Trump Campaigns in the Bronx, Just Like Reagan

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A Republican presidential challenger campaigning in the South Bronx against an inflation-ridden and unpopular Democratic incumbent. I’ve seen this show before.

Reagan had been encouraged by his ally, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-NY), to go to the inner city, there to preach the gospel of tax-rate cuts, enterprise zones, and overall hope. Reagan did just that, standing on the very spot where Carter had stood three years earlier, there to make unfulfilled pledges about an economic renaissance for the ‘hood.

I was a young and junior staffer on the Reagan campaign back then, and so I watched what I could on network TV and glanced at scraps of wire copy coming off the AP ticker. (Nothing was digital back then.)

Reagan persisted, calling out Carter’s failure: “I have never seen anything that looked like this since London after the Blitz.” Yes, in those days, some of the Bronx did look like it had been bombed in wartime. That was Reagan’s point: If the status quo is lousy, if the incumbent hadn’t kept his promises, why vote to re-elect him?

The media coverage of the event was, of course, negative. These were the days when the modifier “Main Stream” was not used, because there was pretty much only big liberal media. Still, the New York Times headline captured at least some of the yeasty political dynamic that year: “Reagan, in South Bronx, Says Carter Broke Vow; Raises Voice Above Chants.”

Ronald Reagan walks through a desolate South Bronx neighborhood on Charlotte Street in New York on August 6, 1980. (AP Photo)

Ronald Reagan speaking on Charlotte Street in the South Bronx on August 6, 1980. (Jack Smith/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Back at campaign HQ at 901 North Highland Street in Arlington, VA, we told ourselves that the Gipper would at least get credit for guts. He had gone into a Democratic lion’s den, kept his cool, displayed some star power, delivered his positive message—and so he’d get credit with the country, if not with New Yorkers.

We underestimated our man. In fact, Reagan carried New York State that November. In 1976, Carter had won the Empire State, and the Bronx had helped a lot, giving him a 142,000-vote margin. By contrast, in 1980, as he was losing the state, Carter’s margin in the Bronx fell to just 95,000 votes.

So now to 2024. Four years ago, Donald Trump garnered a mere 16 percent of the vote in the Bronx as he lost the state by a wide margin. Nevertheless, Trump has been saying for months that he can win New York this year. Indeed, time, fate, and Alvin Bragg have caused Trump to spend a lot more time in New York than he otherwise would have planned. Already, Trump’s April visit to Harlem—where he shook hands with a crime victim who had fought back against a violent criminal—played well. Now today, it’s not hard to find Trump curiosity in the Bronx.

Former President Donald Trump visits Sanaa convenient store, a bodega in upper Manhattan on April 16, 2024. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Former President Donald Trump visits with business owners and local politicians at Sanaa convenient store, a bodega in upper Manhattan, on April 16, 2024. Jose Alba, a worker from Sanaa convenient store, was assaulted by a man in 2022 and ended up killing him in a subsequent fight and later the Manhattan District Attorney decided to drop charges. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Trump Bodega

Former president Donald Trump talks with bodega owner Maad Ahmed, center, during a visit to his bodega on April 16, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

Indeed, a New York-only Siena poll from this month finds that by a 52:37 margin, New Yorkers feel their state is going in the wrong direction. A clear majority express concern about worsening crime, and a thumping 79 percent regard the immigration crisis as serious. So while the poll showed Joe Biden ahead of Trump, 47:38, if the incumbent is below 50, the challenger has some potential.

Of course, it’s not just what Trump is doing. It’s what Biden is doing—or not doing. Notably, the 46th president is weak among non-whites. The nationwide Siena poll from mid-May found Biden with just 63 percent of the Black vote, and intensity, murky.

To beef up those numbers, the Biden-Harris campaign has staged many Black-themed events, and yet just on May 15, Politico’s “Playbook” newsletter worried about “the conventionality of the outreach.” The writers explained that the campaign “leans heavily on a civil-rights focus that might not be especially relevant to the young and politically unengaged voters who are dissatisfied with Biden and flirting with other candidates.”

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Wildwood, New Jersey, on May 11, 2024. (Hannah Beier/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A partial view of the large crowd at a Trump campaign rally on May 11, 2024, in Wildwood, New Jersey. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

There’s the rub: Younger Blacks, unsurprisingly, are less attuned to older leaders. These days, figures such as Charlamagne Tha God, Killer Mike, and yes, Ye (Kanye West) are carving out their own destiny. In the meantime, comedian Dave Chappelle has ridiculed wokeness with energy. Go to a Black church and you don’t see much patience with LGBTQIA+.

Speaking of energy, Trump overflows. So, these next few months are going to be a wild ride, and the South Bronx is now part of slalom.

James P. Pinkerton
James P. Pinkerton
James "Jim" P. Pinkerton is an American columnist, author, and political analyst. He has served as a longtime regular columnist for Newsday. He has also written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, National Review, The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, Fortune, and The Jerusalem Post. He worked in the White House domestic policy offices of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and in the 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns.

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