As a general rule, black Americans do not support Donald Trump. According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, Trump enjoys just a 14 percent approval with black Americans, while roughly eight in 10 black voters say they’re “uncomfortable” with his 2020 run for reelection. In a poll of roughly 800 black registered voters conducted by BlackPAC, Trump had a -59 percent net job approval rating.
But within those numbers is another story — a stark gender divide.
Roughly 24 percent of black men polled by WSJ/NBC approve of Trump’s efforts while in office (72 percent of black men disapprove), but that number plummets to 6 percent when black women are asked the same question.
Exit polling from the 2016 election shows that while 13 percent of black men voted for Donald Trump, just 4 percent of black women did (in Pennsylvania, that number dropped to 1 percent). For comparison’s sake, a majority of white men and white women voted for Trump, as did 32 percent of Latino men and 25 percent of Latino women. And this “black gender gap” isn’t new. Exit polls for 2008 and 2012 show that more black women voted for Barack Obama than did black men. In fact, the last time more than 10 percent of black women voted for a Republican presidential candidate was 1996, when 14 percent of black women voted for Bob Dole (to compare, 22 percent of black men did the same).
So why is the gender divide between black women and black men so stark when it comes to presidential politics? It’s a complex question, one that Nadia E. Brown, an associate professor of political science at Purdue University and co-editor of Distinct Identities: Minority Women in US Politics, told me has been largely under-studied. Instead, she said scholars had tended to respond with mild curiosity: “It’s more of a, ‘Hmm, how interesting.’”
The “black gender gap” in presidential politics will play a role in determining the race for the White House in 2020. Yet the reasoning for the gap — and moreover, why black women vote the way they do — remains largely unexamined.
“Trump is a genuinely ‘aspirational’ figure for some African American men”
This gender divide, as unstudied as it may be, is still obvious. And the Trump reelection campaign seems to be leaning into it.
They are focused on appealing to black voters in 2020, hoping to surpass the 8 percent marker set by Trump in 2016. The campaign is planning to open field offices aimed at attracting black voters in 15 cities, including five in Florida. Even Trump’s State of the Union address was interpreted by some conservative outlets as a bid for black votes.
Trump campaign senior adviser Katrina Pierson told me that the campaign’s focus on the economy and purported support for criminal justice reform would win over black voters.
“Black Voices for Trump will engage black communities to share President Trump’s record of success and promises kept during his first term in office,” Pierson said in a statement. “Black unemployment has hit an all-time low thanks to his policies, he has dedicated more money to Historically Black Colleges and Universities than any previous president, and he has advanced criminal justice reform more than any of his predecessors, giving thousands of incarcerated people a second chance.”
(It’s worth noting that according to polling conducted by Axios, only 22 percent of black Americans think their personal financial situation has improved since 2017, and Trump and members of his administration alike have praised practices that disproportionately hurt minority communities like stop and frisk and lambasted activists for police reform.)
But hidden within that full-throated effort to win over black voters is a notable recognition that such attempts are aimed largely at black men, as black women are viewed as largely unattainable votes for Republican presidential candidates.
To be clear, black men vote for Democratic presidential candidates by wide margins, and dislike Trump by wide margins. But in a race likely to be determined by small margins, every vote — and every decision to vote for a different candidate — matters, particularly when 78 percent of college-educated black men voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 while 91 percent of college-educated black women did the same.
In a piece for the conservative outlet the Federalist titled “Why Trump’s gains with black voters could swing the 2020 election,” policy analyst Stewart J. Lawrence noted:
How much support can Trump actually gain in 2020? It’s not clear. But it’s important to note African American men are far more likely than women to gravitate toward Trump. Past voting numbers bear this out. In 2016, Trump earned 11 percent support from African American men compared to just 4 percent from women. African American women seem to retain a deep underlying hostility toward Republicans generally, and white male Republicans like Trump especially. That may not change.
I emailed Lawrence, who told me he’d like to see “focus group research and/or in-depth interviews with African American women to form a real opinion” on why black women don’t vote for Republican presidential candidates.
But he did offer his thoughts on why black men might be more supportive of the president. “Trump is a genuinely ‘aspirational’ figure for some African American men — in fact, quite a few, higher than has been reported, I think,” he said. “I did quite a few informal interviews before the 2016 election and [was] surprised to see how far this went — but perhaps less surprising against a female Democratic candidate.”
“Trump’s business success, his ‘gangsta’ personal style, and his close association with black male celebrities as well as some of his policies (America First, staying out of foreign wars and investing at home) [have] created a real affinity.”
Rashawn Ray, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who has written extensively on how black men vote, told me, “Black men, particularly the 16 percent of college-educated black men who voted for Trump in 2016, are driven by their views about the economy, business growth, and religion. Some black men think that more progressive Democratic candidates are too liberal and they might simply not trust other candidates.” He added that those men weren’t impacted by the “same concerns” as a majority of black women.
In a piece for the Atlantic in 2016, Johnson and Leah Rigueur, an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, wrote that black Trump supporters are like to be “likely to be a working-class or lower-middle-class black man, over the age of 35, and interested in alternative approaches to addressing what ails black America,” adding, “these voters tend to be more receptive to core messages of self-determination, financial success as a function of hard work, and personal responsibility, especially when conveyed in a plainspoken, hypermasculine manner.”
Brown agreed when we spoke, telling me, “My take on this is that there are things in the GOP ideology that black men find appealing. The conservative ethos of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, asserting patriarchy and male dominance, all of these kinds of traditional gender values, some black men find [them] very appealing.” And Karen Finney, a CNN political commentator and political consultant said, “It may be that the disparity relates to an effort to appeal to — for lack of a better word — machismo, portraying Trump as a tough guy, which may resonate more with some black men and not black women who may worry more about the divisiveness.”
I spoke to Ugonna Eze, a conservative black law student at the University of Chicago who plans to vote for Trump in 2020. “While I don’t appreciate some of his tweets or rhetoric,” he told me, “I think the president correctly assessed the challenges posed by China’s economic misbehavior, America’s protracted engagements in the Middle East, and the problems that came with lax enforcement of our immigration laws.”
But black women are, as a group, highly entrepreneurial, making up one of the fastest-growing segments of new business owners in America. And black women, despite “less traditional” views on gender roles compared to black men and white women and men, are not uniformly liberal. Meaning that logically, the appeal of the “conservative ethos” would apply to black women as well as black men, leading them to vote for conservative candidates or, alternatively, not vote at all.
But it doesn’t. Not only do black women vote overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidates, they are also one of the most consistent voting groups in the nation, voting at higher rates than any other group in 2012 and casting their ballots in numbers 6 points above the national average in 2018.
“It’s not like everybody has the same amount of choice”
Lawrence put his reasoning for why black men might be more supportive of Trump succinctly: “Because they’re men. On this aspect alone, race has nothing to do with it.” And it’s true: There’s a big gender gap in support for Trump that’s observable across racial categories, with women of all races 19 points less favorable towards the president than men. But again, 52 percent of white women voted for Trump in 2016, as did 25 percent of Latino women, compared to 4 percent of black women.
Jane Junn, a professor of political science and gender and sexuality studies at USC, told me the reason for the black gender gap was simple: “African American women understand that they have nowhere to go other than Democratic candidates,” even if they’ve got to “hold their nose” to do so.
She told me, “There is no uncertainty about where the Republican Party stands relative to the Democratic Party on gender issues, on women’s equality issues, nor is there much misunderstanding about where the Democratic Party stands relative to the Republican Party in terms of race.” She added that while black men, being men, stood to gain from the “reinforcement of patriarchal structures” that is encouraged, in her view, by the GOP, black women did not.
“It’s not like everybody has the same amount of choice,” she said. “A white man can really choose [to vote for] anybody he wants. He can decide what his ideology is. He can decide what his positions on issues are. But for women of color, they don’t really have anywhere to go. They have the same right to vote for Trump, but they’re never going there because he still explicitly represents and positions himself against many of the things that women of color will benefit from.”
Shelley Wynter, a radio host in Atlanta who told me he began supporting Trump in September 2015 and has “been on the train ever since,” told me that the black gender gap is “not only with the presidency.”
“There’s also a gap in a lot of things, particularly in the black community,” he said. There’s “the gap that exists with the whole Me Too movement, there’s a gap that exists in the whole world of accusations proving guilt. There’s a tremendous gap among males and females around many issues, and I think Trump’s just one of those issues.”
He added that in his view, the Democratic Party had enjoyed a “lock” on the votes of black women for decades, so “the gap [between black women and men] was already there in turnout and now you see it vis-à-vis a specific person.” And Wynter referenced allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against Trump — “Let’s just add to the fact that there’s been a narrative surrounding Trump about women and the treatment of women. That exists also; that causes it also.”
Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator and national co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign, told me, “Black women aren’t interested in Trump for the same reason that all black people aren’t interested in Trump — his policies and rhetoric are openly hostile to our interests.”
Nadia E. Brown said during our conversation that in general, black Americans are “socially conservative but fiscally liberal,” and for black women, fiscal policies that impact health care or raising children are ones they deal with on a daily basis. Even if socially conservative ideologies are “what people hold in their hearts and practice in their homes,” she argued that many black women see themselves as having a “linked fate,” a common outcome with other black women, and might be unwilling to vote for policies that could harm others in their communities.
Brown argued that black women tend to be “community caretakers,” and their politics is shaped by the view that “even if I’m a financially well-to-do person, I’m still thinking about others in my community.” According to polling conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 80 percent of black mothers are the primary earner in their family, while also taking on caregiving duties and enduring a greater likelihood of encountering poverty than every racial group except Native American women.
She said that “black men don’t have that same set of ethos,” using the example of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who portrayed his sister as helplessly dependent on welfare when in fact she had worked two jobs while Thomas was in law school and only began using welfare benefits when she stopped working to care for an elderly aunt recovering from a stroke. For some black men, Brown said, “they don’t see the sacrifices others are making for them as sacrifices.”
It’s important to recognize the incredible diversity within and among black women. Prior to the 1970s, black women were reliable Republican voters, and polling data can often obscure black women who do, in fact, vote for Republican presidential candidates, including President Trump. But the vast majority don’t.
And while the Trump campaign is focused on black voters (a majority of whom believe Trump’s actions are “very bad” for black Americans), that focus is primarily on black men. Black women are believed to be, in some sense, a “lost cause” for Republicans. And that’s a bad thing, particularly for black women themselves, who are often treated as “saviors” who will ride to the rescue of liberal voters once again. Their needs, their priorities, and their values taken for granted, again.