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Here's the real reason behind Trump's minority outreach

U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference at the Los Pinos residence in Mexico City, Mexico, August 31, 2016.
Henry Romero | Reuters
U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference at the Los Pinos residence in Mexico City, Mexico, August 31, 2016.

What is it about ignorance that seems to encourage an abundance of snark in those afflicted with it? This syndrome is especially pronounced among people who clearly don't understand Donald Trump's improbable path to the GOP nomination and his resurgence in the polls. That lack of understanding seems to result most often in lots of hysterical anger, shouting, and plenty of social media posts peppered with lots of "LOL's" and "WTF's."

This ignorance fueled snarkiness has been in full bloom lately as Trump haters and less biased election observers alike have been scratching their collective heads over what his campaign is hoping to accomplish with Trump's recent outreach to minority voters. That would of course include his visit to Mexico last week where he praised Mexican-Americans and his trip to an African American church in Detroit this past weekend where he spoke humbly and warmly to the community as a whole.

The consensus response to these moves from all too much of the professional and amateur punditry is incredulity and scorn. Critics are bemused that Trump seems to think he can win over black and Latino voters and they're laughing at what seems to be a big waste of time. Of course they're laughing even as Trump's fortunes in the polls continue to markedly improve. Tuesday's CNN poll showed Trump leading Hillary Clinton by two points nationally, and that comes just a few days after a Reuters/Ipsos poll and Rasmussen Reports showed him ahead by one point in each of those surveys.

Do those polls mean Trump's minority outreach is working, despite the chorus of derision? The answer is yes, but not in the two-dimensional/direct way many think. No, Trump's numbers will not significantly improve among minority voters due to this shift in campaign strategy and tone. But his numbers among supposedly undecided Republican-leaning/moderate WHITE voters will. In fact, as the above cited polls prove, they already are.

By doing more mainstream/"acceptable" things like visiting a black church and by sounding more conciliatory in his tone, Trump is making himself more acceptable to a good deal of voters who haven't been able to feel comfortable supporting him before… at least not publicly. It's probably more accurate to say these voters were always going to vote for Trump all along, but they were just waiting for some kind of visible change in his campaign or news event to use as an excuse to say that's what changed their mind.

"Do those polls mean Trump's minority outreach is working, despite the chorus of derision? The answer is yes, but not in the two-dimensional/direct way many think."

And make no mistake, the guarded and even sheepish nature of a great deal of Trump's support is real. The experts at the vaunted 538.com have recently noticed that Trump polls much better in surveys taken by computerized "robocalls" and in online surveys compared to his numbers in surveys taken by human pollsters on the phone or in person. 538 says it isn't able to explain why this is, but it's really not a mystery.

The reason is a lot of Trump voters are embarrassed to say they're supporting him in public. They either live in a neighborhood, work in a profession, or belong to an ethnic group where public attacks on "The Donald" are so prominent that his supporters need to think twice about coming out of the Trump closet. This is a reality the depths of which the poll dichotomy is just scratching the surface. That's the audience Trump is really reaching out to in his restructured and refocused campaign. His direct audience at his outreach events is not really the primary focus.

Trump isn't exactly breaking major new ground with this strategy. Ronald Reagan famously visited a devastated neighborhood in the South Bronx in 1980, a place where he wasn't going to get any votes and he was indeed heckled during that campaign visit. But lots of voters saw Reagan looking like he cared about people who weren't going to ever vote for him, and it made it easier for those non-Bronx residents to consider voting for him. Reagan never did get many African American voters in either of his general election presidential campaigns, but he did get a massive share of lower income Democrats and everyone else who liked what they saw that day in 1980 in the Bronx.

Trump also gets another benefit from his outreach and softer tone: he dilutes the 24/7 drumbeat from the Clinton campaign and much of the news media where he's portrayed as a hateful and dangerous maniac. The Clinton campaign is hoping it will be able to at least come close to matching the massive African American turnout that tipped the election for Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008. Clinton could have made an effort to do that by choosing an African American to be her running mate, but instead her campaign is clearly looking to use the fear factor to encourage minority turnout instead.

There's a double trap associated with that strategy. First, negative campaigning can be very effective in helping a candidate win an election but it almost always results in reduced turnout. If Clinton wants African Americans, Millennials, and the other groups who turned out in much higher than traditional numbers for Obama to come out for her this time, negative campaigning probably won't work. Second, all Trump has to do is continue not looking like a dangerous racist to introduce just enough doubt in the fear-mongering Clinton mantra. And that's just what he's done over the last three weeks or so. The polls say it's working.

Once again, the Trump campaign and its messaging have exceeded expectations by going after a new and unexpected target audience. And that audience isn't minority voters or any other block of traditional Democrats. It's the traditional Republicans and right-leaning moderates who never really wanted to vote for Hillary Clinton and are just looking for a way out of an embarrassing predicament. If Trump's campaign schedule and messages continue on this path, they'll get one.

Commentary by Jake Novak, a senior columnist for CNBC.com. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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