By Mike Lillis
The Rev. Al Sharpton predicted Thursday that nothing will spur more minority voters to the polls than Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump: TPP will make NAFTA 'look like a baby' Bryan Cranston on Trump: 'There’s nothing there’ Trump points to plane, says it could be Mexico 'ready to attack' MORE at the top of the Republican ticket.
"People who have been on the side of the pool are ready to jump in the water if he's the nominee," Sharpton said during a breakfast in Washington sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor. "When I address people around the country ... nothing has caused a greater reaction, particularly among African-Americans and Latinos, than the thought that the first African-American president in history would be succeeded by someone that is the complete opposite."
Sharpton warned Democrats, however, that a Trump nomination alone is no guarantee that minority Democrats will vote in high numbers. Party leaders, he said, will have to work hard to highlight Trump's controversial statements and draw distinctions with Republicans when it comes to minority issues.
"Donald Trump could be the end of the Republican Party as we know it, or he could be just a one-time fluke. It's according to how they [Republicans] handle it, and how the Democrats handle it," said Sharpton, an MSNBC host and head of the National Action Network (NAN).
"Donald Trump in his defiant, bias-tinged kind of persona, could be the biggest turnout of black and Latino voters we have ever seen."
They seem to have their work cut out, as the black vote in this year's Democratic primary has fallen dramatically from 2008, when then-Sens. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaSocial Security to run dry three years sooner than expected: study Former CIA chief shuts down Trump's calls for waterboarding Clinton camp: Trump's fundraising 'bragging is total bunk' MORE (D-Ill.) and Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump: TPP will make NAFTA 'look like a baby' Social Security to run dry three years sooner than expected: study Needed: a presidential candidate that can pass the ‘burning house test' MORE (D-N.Y.) squared off.
"I'm not delirious, but I'm concerned," Sharpton said, acknowledging the drop. But he predicted the numbers will increase when the Democrats pick their nominee and voters see what's at stake in the general election. He said President Obama, once he hits the campaign trail, will be a driving force behind that effort.
"Whoever the nominee is, they're going to need President Obama and they're going to need a lot of people that have been associated with his administration. I think Eric HolderEric H. HolderRacial undercurrents inflame Uber fight over background checks Chaffetz seeks to hold Obama official in contempt over water rule Eric Holder goes to bat for Uber MORE helps a lot," he said.
Sharpton said NAN will announce "serious plans" to energize the black vote when the group gathers in mid-April for its silver anniversary convention. A large part of the outreach effort, he said, will be a focus on protecting voting rights in those states that have enacted tougher voting laws following 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted a central provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
"There will be an announced real effort on how we are going in those states to make sure people get past those impediments and have a turnout," he said.
Trump, the billionaire businessman and GOP front-runner, has stirred a string of controversies for his highly combative statements on the campaign trail. He's accused Mexican immigrants of being criminals and rapists; suggested a female reporter was menstruating during a Republican debate; called to ban all Muslims from entering the country; and refused to denounce the support of a former Klu Klux Klan leader.
Trump has also been among the most high-profile figures to question Obama's legitimacy, by speculating that the Hawaii-born commander in chief was actually birthed in Kenya.
Sharpton said the Democrats, by highlighting such controversies, would see a boost in minority turnout.
In 2012, "when I was touring Florida and Ohio on election day, people [were] telling me, 'Reverend, I'm going to stand in line if I have to stand here all night because I will not let them take my vote.' People were angry about people trying to take their right to vote," Sharpton said. "If the Democrats handle Trump's birther stuff [and the KKK controversy well], people would not only stand in line all night, they would come the night before and spend the night."
Sharpton, who has not sided with either Clinton or Bernie SandersBernie SandersWhy won't Democrats go as far as Clinton did on Israel? Sanders gets another extension for personal financial disclosure Biden to make first campaign stop for Clinton in Pa. MORE in the Democratic primary, said he's currently focused on pushing the candidates to prioritize minority issues, including voting rights, criminal justice reform and Obama's effort to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
"I do not want to in any way lessen being an advocate by prematurely being someone's surrogate," he said.
"I'm close, but I'm not there yet."