With a Lot on the Line, Approach to Voters by Clinton and Trump Lays Bare America’s Persistent Racial Divide

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton meets with the Rev. Kenneth J. Flowers of Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church before meeting with African-American ministers in Detroit.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton meets with the Rev. Kenneth J. Flowers of Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church before meeting with African-American ministers in Detroit.

The 2016 presidential election is unfolding in black and white, in arguably the most racially polarized fashion in at least a generation.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is making the most relentless pitch for African-American votes perhaps in decades. Barack Obama, the first black nominee for a major party ticket, didn’t have to campaign as aggressively for that constituency. Bill Clinton delicately balanced his appeal to black voters with his assurances to center-left whites that he was on their side.

At the same time, 2016 Republican front-runner Donald Trump is pressing toward his party’s nomination with a message that appeals to fed-up whites, built from day one on a message against Mexicans and later Muslims.

Clinton’s aggressive courtship of African-Americans has been a key force in helping her to big wins over challenger Bernie Sanders in states with large black Democratic electorates, and it might help again Tuesday in Michigan and Mississippi.

The former secretary of state had her eye on the black vote early. She’s devoted several speeches to issues with special appeal to African-American voters, including criminal justice and ending the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.” She has tied herself to the first black president, and often has campaigned with women whose children were killed, many of them black.

Two days before the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary, she detoured to Flint, the majority black city where the water supply has been contaminated with lead. She met with women whose children had been affected by the city’s poisoned water, and then spoke at House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church.

“Only one presidential candidate – Democrat or Republican – has reached out and asked, ‘What can I do? How can I help?’ And that’s Hillary Clinton,” Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said at the time.

The visit helped solidify Clinton support not only in Michigan but also, more importantly, in South Carolina’s African-American community. “She tapped into extreme anger, and people outside Michigan noticed,” said Steve Mitchell, chairman of a Michigan-based political research and communications firm.

A week later, she visited New York City’s Harlem and talked about how African-Americans are disproportionately affected in certain areas such as incarceration rates and profiling. And she kept her eye on South Carolina, where she desperately needed, and wound up getting, a big win over Sanders. Six in 10 voters in South Carolina’s Feb. 27 primary were African-American.

“If I’m elected president,” Clinton pledged that day in Harlem, “we will direct hundreds of billions of dollars in new investments to places like Harlem and rural South Carolina.”

Four days after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had died, she saw racial undertones in the statements by Republicans that they did not want Obama to get to fill the vacancy, preferring to let the next president do it. “Some are even saying he doesn’t have the right to nominate anyone, as if somehow he’s not the real president,” she said. “That’s in keeping with what we’ve heard all along, isn’t it? Many Republicans talk in coded, racial language about takers and losers.”

Clinton also has spoken several times in personal terms about racism, recalling that her youth minister in white suburban Chicago insisted that students go to the inner city to meet with kids in black and Hispanic churches. “That got me thinking about what I needed to do to try to fulfill my faith,” she said recently.

Trump is going in a very different direction.

He’s appealed to less-educated, lower-income whites with his vows to crack down on immigrants who are in the country illegally, to stick up for police and to temporarily bar Muslims from entering this country. Not to mention his insults of Mexicans.

“He’s using issues a lot of white voters have been angry about for a long time,” said Mitchell.

Trump has met with black pastors, and he says he has their endorsement.

But he routinely bellows “throw ’em out” when confronted with “Black Lives Matter” and other protesters who routinely disrupt his rallies. After he’s done yelling for protesters to be ejected, he generally praises the police for their work.

Visiting the Manchester, New Hampshire, police department last month in advance of the state’s primary, he promised police officers they’d be “recognized properly” under a Trump administration. “You know when you go and you speak a little bit rough to somebody and you end up fighting for your job . . . it’s not going to happen anymore,” he said.

In December, several African-American pastors he said had endorsed him joined him on a Virginia stage. The real estate mogul later cited a political pundit’s prediction that if he can get 25 percent of the black vote he could win the presidency.

The pitch works with white constituencies, particularly those with less education.

Trump has a 2-1 lead among non-college graduates in the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal-Marist Michigan poll. That’s typical – in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama last week, Trump had a nearly identical lead among non-college graduates, network exit polls found. And that’s mostly white. In virtually every Republican state that’s had a primary so far, black voters have been too small a part of the turnout to gauge Trump’s support.

So far, Clinton’s strength among African-Americans has been a huge boost in her nomination battle against Sen. Sanders, an independent from Vermont.

She lost by a landslide in nearly all-white New Hampshire and fought to a tie in Iowa. But in states with more moderate white voters, and large black populations, she’s trounced him. In South Carolina, Clinton won 86 percent of the black vote and 54 percent of the white vote.

That pattern repeated itself last week,where she rolled up similar numbers among whites and blacks in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

In November, the Clinton strategy will make sense, said Florida-based political strategist Steve Schale.

Blacks accounted for about 13 percent of the 2012 presidential vote, and they could provide at least one-fifth of the votes Clinton would need to win this year.

Trump has written off African-American voters, said Brad Coker, managing director at Mason-Dixon Polling & Research in Jacksonville, Florida.

Coker said he thought Trump would motivate more Democrats, particularly African-Americans, to go out and vote for Clinton in a general election. But, he said, Trump will bring in new white voters. Coker said Clinton should still be able to turn out moderate white voters as she moved to the middle in a general election.

That’s the sort of coalition the last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, built with black voters. And a Quinnipiac University survey last month found Clinton’s efforts among blacks are paying off: She would top Trump among black voters by 83 to 12 percent.

McClatchy Washington Bureau

Anita Kumar: 202-383-6017, @anitakumar01 
David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid 
Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark