How Donald Trump Made Race the Wedge Issue of 2016

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Everett, Washington, on August 30. Trump's rhetoric on minorities in America has made race a central issue of the presidential election. Carlo Allegri/REUTERS

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is trying to reassure voters that he's not a racist. The success of his appeals could be a big factor in deciding the election.

Trump is traveling to Mexico on Wednesday before intending to clarify his immigration proposals during an evening appearance in Phoenix all part of a shift in tone (if not substance) from his hard-line rhetoric of the primary. On Saturday, he will sit for an interview with the Impact Network, a Christian television outlet targeted at African-Americans. Appeals to minority voters are now a regular part of his stump speech at campaign rallies.

The overtures aren't likely to make much of a difference with black and Hispanic voters, who are deeply suspicious of the Republican. But public opinion research shows the billionaire businessman's more conciliatory rhetoric could improve his standing with one pivotal group of voters—white moderates, and, in particular, white women. Those voters are critical to Trump's chances of competing in states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina. It's no coincidence that he shifted tone after polls showed him plummeting in those states this summer. Democrats, however, are mounting a dogged effort to keep Trump's racially charged history in the spotlight, not so much to protect their advantage with minorities as to keep their edge with white swing voters. This fierce battle to frame Trump's views on racism and minorities is poised to dominate the campaign through Election Day, making race the wedge issue of 2016.

Race has been one of the defining cleavages of American politics for more than 50 years, but in recent decades it has rarely been a central campaign issue. That's because on the surface, at least, Americans are in agreement about racial equality: Socially, it's become unacceptable to be openly racist. Vincent Hutchings, a University of Michigan political science professor, tells Newsweek academics have found "politicians don't really employ explicit racial terms anymore because it turns people off, it's not very strategic."

That doesn't mean they ignore race altogether. Most politicians these days, however, prefer to address the issue through coded language and references that can trigger subconscious racial biases, popularly referred to as "dog whistle" politics. That includes using images of minorities that portray them as threats—as Trump used in his first TV ad of the general election—and emphasizing issues like welfare and law and order, which "have a long history of entanglement with race," Princeton's Tali Mendelberg writes in her book The Race Card, a definitive take on the issue. Trump, not incidentally, has declared himself the "law and order candidate."

But Trump has gone further than most modern politicians, talking openly of race and ethnicity, labeling Mexican immigrants rapists and proposing a ban on Muslims entering the country. "Since the advent of the civil rights movement, we haven't seen anything like this," says Hutchings.

It worked for Trump in the Republican primary, when his hard-line, "politically incorrect" rhetoric appealed to the predominantly male, white conservative base. But it's causing problems for him in the general election, and not just with black and brown voters who tend to vote Democrat. As professors Shaun Bowler, Ross Nicholson and Gary Segura wrote in a 2006 paper in the American Journal of Political Science, "most white voters reject blatantly racial appeals."

Indeed, there's evidence Trump's racialized rhetoric is splitting the white vote. Take Pennsylvania, a swing state with a large population of working class whites. The latest poll, from Monmouth University, found Democrat Hillary Clinton with a gaping lead among minority voters and Trump leading with whites. But look more closely at the breakdown of white voters and you see that Trump and Clinton are virtually tied among white women. And while Trump has a wide lead among white voters without a college degree, he is well behind Clinton among college-educated whites.

Trump's yawning gap with women nationally—he trails by 21 percent in the latest Monmouth poll—is one of his most significant problems in the lead-up to November. And Hutchings says it has less to do with gender norms than with race. "Women, on average, are concerned about the treatment of vulnerable, marginalized populations," he explains, and "minority groups are very frequently at disadvantaged, marginalized positions." Indeed, Hutchings and three colleagues conducted research in 2004 that found George W. Bush lost significant support from women when he was portrayed as indifferent to African-Americans. Remarkably, Bush did not lose comparable support when the study portrayed him as insensitive to women's issues. The researchers concluded that a majority of women equate rhetoric toward minorities as a measure of candidates' compassion.

Hutchings posits that Trump, with his outbursts on and insults of minorities, is now "seen as so intolerant to marginalized communities" that it's turning off women voters. In addition, he says it's pushing away educated white men, who also view racial intolerance as unacceptable.

It's not surprising, then, that with just more than two months left in the campaign, Trump is trying to soften his rhetoric, and that he's directed it primarily at the white audiences attending his rallies. "I think it's a very disingenuous effort to reach out African-Americans and Hispanics," says one senior Democratic strategist, who asked not to be identified to speak candidly. Supporters, however, say Trump is now going to talk to African-Americans, starting with the Q-and-A session Saturday, which is being conducted in front of an audience at a black church in Detroit.

Cleveland-based Pastor Darrell Scott says that for Trump, it's a case of "damned if he does, damned if he doesn't." "The Democratic Party criticized him for speaking to black America [in front of] a predominantly white audience," Scott says. "But the minute we invite him to our communities, the person who invites him is attacked for inviting him." Anti-Trump protesters, he says, are "beginning to call the church now," complaining about his appearance on Saturday. Scott blames Trump's opponents: "The racial divide is coming from the Democrats, and they're using the African-American community to do that."

When it comes to Trump's record with minorities, Democrats have no intention of letting up before Election Day. "Pointing out how divisive he is as a candidate is going to be very important and central to the contrast that is going to be made with Secretary Clinton and Democrats, in general," says the Democratic strategist. Clinton gave a speech last week focused on Trump's ties to racist fringe groups and white Supremacists, and the Democratic National Committee has since kept up a constant drumbeat of attacks, highlighting Trump's controversial comments on Hispanics and Muslims, among others, including in a new video the party committee released Tuesday.

"When you think of the swathe of recent American history, it's turning the table on Republicans…who have typically used the issue of race to try to divide the Democratic coalition," observes Hutchings. "Here the aim is to taint Trump as racially intolerant, thereby making it uncomfortable for so-called country club Republicans" and white women to support him.