In a More Diverse America, A Mostly White Convention

Among delegates on the floor of the Republican National Convention, one message was loud and clear - supporters of McCain-Palin consider the Republican ticket one of change. Video by Sarah Lovenheim/washingtonpost.com
By Eli Saslow and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 4, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 3 -- Organizers conceived of this convention as a means to inspire, but some African American Republicans have found the Xcel Energy Center depressing this week. Everywhere they look, they see evidence of what they consider one of their party's biggest shortcomings.

As the country rapidly diversifies, Republicans are presenting a convention that is almost entirely white.

Only 36 of the 2,380 delegates seated on the convention floor are black, the lowest number since the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies began tracking diversity at political conventions 40 years ago. Each night, the overwhelmingly white audience watches a series of white politicians step to the lectern -- a visual reminder that no black Republican has served as a governor, U.S. senator or U.S. House member in the past six years.

"It's hard to look around and not get frustrated," said Michael S. Steele, a black Republican and former lieutenant governor of Maryland. "You almost have to think, 'Wait. How did it come to this?' "

Republicans spent much of the past decade working to improve their minority outreach, particularly to blacks and Hispanics. But a number of setbacks, including an anti-Republican national mood, anger over the response to Hurricane Katrina and the Democratic nomination of Sen. Barack Obama, have largely negated their efforts, several Republicans said.

One week after Democrats nominated the nation's first black presidential candidate on the eve of the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, Republicans have only one African American -- Steele -- scheduled to speak during prime time at their convention. The united, diverse coalition that Republicans once envisioned instead looks uniform.

The good news, Republicans said, is that they think Sen. John McCain can still win this election with the kind of demographics on display in St. Paul. In an interview with Washington Post reporters and editors Tuesday morning, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis outlined a strategy in which his candidate targets women and white working-class voters and essentially cedes the black vote.

Obama's "strategy is, 'If I can just deliver the votes that I know exist, whether it's in the minority community or the youth,' or whatever the coalition is that he's got . . . 'then I can win this election,' " Davis said. "We can run our campaign the way we want to run it and not be in direct conflict with a lot of voter groups he is trying to get."

The look in the convention hall is similar to that of a typical McCain event. This summer, for instance, 67 people showed up for one of his town hall meetings in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. One of them was black.

The lack of diversity is out of sync with the demographic changes in the United States. The Census Bureau reported last month that racial and ethnic minorities will make up a majority of the country's population by 2042 -- almost a decade earlier than what the bureau predicted just four years ago. Two-thirds of Americans are non-Hispanic whites, 12.4 percent are black and 14.8 percent are Hispanic, according to 2006 census numbers.

What has helped Republicans is that working-class whites, a bloc they rely on, are more likely to vote than other groups. "But if there is a loss this time, and it is attributed to a smaller and smaller base of white voters, there might be a rethinking" of GOP strategy, said Robert E. Lang, co-director of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute, which studies demographics and other development patterns.

"If we don't get better at reaching out, we're in big trouble," agreed Michael Williams, a black Republican who chairs the Texas Railroad Commission and who spoke Wednesday night. "It doesn't take much to see that this is not what America looks like. . . . We're trying, but we're not there yet."

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