HOUSTON—Mitt Romney isn’t going to win the black vote. But he’s making a pitch to African-Americans at the NAACP’s annual meeting, giving a major speech that’s also aimed at showing independent and swing voters that he’s willing to reach out to diverse audiences – and demonstrating that his campaign and the Republican Party he leads are inclusive.
Romney’s advisers say he plans to focus, as he usually does, on the economy. The 14.4 percent unemployment rate among blacks is much higher than the 8.2 percent national average. He’s also likely to mention his plan to increase school choice – he’s called education the “civil rights issue of our era.”
It’s a difficult sell – 95 percent of blacks backed President Barack Obama in 2008. But no matter what Romney tells the NAACP on Wednesday, Republicans and Democrats say he’s making a statement just by speaking to the nation’s oldest civil rights group.
“The first thing you need to do is show up, so I ultimately think he’s doing the right thing,” said Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., one of two black Republicans in Congress**. “What he’s saying to everyone is that he’s (running to become) America’s president and not just those folks he thinks he can get votes from right now. I think that’s a very important statement.”
“You’ve got to get credit for showing up – for being willing to go – no question,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic consultant who worked in the Clinton White House. “It’s more about your actions than it is about what you say.”
Obama spoke to the group during his 2008 campaign, as did his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain. Obama doesn’t plan to speak this year – instead, Vice President Joe Biden will address the annual convention on Thursday. Obama plans to address the Urban League later this month.
Romney rarely speaks to a predominantly black audience at political events. One exception was a May visit to a charter school in Philadelphia, where he cast fixing the education system as a way to help blacks and other minorities.
In framing education as a civil rights issue, Romney is following in George W. Bush’s footsteps. At a sweeping address to the NAACP in 2000, Bush, then the Republican presidential nominee, said the education system should “leave no child behind” – and he labeled the “soft bigotry of low expectations” as part of the problem facing black students.
The likely 2012 Republican nominee has a personal history with civil rights issues. Romney’s father, George, spoke out against segregation in the 1960s and as governor of Michigan toured his state’s inner cities as race riots wracked Detroit and other urban areas across the country. He went on to lead the Housing and Urban Development Department, where he pushed for housing reforms to help blacks.
Mitt Romney invoked that legacy during a 2007 interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press”: “My dad’s reputation … and my own has always been one of reaching out to people and not discriminating based upon race or anything else.”
In recent months, Obama has approached race from an intensely personal perspective. After the shooting of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin in a Florida neighborhood – an act many blacks saw as racially motivated – Obama spoke directly to Martin’s parents from the Rose Garden. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said.
Diminished enthusiasm for the president in the wake of the economic downturn could dampen black turnout. And that could make the difference in Southern states Obama won in 2008, particularly North Carolina and Virginia.
Other factors could keep blacks away from voting booths. Romney’s address to the group comes as Democrats and minority communities are expressing concern over a series of tough voter identification laws in a handful of states. Critics say the laws could make it harder for blacks and Hispanics to vote.
“He’ll be standing in that room asking people for their votes at the same time that Republican legislators are trying to disenfranchise minority communities,” said Finney, the Democratic consultant.
Romney expressed support for such laws during a late April visit to Pennsylvania, which now has one of the toughest voter identification statutes in the nation. “We ought to have voter identification so we know who’s voting and we have a record of that,” Romney said then.