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Trump Campaign Works To Court Black Voters


President Trump has not received high marks from most black voters. But with an election this year, his campaign is looking to peel off at least some support from African Americans. NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe traveled to Milwaukee to see how that effort's going.


JEROME SMITH: (Singing) I need thee (ph)...

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Jerome Smith is a black pastor and a Republican. That's him opening a Trump campaign event in Milwaukee, a city the Republican Party have written off for years. It's part of a new strategy called Black Voices for Trump. Smith starts the event with a prayer.


SMITH: Encamp your angels around the White House, oh, God, like only you can, oh, God. Touch our president, oh, God.

RASCOE: We're in a storefront on the north side of Milwaukee. On the walls, there are pictures of Abraham Lincoln and black lawmakers from the Reconstruction era. Fifty people are here listening to Smith pray. And this wasn't the only time the political event felt a bit like church. Smith and the other speakers each tell their stories - testimonies, if you will. They talk about what it's like to be a Republican when most African Americans are Democrats.


SMITH: There's a lot of friends I've lost along this journey, but I figured out something. I ain't never lost a friend that I didn't have. Amen.

RASCOE: The campaign wants to set up offices in black neighborhoods in states with tight races, like Wisconsin, where Trump won by less than a percentage point. Getting more black voters could seal the deal for him this time.

Cecilia Johnson is a black Republican activist. She tells her story about making the switch to the GOP.

CECILIA JOHNSON: A lot of people just looked at it as a betrayal of my blackness. Maybe, you know, you just really hate black people. You're not going to tell me I hate my mama now. That's what you're not going to do, OK?

RASCOE: Johnson says Trump does not get enough credit for the First Step Act, which lowers sentences for some drug offenses.

JOHNSON: And this is something that the black community has talked about since I was a little girl. And then we finally get it, and we're just sitting there folding our arms like, oh, but what about this? What about that? What about that? It's not good enough.

RASCOE: Criminal justice reform, low black unemployment and support for historically black colleges - those are the issues that the campaign hopes to drive home. Trump's been making this case. Here he is at the White House celebrating Black History Month.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Black American unemployment has reached an all-time low in the history of our country. It's the best we've ever been.

RASCOE: That crowd was all in, but Trump only won 8% of the black vote last time. Democrats know what Trump's trying to do, so they're determined to retake Wisconsin. And that means making sure black voters turn out. One progressive group has been working on this since 2017. Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, or BLOC, has been knocking on doors and talking to thousands of people. Executive director Angela Lang says the new Republican strategy does change the dynamic in the area. But...

ANGELA LANG: I think it's too late. You can't set up shop in, you know, almost March when the election is in November and assume that people are just going to automatically come out and vote for you.

RASCOE: And at that Republican shop in Milwaukee, there were signs that courting more black voters is not going to be easy. The office was vandalized shortly after it opened last month, and many people at the Black Voices for Trump event seemed to be politically connected, not necessarily voters curious about making a switch.

At a Milwaukee shopping center before the event, I caught up with Quinn Taylor. He's says he's open to voting for Republicans.

QUINN TAYLOR: They speak more prosperity. I like the faith base. They're strong.

RASCOE: Taylor is the perfect target. He's 39. He helps run a local Facebook group about black-owned businesses, and he was at the event. He backed former President Barack Obama but sat out in 2016. He tells me he's now an independent, but he's not sold on Trump.

TAYLOR: I don't like a lot of the comments that he makes. I don't like that he's kind of thin-skinned, always got to react. I don't like how he treat women. I don't like a lot of the racial comments that he made.

RASCOE: Taylor is not alone. More than 8 in 10 black Americans say they believe Trump is a racist. That's according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll. Taylor says this might be his first year not voting for a Democrat. Still, he has some reservations about Trump.

TAYLOR: Supporting the Republican Party fully to me is still supporting Trump. That's the decision that I'm really stuck on. Can I really make that commitment? Can I really make that change?

RASCOE: So there's still some convincing to do.

Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News, Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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