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Trump Campaign Sends New Messages To African American Voters

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Trump had been trying to boost his tepid support from black voters by pitching his jobs record. But then the coronavirus pandemic hit the economy, and that has made a tough sell even tougher. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe reports on how the Trump campaign is adjusting.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Before the spread of the coronavirus, this was one of President Trump's favorite talking points.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

DONALD TRUMP: The unemployment rate among African Americans...

Black American unemployment has reached an all-time low in the history of our country.

No president has done more for our black community.

RASCOE: It was the backbone of his message to African Americans, a push to win over a little bit more than the 8% of the black vote he saw in 2016. Now, though, that message is in the rearview mirror. The shutdown of the economy has wiped out millions of jobs. Trump has been warning the downturn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Black unemployment, Hispanic unemployment, Asian unemployment - the best numbers we've ever had in virtually every way and then you get hit like this, and it's traumatic.

RASCOE: And African Americans are getting hit really hard. Early government data shows that black employees are losing work at a higher rate than white workers. That's on top of devastating health impacts, with African Americans being hospitalized more and dying at higher rates from the virus. Trump says he's taking this seriously.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We're doing everything in our power to address this challenge. It's a tremendous challenge.

RASCOE: The virus hit just as the Trump strategy was ramping up. There were supposed to be field offices in swing states and volunteers going door to door. Now things have moved online to a video chat series called "Real Talk." Paris Dennard is a Republican adviser. Here he was on "Real Talk" a few weeks ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PARIS DENNARD: President Trump has taken decisive action in addressing COVID-19, especially with the black community.

RASCOE: The main focus is praising Trump for his response and bashing Democrats in the media. But sometimes the conversation strays, like the time social media stars Diamond and Silk talked about stay-at-home orders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNNETTE HARDAWAY: Well, when you leave somebody shut in their house, instead of them catching coronavirus, they're going to catch diabetes, high blood pressure.

RASCOE: That's not what Trump's task force has recommended. They warned people to stay home. Then the duo, also known as Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, compared social distancing to socialism and even slavery.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARDAWAY: And if we're not careful, this is what we're going to see. We're going to be slaves up and through here if we're not careful.

RASCOE: Asked about these comments, campaign spokesman Ken Farnaso says Diamond and Silk remain valued members of Team Trump. Farnaso says the president is focused on getting black unemployment down once again. Winning over black voters was always going to be hard for Trump. That's what Chryl Laird says. She's a co-author of the book "Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior." Laird says today's crisis shows just how tenuous Trump's economic claims were given this country's history of systemic racism.

CHRYL LAIRD: Whatever ground that blacks were on was a very shaky foundation in the first place.

RASCOE: While the Trump campaign promises better days ahead, it seems some old habits die hard. One of the ads during the "Real Talk" series still brags about record low black unemployment. Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELBOW'S "DEAR FRIENDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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