Mitt Romney’s speech this morning to the NAACP was indicative of the extremely shaky relationship Republicans currently have with the black community. The pitch for deregulation and small government was met with silence, while a promise to repeal Obamacare was received with sustained and repeated boos.
Of course, it’s been more than half-a-century since the black vote was contested between the two parties. However, in his two terms, George Bush made a sustained effort to reach out to African Americans, tapping two for high profile positions in his administration, and reaching out to black groups during the 2004 campaign. This wasn’t enough to change the dynamics of black voting — the vast majority of African Americans supported John Kerry — but it earned Bush a larger share of the black vote than he won in 2000.
What’s more, the Bush outreach looked like the beginning of greater GOP engagement with the black community. In 2005 former RNC head Ken Mehlman apologized to the NAACP for playing racial politics.
But all of this collapsed in 2008, when Democrats chose an African American senator from Illinois as their nominee for president. The combination of the 2008 campaign’s harsh partisanship and racial pride led to huge black turnout and significant Democratic gains — Obama won 95 percent of the black vote, a historically high percentage.
In the years since the 2008 election, many Republicans have adopted racially charged narratives on everything from the financial collapse — minorities and the Community Reinvestment Act are to blame — to a program meant to compensate African American farmers for racial discrimination (it’s actually “reparations”). What’s more, in its attacks on Obama, a large portion of the Republican base has adopted an explicitly racial frame. The attacks aren’t motivated by race — the apocalyptic tenor should be familiar to anyone who remembers Bill Clinton’s presidency — but race acts as a filter for their appearance. Birthers — including prominent members of the GOP — demand evidence of Obama’s citizenship, local Republicans depict Obama’s parents as chimpanzees, and online conservatives portray Obama as an African witch doctor.
Absent a serious shift on voter identification laws — which many see as attempt to suppress African American voting — or a Sister Souljah moment with “birthers” and other right-wing demogogues, there is no way that Romney will make headway with black voters. At best, Romney can expect to repeat John McCain’s dismal performance with African American voters. At worst, he’ll receive fewer black votes than any Republican presidential nominee in history. Indeed, together with his poor performance among Latinos and other nonwhites, it’s fair to say that — win or lose — Romney will have the whitest electoral coalition in recent memory. And in light of rapidly shifting demographics, this doesn’t bode well for the future of the Republican Party.