Carson Defends Trump's Minority Outreach As Break From 'Traditional' Politics

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Retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson speaks at the Republican National Convention on July 19 in Cleveland.

In the past week, the presidential campaign has alighted upon a volatile subject: the issue of race. Specifically, how Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have been cultivating their relationships with voters of different racial groups.

On Thursday, for instance, Clinton delivered a blunt speech in Reno, Nev., criticizing the Republican nominee's track record with minorities and calling attention to the support he has received from white nationalist groups. Trump, meanwhile, called Clinton a "bigot" at a Mississippi rally, saying she and her fellow Democrats have taken the support of minority voters for granted.

He also invited a group of black and Latino supporters to consult with him on Thursday — including retired neurosurgeon and former GOP presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson.

"He wants to find out from a lot of different sources what people perceive the problems to be and what they perceive the solutions to be," Carson tells NPR's Michel Martin. "And he also wants to hear about things that have effectively moved people out of the position of dependency and put them on a ladder to success."

Carson characterizes the meeting as a means of discussing solutions to the problems that affect inner-city communities — because "you cannot be great if you have large pockets of people who are failing," he says.

Still, it's not apparent that Trump's message is resonating among minority voters. In recent polling, he remains mired in single digits with African-Americans, and his support among Hispanics has been hovering around 20 percent — give or take a few points depending on the specific poll.

And, for the most part, Trump continues to convey his outreach efforts not to black and Hispanic groups, but to audiences that are predominantly white. He has not spoken to groups like the National Association of Black Journalists, the NAACP or the National Urban League.

Carson does not see this as a deficiency; rather, he says, this is further evidence of Trump's unconventional campaign strategy. "There hasn't been anything traditional about Donald Trump's campaign," he says, "and I don't think it's going to start being traditional now either."

As for Trump's place in the polls, Carson makes the case that his low numbers are less a function of Trump's campaign than an effect of recent GOP political strategy.

"Recognize that in recent decades the Republican party has largely given the black vote up to Democrats, in the sense that there was no point in even pursuing it. Well, [Donald Trump] has a different philosophy," Carson says.

He adds: "I think a lot of people in the black community are going to say, 'Wait a minute, you mean they're going to pay some attention to us? Let's listen to what they have to say.' "

Carson says that among African-Americans, rates of incarceration and out-of-wedlock births are high, while "the African-Americans who are on food stamps has gone up substantially in the past seven to eight years" — though, as NPR's Michel Martin notes, there are more white people currently on food stamps than black people.

"This is something that we should all be concerned about," he says. "This is not a partisan issue, as far as I'm concerned."

This outreach effort, however, may not be aimed at minority voters, as NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro explains. He points to Trump's flagging support among whites with college degrees, a group that former GOP nominee Mitt Romney won handily in 2012. This time around, this subset of voters appears to be swinging toward Hillary Clinton — with college-educated white women supporting Clinton by a margin of 20 points.

"To be frank and succinct about this," Montanaro tells Martin, "the fact is, whites with college degrees don't want to feel like they are voting for somebody who's seen as a bigot or a racist."

Trump's campaign has embarked on a bid to change that perception. And for Carson, that bid is key to changing the conversation around the campaign.

"The problem, of course, is that a lot of people listen to the propaganda about his views of other people. And they say, you know, 'He hates all Muslims and he wants to discriminate against them, he hates the Hispanics and he wants to discriminate against' — of course that's not true," Carson says.

"But as you well know, it's a political tactic to demonize your opponents, particularly if you don't have good policies to talk about."

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