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Rising racial tensions won’t help Donald Trump. Here’s why.

- July 11, 2016

Several Republican lawmakers responded to last week’s shooting of 12 police officers in Dallas by blaming President Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for the racial violence.

Rep. Roger Williams of Texas said that “the constant instigation by prominent leaders, including our president, have contributed to the modern day hostility we are witnessing between the police and those they serve.” Rep. Steve King (Iowa) suggested that the Dallas police shootings have “roots in . . . anti-white/cop events illuminated by Obama.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump took a more measured tone but still pointed a finger at Democrats. His initial statement after the Dallas shootings proclaimed that “racial divisions have become worse, not better.” He subsequently tweeted:

The nation’s deteriorating race relations may seem like a good campaign issue for Republicans. After all, the incumbent party is often punished in presidential elections when things go wrong in the country. Presidents have even been punished for unfortunate events well beyond their control, such as shark attacks and droughts.

White backlash against rising racial tensions and urban violence in the 1960s was considered a boon to the Republican Party in general and to Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign to restore law and order in particular. Trump echoed those earlier campaigns in calling for “law and order” after the Dallas police shootings, and some have suggested that he may benefit as Nixon did from the growing racial divide.

But there are a number of reasons why rising racial tensions are unlikely to help Trump’s campaign. For starters, the Democratic Party relies much less on white voters than it did in 1968. The electorate was about 90 percent white in 1968, compared with an expected 69 percent in 2016.

Perhaps more important, race no longer holds the same capacity as a wedge issue to divide the Democratic Party. In the mid-to-late 1960s, white Democrats and white Republicans had similar positions on racial issues. White backlash against rising racial tensions, therefore, had the potential to push racially resentful Democrats toward the GOP.

Over the past 50 years, though, Democrats and Republicans have polarized over matters of race, with that polarization rapidly intensifying during Obama’s presidency.

Democrats and Republicans now have very separate realities about race in the United States. In the past three years alone, reactions toward race-related events such as George Zimmerman’s acquittal, Donald Sterling’s forced sale of the Los Angeles Clippers, the protesters in Ferguson, Mo., the decision not to indict police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Freddie Gray’s death while in the custody of Baltimore police, and Beyonce’s tribute to the Black Panthers during her Super Bowl 50 halftime show were all powerfully polarized by partisanship.

These divisions also could be found in polling on race and policing conducted shortly before the Dallas shootings by both the Pew Research Center and YouGov. The figure below shows that white Democrats are more than 40 percentage points as likely as white Republicans to support the Black Lives Matter movement, to think that blacks are treated less fairly by the police, and to say that racial profiling — “in which police use race to determine whom to stop and question” — is a problem in the United States.

Graph by Michael Tesler.  Source: Pew Survey, Feb 29-May 8, 2016 (Columns 1&2); YouGov/Economist Survey, June 24-27, 2016 (Column 3).

Graph by Michael Tesler. Source: Pew Survey, Feb 29-May 8, 2016 (Columns 1&2); YouGov/Economist Survey, June 24-27, 2016 (Column 3).

This profound partisan sorting over race and policing should make it difficult for rising racial tensions to alter voter preferences during the current presidential campaign. Instead, white Democrats and white Republicans are likely to interpret last week’s events surrounding race and policing in much different ways.

But the most important reason why rising racial tensions will not help Trump is Trump himself.

Contrary to Republican Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin’s statement Sunday that Trump is “trying to campaign as a racial healer,” the public views Trump as a racially divisive figure. Two-thirds of Americans say that the presumptive Republican nominee is “unfairly biased” against minority groups, and a slim majority thought that his attack on the Mexican American judge who is presiding over the Trump University lawsuit was “racist.”

It is not surprising, then, that Clinton’s biggest issue advantage over Trump is on “dealing with race relations.” In fact, the figure below from a recent report by the Pew Research Center shows that Clinton holds a whopping 40 percentage-point lead over Trump on the question of which candidate would do a better job of dealing with race relations.


Political science research suggests that the main goal of presidential candidates’ campaigns is to emphasize issues on which they are advantaged and their opponents are less well regarded. If anything, then, last week’s racially charged events could help Clinton’s presidential campaign by making the issue on which she is most advantaged over her opponent — dealing with race relations — more important to voters.

Michael Tesler is an associate professor of political science at the University of California at Irvine and author of “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era.”