is not targeted at specific individuals on social media whose data has been mined via Facebook, the people who view it may as well be marked “deterrence.”

Democrats need black turnout to win in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The fact that they spent nearly half a century pursuing policies that led to a sharp decrease in quality of life for working-class people across the country — including millions of black people who fled the Jim Crow South and put down roots in those industrial states only to be abandoned by deindustrialization and white flight, and then subjected to crushing austerity and criminalized en masse — poses an ever-present threat to the party’s electoral fortunes. Democrats will remain vulnerable to Republican attempts to exploit that weakness going forward unless they break with that conservative, anti-welfare, pro-austerity, anti-union, tough-on-crime political tradition entirely.

Bernie Sanders’s primary campaigns represented the possibility of this type of transformation. The party establishment fought tooth and nail against him, their stated rationale as always being that they didn’t want to lose the white, middle-class suburbs. But if Republicans can run an ad like “Break In” about Joe Biden, one of the architects of mass incarceration, then their soft-on-crime scare tactics are pretty much inevitable. Losing the allegiance of black voters over real transgressions is not.