Mitt Romney addressed on Wednesday the annual convention of the nation’s leading civil rights group, the NAACP. His pitch: my economic policies will help millions of middle class Americans of all races.
“I believe that if you understood who I truly am in my heart, and if it were possible to fully communicate what I believe is in the real, enduring best interest of African-American families, you would vote for me for president,” said Mr. Romney to the NAACP.
The presumptive GOP presidential nominee received a cool reception, despite his support for a number of policies the group opposes, including state voter ID laws. In contrast, Attorney General Eric Holder received a rousing reception on Monday by attacking voter ID, likening it to poll taxes designed to prevent minorities from voting.
This disparity pointed out the risks inherent in Romney’s appearance in Houston. Given that he’s running to unseat the nation’s first African-American president, was this speech a waste of time for the former Massachusetts governor? What’s the upside here – how many black votes might he win?
The answer is “not many.” But it was probably still worth it for the presumptive GOP nominee to make this speech.
First, the numbers. President Obama leads Romney among African-Americans by a whopping 92 percent to 6 percent, according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll. That’s the greatest disparity between the candidates for pretty much any demographic grouping.
For decades now the black vote has been a rock of support for Democratic presidents. Obama won 96 percent of African-Americans in 2008, for instance.
You have to go all the way back to the campaign of Richard Nixon in 1960 to find a Republican candidate who received substantially more minority votes. Nixon took 32 percent of black’s ballots in his (losing) effort that year. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Voting Rights Act. That’s what solidified the long drift of African-Americans towards the Democratic Party.
“No Republican presidential candidate has gotten more than 15 percent of the black vote since ,” points out journalist Brooks Jackson in a 2008 FactCheck.org piece on blacks and Democrats.
But for Romney, today’s speech was probably worth. Here are three reasons why:
He has to try. Given the closeness of the current presidential race, it appears as if every vote will count in November. In that context, Romney can’t afford to just write off a large demographic group. He may not get many African-American votes, but in the swing state of Virginia, say, a handful of ballots may swing the result either way.
It appeals to independents. Romney may not win many minority votes. But that’s not the whole point – there are substantial numbers of white voters who may be reluctant to support a presidential candidate who appears uninterested in reaching out to blacks. In that context, Romney’s appearance before the NAACP could be an attempt to appeal to moderates and soften his image.
“I don’t know that Mitt Romney is going to the NAACP to get votes, and I don’t know that he is going there to persuade any sizable numbers of black voters to vote for him.... The more relevant question is whether a President Mitt Romney is going to govern in an inclusive way. There is a group of white voters who don’t want to vote for a party that is racially exclusive ... so Mitt Romney reaching out to African Americans is perhaps a statement to [that] group of voters,” Davis told the Post.
It's a nod to the future. Romney may not win black votes in 2012, but his appearance could help lay the foundation for Republican candidates to make inroads in this constituency in coming years, according to former Republican National Committee chief Michael Steele.
“As far as I’m concerned, at this stage of the game this is kind of a moot point,” Mr. Steele told Talking Points Memo in a story on black Republicans’ reaction to the speech.
Steele has long called on the GOP to appear less ideological and to try harder to strike up relationships with important minority constituencies.
“The RNC has done very little since I left office to expand on the work that we had done in this area,” Steele told Talking Points Memo.