With two weeks to go before Election Day and victory slipping further out of Donald Trump’s reach, the hotel mogul’s campaign is launching what they call a “major voter suppression” effort aimed at driving down turnout among white progressives, young women, and African Americans.
Senior Trump campaign officials told Bloomberg News they are using targeted radio spots, social media posts, and campaign events in neighborhoods of color to push messages they think will discourage voting in those demographics. Namely, they hope that invoking the machinations described in the Clinton campaigns leaked e-mails will turn off progressives, that dredging up decades-old sexual assault accusations against Bill Clinton will turn off women, and reminders that Hillary Clinton referred to some black teenagers as “superpredators” in the 1990s will turn off African Americans.
The latter strategy, reportedly led by Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, is “a below-the-radar effort to discourage infrequent black voters from showing up at the polls — particularly in Florida.” The campaign is planning a barrage of Facebook “dark posts” with the “superpredators” message targeted at likely Clinton voters.
Rather than attempting to win their votes for Donald Trump, the campaign hopes these voters will not vote all.
“If we can pick up some votes along the way, that’s fantastic, but it’s really about the suppression of votes.”
“Principally, doing that is about suppression of vote,” a high-level Trump campaign source told Yahoo News. “Like, you know, ‘I’m not going to get out of bed. I’m not going to go vote for her.’ If we can pick up some votes along the way, that’s fantastic, but it’s really about the suppression of votes.”
Elections expert Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, says this tactic “may be odious, but it is not illegal.”
“There is no law against negative campaigning, or discouraging people from voting through legal means,” he wrote on his blog.
Of course, this messaging strategy is not guaranteed to have the Trump campaign’s intended effect. As Bloomberg notes: “There’s no scientific basis for thinking this ploy will convince these voters to stay home. It could just as easily end up motivating them.”
Kierra Johnson, with the advocacy group All Above All Action Fund, believes this will be the case.
“Of course the only thing this campaign offers to young people, women, and Black communities is manipulation and fear designed to keep us home on Election Day,” she wrote in a statement.
“I’ve got news for Trump,” she continued, “his sneaky Facebook fear campaign is not going to work. We’ve fought too long and come too far and we will be casting ballots come November 8th. I hope he’s ready to reap what he has sown.”
“I hope he’s ready to reap what he has sown.”
While Trump’s tactics may not work as intended, they fit into a larger pattern.
Trump has encouraged his supporters in recent weeks to go into “certain areas” on and before Election Day to monitor for voter fraud, and some of those supporters have said outright that they interpret this as a license to racially profile voters and “make them a little bit nervous.” This week, the Democratic National Committee asked a federal court to hold the Republican National Committee in contempt over Trump’s comments, calling them an effort to “intimidate and discourage minority voters from voting in the 2016 Presidential Election.”
Republicans in many states have also attempted this year to shrink the electorate through a combination of legislation and lawsuits.
Indiana officials raided and shut down the offices of a non-profit that registered 45,000 black voters. Republican-controlled county election boards in North Carolina voted to drastically reduce early voting, especially in neighborhoods with many students and African Americans. A Republican-appointed county clerk in Green Bay, Wisconsin refused to allow an early voting site on a college campus because “students lean more toward the Democrats.” In Virginia, the Republican Party sued to block hundreds of thousands of former felons from regaining their voting rights.
In some states, including North Carolina and Texas, federal courts have determined that Republicans passed voter ID laws, cuts to early voting, and other voting restrictions with the explicit intent of making it harder for people of color to vote. Such laws have the potential to keep many more voters away from the polls than the Trump campaign’s eleventh-hour strategy of discouragement.
The Democratic Party, in contrast, has aggressively fought in court this year to allow more people to vote. In Florida, they won a case extending the voter registration deadline after Hurricane Matthew, allowing 100,000 more people to register to vote. In Ohio, they won a last-minute court order that will restore the rights of thousands of voters who were illegally purged from the rolls.