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There is little evidence in the polling that Black voters are leaving the Democratic Party en masse, but Candace Owens and her fellow conservatives nonetheless claim that Democrats are in for a rude awakening on November 3.
When the dust settles from the 2020 election, statisticians and pollsters will attempt to determine how different demographic groups voted. It’s a perennial activity and one that shapes where and how political campaigns focus their efforts. If some conservatives are correct, one bit of established wisdom – Black voters support Democrats – will be seriously challenged this year.
The “Blexit” (Black exit) movement and its related hashtag were launched by prominent Black conservative Candace Owens in early 2018. The premise of the movement is that, though historically the African American community has supported Democratic presidents, Trump has won over many in the community.
There is little evidence in the polling that Black voters are leaving the Democratic Party en masse, but Owens and her fellow conservatives nonetheless claim that Democrats are in for a rude awakening on November 3.
Candace Owens’ Blexit movement
On February 23, 2018, Owens tweeted: “It was great meeting and speaking with @Nigel_Farage today. I’m thinking maybe I should name my movement #Blexit (Black-Exit from the Democratic Party). #Blexit2020 #MAGA”
(Nigel Farage is a far-right British politician who was one of the most vocal and visible advocates of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, colloquially known as “Brexit.”)
While “Blexit” had been used by others, both conservative and liberal, prior to Owens’ adoption of the term, her campaign cemented it as an explicitly anti-Democrat movement. Over the course of Trump’s presidency, Owens has established herself as a conservative firebrand who frequently attacks the Black Lives Matter movement and pushes pro-Trump conspiracy theories.
Owens has amassed a substantial social media following – 2.9 Facebook followers, 2.7 million Twitter followers, more than 660,000 YouTube subscribers – with her often contrarian takes that include criticizing the Black community and celebrating conservative beliefs. Her efforts have earned her praise from rapper Kanye West and harsh criticism from comedian Dave Chappelle.
Is #Blexit just astroturfing?
On October 10, following Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis and subsequent recovery, the president held an in-person event on the White House’s front lawn titled “BLEXIT Back the Blue event.” The event was intended to showcase both Trump’s support in the Black community as well as Black support for law enforcement in the wake of the BLM protests and the “Defund the Police” movement.
The optics of the event were undercut, though, when it was reported by ABC News that Owens’ BLEXIT organization had paid for both the travel and lodging expenses of an undisclosed number of attendees. Additionally, emails viewed by ABC also stated, “EVERYONE MUST WEAR A BLEXIT T-SHIRT (Which will be given to you ahead of the event).”
Photos of the event show a few hundred people of various races standing on the White House lawn, almost all wearing the bright blue BLEXIT shirt. Quite a few are also wearing Trump’s signature red “Make America Great Again” hats.
A few days after ABC News’ report on the Blexit event, Twitter reported it had suspended numerous fake accounts that purported to be Black supporters of Trump. The accounts, which were suspended for violating Twitter’s rules against platform manipulation and spam, largely used stock images of Black people and tweeted things such as “YES IM BLACK AND IM VOTING FOR TRUMP.”
While Twitter didn’t reveal who had created the accounts, the two back-to-back stories suggest there is an attempt to create the false appearance that Trump has greater Black support than he really does.
In political circles, this is known as “astroturfing.” This term, which references the fake grass product, specifically relates to efforts by politicians or corporations to give the impression that a movement or protest is an organic, grassroots movement. Though there isn’t any indication the Trump campaign is specifically directing Owens’ BLEXIT organization, it appears to lack authentic engagement.
The Trump campaign’s Black outreach
Regardless of the validity of the Blexit campaign, Trump was always going to be fighting an uphill battle to win over Black voters. Since 2000, there has never been more than 10% of Black Americans who identify as Republicans (compared to between 81% and 88% who identify as Democrats).
With 30 million registered Black voters in the United States, even if Trump garnered a 10% share, it would only equal three million votes. That would be a slight uptick from the 2016 election, in which Trump received 8% of the Black vote.
One of Trump’s most consistent talking points throughout the election cycle is the claim that he has “done more for the Black community than any president since Abraham Lincoln.” He often supports this claim by saying his administration is responsible for historically high economic and employment numbers for African Americans, an assertion fact-checkers admit is partially true, but misleading.
Regardless, those statements are based on pre-COVID-19 economic numbers, which no longer reflect the reality for most Americans. African Americans have proven to be more susceptible to COVID-19’s worst effects, a fact that could hurt Trump considering most Americans disapprove of his response to the pandemic.
In the final month of the election season, Trump’s campaign has been making an effort to reach out to Black voters with cable television and radio advertisements specifically aimed at the African American electorate. Those efforts may be ineffective at overcoming the overwhelming impression that Trump is racist, though there is evidence Trump is gaining support with young Black voters.
An investigation by the UK-based Channel 4 News revealed that in 2016 instead of attempting to gain the Black vote, the Trump campaign explicitly sought to deter Black voters through social media campaigns focused on discouraging turnout.
The campaign may have suffered some damage in the last week of the election from an October 26 Fox News appearance by Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner. In the interview, Kushner seemed to imply Black people don’t want to be successful.
Just before claiming there was a “groundswell” of support in the Black community for Trump, Kushner stated:
“President Trump’s policies are the policies that can help people break out of the problems that they’re complaining about, but he can’t want them to be successful more than that they want to be successful.”
Taking the Black vote for granted?
One frequent argument made by Owens and other Black conservatives is that the Democratic Party takes the Black vote for granted and doesn’t do enough to address issues that matter to the Black community.
This line of attack has coincided with criticism of the legislative record of Vice President Joe Biden. Specifically, his shepherding of the 1994 crime bill when he was in the Senate has been a major point of condemnation. Many people claim that the bill, at least in part, is responsible for the high incarceration rates of people of color, particularly Black men.
Biden, who served as VP for the first Black president, Barack Obama, has stood by his support of the bill in the past. However, at the October 15 ABC town hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Biden admitted that parts of the bill and his advocacy for it were a mistake.
In May, Biden stirred up controversy when he appeared on “The Breakfast Club,” a progressive radio show with a predominantly Black audience. As the interview with one of the hosts, Charlamagne tha God, ended, Biden said, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.” A few hours later, Biden apologized for the remarks, saying he had been “much too cavalier.”
If these issues were likely to hurt Biden with Black voters, his pick of the Black and Indian American Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate may have been a strategic choice. Harris’ record as California’s attorney general has also been criticized for its harsh treatment of minority offenders, but Black Americans have an overall positive view of her.
It remains to be seen if that will be sufficient to encourage a more robust Black voter turnout as was seen for both of Obama’s campaigns.
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