Romney and Black Voters: An Uneasy Relationship

Beth Reinhard

A major storm bearing down on New Orleans can never come at an opportune time, but Isaac is arriving at a particularly difficult moment for Mitt Romney and for his party, which has yet to completely shake the perception that the GOP left African-Americans adrift in a drowned city seven years ago.

It could be argued, in fact, that trust among blacks toward Republicans has never been lower. A recent poll found Romney’s support in that community at zero. Add to that the simple fact that he is running against the nation’s first African-American president, and Romney’s challenges in courting those voters are manifold.

Memories of the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina—and the Bush’s administration’s halting response—is one reason why convention organizers in Tampa have considered radically shortening the event in the wake of Isaac. But the storm may also provide an opportunity for Romney to show that he could be an inclusive, in-command chief executive who places the well-being of the nation over party politics.

Despite Obama’s insurmountable advantage with black voters, Romney has attempted some outreach during his campaign, even as Democrats have cast him as a candidate who is seeking to leverage the white vote, asserting that he is attempting to appeal to whites by zeroing in on the issue of welfare reform.

One prominent conservative African-American, Herman Cain, the ex-GOP presidential candidate, said on Monday that he believes Romney is making inroads. He blasted the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey showing the candidate with no black support.

“That poll is bullfeathers,” said Cain in a brief interview near the Tampa arena where his onetime rival will be nominated this week. “I talk to black people all the time that are not going to vote for Barack Obama.”

Romney has made a few overtures to the community. He visited an inner-city charter school in Philadelphia in May and addressed the NAACP in July. The lineup of convention speakers this week includes three prominent African-Americans: Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Utah congressional candidate Mia Love, who could be the first black Republican woman in Congress; and ex-Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama, a former Obama supporter who switched parties.

But in a reflection of the polls that consistently show Romney winning only a tiny fraction of the black vote, African-American delegates are scarce in Tampa. Romney’s efforts are far more likely to succeed in impressing white moderates than in siphoning black votes, according to campaign strategists. The African-American community has long been one of the Democratic Party’s sure bets, suggesting that the Republican is seeking a broader audience that expects candidates to reach out to diverse communities.

“Trying to crack the president’s support in the African-American community is next to impossible,” said Republican consultant Steve Schmidt, who advised 2008 nominee John McCain. “But there is a demand in the moderate wing of the party to see diversity.” When Romney was met by hecklers in Philadelphia and got booed at the NAACP convention, he was widely credited for going outside his comfort zone. His father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, was a Republican leader in the civil-rights movement.

But Romney’s television ads charging Obama with gutting work requirements for welfare (deemed false by multiple fact-checkers) and his recent joke about Obama’s birth certificate (which put him on the defensive) are viewed by some Democrats as racially tinged appeals to blue-collar white voters. The Romney campaign hinted on Monday that Donald Trump, one of the highest-profile “birthers” raising questions about Obama’s citizenship, might have a role in Tampa.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former chairman of the National Republican Committee, mocked Democrats for playing “the race card” and said they are trying to pump up turnout in a black community racked by unemployment.

“Name a campaign in the last 25 years where the Dems didn’t play the race card,” Barbour told the BuzzFeed website. “Surprise!”

Blacks have long been underrepresented at Republican conventions; in 2008, the proportion of black delegates hit a low point of 2 percent, according to figures compiled by the American Enterprise Institute. At the Democratic convention where Obama was nominated, blacks made up 23 percent of the delegates. In 2008, 13 percent of the electorate was black, of which 95 percent favored Obama.

One of the handful of black delegates in Tampa is Chelsi P. Henry, a 24-year-old law student from Jacksonville, Fla., who said she’s been addressed by strangers on campus as a “black Republican.” “To be honest, I have learned to embrace those moments as educational moments,” Henry said.  “We just have to continue sharing the values of the party.”