President Trump went out of his way to appeal to minorities in Tuesday's State of the Union address, citing what he said are his biggest accomplishments to lift up those groups, as his poll numbers rise among African-Americans and Democrats are struggling to figure out which of their presidential front-runners gets it right on race.
Just a few paragraphs into his speech, which touted a broad "American comeback" under his presidency, Trump turned to the positive economic statistics under his administration, particularly those affecting minorities.
"The vision I will lay out this evening demonstrates how we are building the world's most prosperous and inclusive society," Trump said, "one where every citizen can join in America's unparalleled success, and where every community can take part in America's extraordinary rise."
Trump then cited record-low unemployment among African-Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics, along with a slew of other economic records for women, African-American youth, disabled Americans and more. While many of these lines got standing ovations from Republicans – particularly when Trump mentioned that women filled 72 percent new jobs in 2019 – Democrats remained firmly ensconced in their seats.
Trump's first audience shoutout of the evening was for Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the only black Republican senator. Trump was touting Scott's "Opportunity Zones" legislation, which he said was encouraging investment in 9,000 low-income neighborhoods. Trump then called out his first guest of the evening, a black Army veteran who escaped homelessness partially due to a construction job he was able to get because of the opportunity zone law, Trump claimed.
Trump's outreach comes as Democrats are struggling to figure out which of their presidential front-runners will appeal best to black voters, a bloc that traditionally votes almost exclusively for Democrats but has been moving more toward Trump recently. Some polls show Trump's approval among African-Americans ticking up significantly.
Democrats, however, say that Trump's messages to minorities are not genuine. They note his harsh rhetoric toward illegal immigrants, difficulty condemning the white supremacists who descended upon Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 and his "Make America Great Again" slogan, which they allege is a dog whistle meant to call back to a time when minorities were discriminated against and white Christians made up a much larger portion of the population.
"It doesn't change the incredibly cruel and divisive racial rhetoric that comes out of this White House that is one of the many reasons that I'm meeting not only Democrats," former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg told Fox News' Ed Henry this week, "but Republicans who told me that they struggle to look their children in the eye and explain to them how this is the president of the United States."
Buttigieg, who is leading the Iowa Caucuses with just over 70 percent of the votes counted on Wednesday, has struggled significantly to connect with black voters. The RealClearPolitics average of South Carolina polls has Buttigieg's support at just over 5 percent in that state, which has a majority black Democratic electorate.
That does not mean the Buttigieg campaign isn't trying to improve its image among African-Americans. Last year the former mayor met with Al Sharpton in New York City, visited multiple historically black colleges and universities, hosted a dinner reception with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and more.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who leads in South Carolina polls and leads Democratic primary polls among African-Americans, has been a passionate critic of Trump on race. But he is seen by many as a flagging front-runner who is too moderate and too connected to the establishment for the Democratic base — especially after what is likely a fourth-place finish in Iowa.
Democrats have also caught flak for a lack of diversity in their presidential field. All six candidates who took the January debate stage were white and the only black candidate remaining in the race, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, is barely registering in polls. Asian American Andrew Yang earned just over 1 percent of the Iowa vote with 71 percent reporting.
Trump also touted school choice – a policy that is popular among inner-city African-Americans – recognized a Tuskegee Airman who he promoted to the rank of general earlier in the day and plugged the First Step Act.
The First Step Act is a major criminal justice bill aimed at reducing over-incarceration in the U.S. that Trump signed in late 2018. He also trumpeted the legislation in a Super Bowl ad that cost approximately $10 million.
"Our roaring economy has, for the first time ever, given many former prisoners the ability to get a great job and a fresh start," Trump said Tuesday. "This second chance at life is made possible because we passed landmark Criminal Justice Reform into law. Everybody said that Criminal Justice Reform could not be done, but I got it done, and the people in this room got it done."
That line earned him a bipartisan standing ovation.
Democrats can ill-afford to lose their grip on black voters. A 2016 Fox News exit poll showed Trump earned just 8 percent of African-Americans' votes. If Trump manages to pull away a significant amount of those in 2020, it could erase advantages Democrats have gained since 2016, particularly in enthusiasm from their liberal base.
According to a recent Fox News poll, Trump's approval rating among African-Americans is 13 percent, while 24 percent of blacks approve of the way Trump is handling the economy — each number significantly higher than the 8 percent that voted for Trump.
Sen. Scott joined "The Story" with Marth MacCallum Tuesday and said that if Trump can improve his approval among African-Americans just slightly, he can nearly assure himself reelection.
"He can be between 14 and 16 percent in 2020," said Scott, who added that such a result would be "pretty phenomenal — game over."
That said, in the most recent Fox News Poll, Trump did not exceed 10 percent with black voters against any Democratic candidate. The largest margin in such a theoretical head-to-head matchup shows Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at 85 percent and Trump at 7 percent.
Nevertheless, liberal CNN analyst Van Jones sounded the alarm about Trump's overtures to minorities Tuesday night.
"WAKE UP, folks," he tweeted. "The #IowaCaucus was a debacle, followed by a strong #SOTU speech laying out Trump's strategy to win – which includes going for Black voters. This was a warning shot from the Trump campaign to liberals, and we need to take this VERY seriously in order to win."
Fox News' Charles Creitz contributed to this report.