If President Donald Trump loses reelection in two weeks, as seems increasingly likely, one main reason will be the collapse of his support among older Whites without a college degree. Recriminations are sure to focus on that, but it will also be important not to overlook one of Trump’s surprising strengths: the rise in his support among young minority voters.
The president’s strength among minority voters is counterintuitive. Amid the largest sustained protests for racial justice and police reform since the 1960s, Trump called for crackdowns on rioters and repeatedly defended the police. Meanwhile, his zero-tolerance policy at the border was panned around the world as racist and xenophobic.
Nonetheless, if recent trends hold, Trump could be on track to win a higher percentage of African-American votes than any Republican candidate since Bob Dole, who won 12% of the Black vote in 1996. The president’s support is rising among Hispanic Americans as well, and he seems poised to capture roughly the same percentage, 35%, as George W. Bush did in 2000. (Bush’s 44% in 2004 was the high-water mark for Republicans in the last half century.)
These statistics are even more shocking when compared with Trump’s performance in 2016, when he received the lowest support in decades among minorities. That historically poor performance might begin to explain what’s behind Trump’s surging support now.
When Trump was inaugurated in 2017, many assumed that the Make America Great Again slogan meant that he would prioritize the needs of older White Americans in aging Rust Belt towns over young urban minorities. His actual policies have done the opposite.
Trump’s first (and only) major legislative achievement was a tax reform bill that slashed rates for businesses. Private investment picked up, and the unemployment rate for Black and Hispanic workers hit record lows. Tight labor markets drove median personal income to record highs and opened up new opportunities for workers who had previously been locked out of the job market.
On trade, Trump promised to repeal disastrous multilateral deals and bring manufacturing jobs back from overseas. But before the pandemic, the biggest blot on Trump’s economic record was the loss of Rust Belt manufacturing jobs as a result of the trade war.
What about crime and immigration, two other areas in which Trump was supposed to look out for the interests of White Americans at the expense of urban minorities? Well, despite his tough-on-crime rhetoric, Trump signed a landmark sentencing reform bill that led to the release of thousands of nonviolent offenders. On immigration, deportations are still far lower than they were during several years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
All of this is to say that while Trump’s rhetoric may have sounded offensive to minority voters, his actions were quite different. When minority voters got a sampling of Trump’s actual policies, they may well have concluded that they weren’t nearly as bad as they feared. That gap could be what’s driving the surprising strength of the president’s numbers.
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Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was formerly vice president for federal policy at the Tax Foundation and assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina. He is also co-founder of the economics blog Modeled Behavior.