In light of this week’s visit to London, Israel and Poland by the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, Willard ‘Mitt’ Romney, it is instructive to recall his recent visit to Houston to address the 103rd Annual Convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), America’s oldest and largest civil rights organisation.
Considering that he will face America’s first black president, Barack Obama, in the election this November, his decision was an interesting one. The NAACP has a strong tradition of inviting presidential candidates to address their conventions and is officially non-partisan, however, an analysis of the black vote is revealing.
In 2004, only 7% of African Americans considered themselves Republican. In 2008, 95% of the African American vote went to Obama, in contrast to only 4% going to McCain that year and only 11% to President George W. Bush in 2004. That same year (2008) the black vote rose to 13% of the national total, up from 11%, but intriguingly, Obama’s take of the black vote was up only 2% from that received by Bill Clinton in 1996 and virtually tied with Jimmy Carter’s 94% in 1980.
The Republican take of the black vote has its own interesting elements: In both 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush received 11% of the black vote, considerably higher than the 4% that voted for Bob Dole in 1996 or the 6% that voted for George H. W. Bush in 1992. The 1992 figure was particularly interesting considering the 21% that George H.W. Bush received in 1988 and is perhaps indicative of Bill Clinton’s ability to connect with the African American community. Prior to this, Reagan had received 12% in 1984, and a paltry 3% of the black vote in 1980.
It is possible to discern a pattern, therefore, of overwhelming black support for Democratic candidates and scant support of Republicans.
Romney’s decision to attend was hardly done in the expectation of winning the crowd over and taking the black vote in November, but he could not afford to snub the invitation. Romney faced a tough call in Houston: He could tell the audience what it wanted to hear or he could stick to his message. It has been suggested that he was booed for failing to understand what the audience wanted and for referring to the health care legislation as ObamaCare. In other words, he didn’t pander to his audience.
Irrespective of what one feels about Romney’s politics, there is something to be said about telling an audience something unpalatable rather than merely paying lip service to their desires. Clearly, any Republican seeking to gain the support of the African American community is going to have their work cut out for them. Romney’s task is made all the harder by his opposition to the health care reforms that President Obama has passed and which he plans to repeal. His speech can be viewed in full HERE.
The event has become mired in acrimony. Romney was booed in places, and cheered in others. He has been accused on MSNBC of attending in the knowledge that he would be poorly received, in the expectation that this would drive ‘racist’ non-black voters into the Romney camp. Such interpretation is clearly incendiary and designed to stoke the passions on both sides. It is certainly far from helpful. Read a transcript of the speech HERE
Romney has also been accused of drafting attendees to the convention to deliberately cheer in key points and to be seen embracing Romney (figuratively, if not literally) after the speech. Romney undoubtedly invited members of the black community to attend this address and it would be more surprising if he had not. The degree to which a small number of invited guests could drown out a hostile crowd, however, is open to speculation. This led to a rather undignified showdown between Bill O’Riley and my old boss Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington Bureau Chief on Fox News.
Whatever one makes of Romney’s speech and the reaction to it, he did at least attend. This is more than can be said for America’s first African-American president who elected instead to send his gaffe-prone vice president, Joe Biden in his place and record a video message for his many supporters at the NAACP.
It is fascinating that this has not garnered a greater response: Romney has been critiqued for attending, for his speech and for potentially manipulating the crowd. But very little has been said in response to Obama’s ‘scheduling conflict’ that prevented him from attending the annual conference of America’s most important civil rights organisation. Had Romney offered such an excuse surely the accusation would be that he was at the very least indifferent to the black community. What the decision of America’s first black president to stay away says about his priorities heading into the November election is open to similar interpretation.
With 99 short days top go until the election, it appears that neither candidate is covering themselves in glory as they barnstorm the planet in desperate search for cash and votes. In the process they demean themselves and the office for which they year. This, alas, has become the accepted way of doing things and nothing, it seems, is about to alter that, whoever wins in November.