President Donald Trump's surrogates fanned out across the country Thursday in a show of force that is part of an aggressive — and uphill — effort to stretch his appeal beyond the base of working-class white voters who propelled him to victory in 2016.
With a recognition that Trump will need to turn out new voters in November to be reelected, his campaign has dramatically stepped up outreach efforts to various constituencies, including African Americans, Hispanics and women, building a coalition operation that officials believe is the most robust of any Republican campaign in history.
The outreach marks a dramatic departure from 2016, when Trump's volunteer “National Diversity Coalition" struggled to make an impact. “There's no comparison between 2016 and now," said Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh of the effort. He described the outreach effort as “a significant department unto itself," complete with dedicated staff, resources and a budget that is expected to reach tens of millions of dollars.
“These are all well-financed, well-organized coalitions intended to reach out to the voters that they're targeting. And we know that no Republican campaign or president has ever had as muscular a coalitions outreach," he said.
The operation was in full force Thursday when the president's daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, senior campaign adviser Mercedes Schlapp and press secretary Kayleigh McEnany began a two-day “Women for Trump" bus tour through Iowa aimed at engaging women with training sessions, round tables and panel discussions. The tour comes less than three weeks before Democrats will begin to cast their first nominating ballots in the state's kickoff caucuses.
Meanwhile, in must—win Florida, Vice President Mike Pence headlined a “Latinos for Trump” event in Kissimmee at Nación de Fe, an evangelical church with a mostly Latino congregation as part of his own bus tour.
“We’re going to get four more years and Latinos for Trump are going to lead the way,” he told the about 400 people in attendance, emphasizing the country’s low Hispanic unemployment rate and the administration’s anti-abortion stance.
Around the same time in battleground Pennsylvania, a few dozen people filled the pews of First Immanuel Baptist Church in Philadelphia for a “Black Voices for Trump" discussion focused on Trump’s impact on the African American community ahead of a volunteer training session. The church’s pastor opened with a call to “make Pennsylvania great again.”
The flurry of activity, long before Democrats have settled on their nominee, underscores just how dramatically different Trump's campaign is this time around. While much of Washington has been focused on the upcoming Senate impeachment trial and the ongoing contest between Democrats, the president's campaign has been on the ground, trying to make the case to voters who may have passed on Trump in 2016.
There is plenty of room for improvement. Trump won just 6% of black voters last time, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of people who participated in its polls and were confirmed to have voted. And polling shows that African Americans continue to be overwhelmingly negative in their assessments of the president’s performance, with his approval hovering around 1 in 10 over the course of his presidency, according to Gallup.
He also lost by wide margins among Hispanics and women, who continue to lag behind men in their support for the president. Nonetheless, Trump allies insist that the president's support has grown since 2016 in ways that aren't reflected in traditional polling.
“I believe that you cannot look at these polls as an indicator because they're missing people," said Paris Dennard, a member of the campaign's black outreach coalition who led Thursday's “Black Voices for Trump” discussion at the Philadelphia church.
“I think there’s a movement going on,” he said. While critics have accused the president of being racist and not caring about black communities, Dennard pointed to the campaign's significant investment in his coalition — beginning with its kickoff event in Atlanta in November, which was attended by the president, vice president, the secretary of housing and urban development and other senior officials — as a “testament” to the commitment the president has made.
Indeed, the campaign has already spent more than $1 million on black outreach, including radio, print and online advertising in dozens of markets since the coalition's launch to help Trump build support in a community that has long leaned overwhelmingly Democratic, the campaign said.
While Trump's message to black voters in 2016 boiled down to the question: “What have you got to lose?” supporters now say they have a record to point to, including the low black unemployment rate, investments in historically black colleges and universities, and criminal justice reform in the form of the bipartisan “First Step Act” Trump signed into law.
And the campaign insists it's working. “He’s expanding his pool of voters, without question,” said Murtaugh. “We see movement already." In addition to its outreach to Hispanics, African Americans and women, the campaign has also launched groups focused on veterans and evangelical voters — two groups where support for Trump is strong.
On Thursday, his administration took a series of steps aimed at maintaining his standing among white evangelical Christians, with Trump reaffirming students' rights to pray in public schools and nine Cabinet agencies acting to remove “regulatory burdens” placed on religious organizations participating in federal programs.
“We will not let anyone push god from the public square," Trump said at an Oval Office event with school prayer advocates. "We will uphold religious liberty for all.” Jacob Frost, 21, who drove two hours to Kissimmee, Florida, to see Pence speak after being turned away from an crowded afternoon rally in Tampa, said he couldn't resist being part of history and seeing the vice president speak the same day that the House formally delivered its impeachment articles the Senate.
“The pro-choice stance really turns me off from the Democrats,” he said About 8 in 10 self-identified white evangelical protestants approved of Trump’s performance as president, according to AP-NORC polling last month.
Associated Press writers Tamara Lush in Kissimmee and Elana Schor in Philadelphia contributed to this report.
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