Before Mitt Romney uttered a single word Wednesday at the NAACP Annual Convention in Houston, the man seeking to unseat the nation’s first African-American president anticipated jeering. His audience didn’t disappoint, booing him the loudest after the Massachusetts Republican promised to repeal the intentionally worded “Obamacare.” Most liberal onlookers could — and did — quickly deem the speech a failure. And that is exactly why his campaign sees his speech as a success.
“I am going to give the same message to the NAACP that I give across the country, which is that Obamacare is killing jobs,” Romney told organization members from the podium. “And if jobs is the priority, then we’re going to have to replace it with something that actually holds down healthcare costs, as opposed to causing more spending for the government and more spending for American families.”
Prolonged boos followed Romney’s statement, just as he had expected. But with presidential polls indicating a statistical tie, all of November’s votes will count. He took the stage, first and foremost, to appeal to moderates who can provide him leverage. If even a slight percentage of minorities perceive Romney as an independent leader, the Republican could win the swing state advantage.
Avis Jones-DeWeever, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women, told ABC News that Romney followed through with his convention goal and pleased his conservative base in the process.
“That was like a victory lap on Fox News,” said Jones-DeWeever. “That was exactly what he went there intending to do.”
NAACP chairman Benjamin Todd Jealous issued a statement Wednesday in which he called Romney’s social and economic positions “antithetical” to the group’s interests:
“His criticism of the Affordable Care Act – legislation that will improve access to quality health care for millions – signals his fundamental misunderstanding of the needs of many African Americans,” the statement read.
Romney recognizes that African-Americans share a long history of voting Democrat, and that will likely not change. That trend dates back to 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. Since then, no Republican presidential candidate has received more than 30 percent of the African-American vote. And four years ago, the demographic widened that partisan edge. More than 96 percent of African-American voters selected Barack Obama over John McCain in the general election. So far this year, they are supporting Barack Obama with even higher margins. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll displayed a 92-to-6 lead between the incumbent and Romney. The Republican candidate is aware that the Wednesday speech to the nation’s oldest civil rights organization will gain him little-to-no November ground. So, he figured he would stage a captivating show in order to seem less calculating.
The White House has spent much time delivering personal narratives about recent hurdles in race relations. In the days after Barack Obama learned about Trayvon Martin’s death, he remarked that if he had a son, he would look like the 17-year-old. Wednesday was Romney’s turn at storytelling.
Mitt’s father, late Michigan governor George Romney, ran for President in 1968, the year civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Racial tensions were dense at the time, but the senior Romney developed a long career out of improving relations between White and African-Americans, even before that failed White House bid. This year’s Republican presidential candidate reflected on his father’s racial legacy to those in attendance on Wednesday.
“It wasn’t just that my Dad helped write the civil rights provision for the Michigan Constitution, though he did,” Romney said. “It wasn’t just that he helped create Michigan’s first civil rights commission, or that as governor he marched for civil rights in Detroit – though he did those things, too. More than these public acts, it was the kind of man he was, and the way he dealt with every person, black or white. He was a man of the fairest instincts, and a man of faith who knew that every person was a child of God.”
Romney knew that speaking about his father’s social policies would be the most defensible NAACP convention move. According to the most recent national jobs report, over 14 percent of African-Americans were unemployed in June, compared to just over eight percent of the general population. And many African-American families bring homelower median incomes than those in other racial demographics. The liberal base of the NAACP has largely found Romney’s background—as a wealthy equity businessman and former governor—out of touch with its organization’s message. Romney eliminated the Massachusetts office of affirmative action during his gubernatorial tenure, from 2003 to 2007. He also failed to oversee the completion of various urban public works projectsand minimally reinforced a 2001 law against police-based racial profiling.
Romney’s support for voter ID laws was barely touched during the speech. Such a decision might have been ignored in other states. But in Texas, the issue cannot be ignored. The state’s voter ID law is being challenged this week in a Washington federal court. Civil rights activists advocate that millions of minority voters are at risk of having their political picks ignored if that law is sustained.
Indiana voter Homer Cobb was in Wednesday’s crowd but did not boo Romney. He still understood why those around him did.
“He’s never been to a hospital where the first thing that they ask if do you have insurance,” said Cobb. “He’s never had to meet that.”
The Republican Party was once the party of Jackie Robinson, the African-American athlete who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. Former NAACP President Benjamin Hooks was a White House staffer during the Reagan years. And Michael Steele was the Republican National Committee’s first black chairman, serving from 2009 to 2011. Even he expressed a deep frustration with Republicans for limiting and calculating efforts to further integrate party appeal.
“It’s always five months before the presidential election that they’re concerned with getting the black vote — but what about the three years in between?” Steele told CBS News. “If the party is serious about not becoming irrelevant by 2016, then get off your ass and engage the people.”