In a More Diverse America, A Mostly White Convention

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."

Only a few years ago, Republicans talked publicly about the party's aspirations to diversify -- to win a quarter of the black vote by 2008, party leaders said, and half by 2020. Not since Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed his New Deal programs in the 1930s had Republicans won more than about 15 percent of the black vote, but they had reason to hope earlier this decade. President Bush won 11 percent of blacks' votes in 2004, after capturing 8 percent in 2000.

The party has also made a concerted effort to court Hispanics, but its electoral gains have been diminished by the hard-line stance many Republicans have taken on immigration. In 2004, Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote; a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed McCain with the support of 31 percent of Latinos.

"We have to make a better case to the Hispanic voter that the Republican Party has something to offer other than a deportation slip," Davis said.

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank, does not track Hispanic delegates, and convention organizers said they will not provide numbers until at least after the convention. According to a CBS-New York Times poll released Sunday, 5 percent of delegates are Hispanic, the lowest percentage at a Republican convention since 1996.

It was at their convention in Philadelphia in 2000 that Republicans started to make more direct appeals to black voters. On the convention's opening night, Gen. Colin L. Powell urged the party to reach out to blacks and other minorities in a "sustained effort." There was also a live video of a black preacher from a Philadelphia church, followed by a gospel choir performance on stage.

At the party's 2004 convention, Bush highlighted programs to increase loans to African American businesses and facilitate minority home ownership.

Ken Mehlman, then chairman of the Republican National Committee, traveled on a "conversations with the community" tour in 2005 and spoke with predominantly black audiences.

In 2006, the Republican Party supported three promising African Americans in their campaigns for office: Steele for Senate, Lynn Swann for Pennsylvania governor and Ken Blackwell for governor of Ohio. All three lost in a year that was bad for Republicans across the country.

A win in any of those elections could have transformed the party's relationship with black voters, Republicans said. Ever since Oklahoman J.C. Watts decided not to run for reelection to the House in 2002, black Republicans have lacked a role model in conservatism. A black Republican elected to high office, North Carolina delegate Tim Johnson said, would "make brothers understand that this isn't the whites-only party."

"That's when the momentum really shifted, losing those elections," said Alex-St. James, chairman of the African American Republican Leadership Council. "After that, it's like the Democrats were trying harder."

Said Steele: "Right now, the party is in a rhythm of looking at attracting African Americans on a cyclical basis, before each election. We have to get into the rhythm of attracting African Americans on a daily basis. That strategy has to be inculcated into the operation of the RNC. Right now, it's not part of our lifeblood."

Steele saw the problem firsthand from the stage Wednesday night. The Joint Center reported that the number of black Republican delegates declined from a record 167 in 2004 to this year's 36. According to the think tank, 24 state delegations at the Xcel Energy Center have no black members.

The homogeneity of the audience is sometimes reinforced by delegations' tendency to dress alike. Floridians sported Hawaiian shirts decorated with palm trees Monday night, and more than 150 Texas delegates and alternates wore red shirts and straw cowboy hats Tuesday.

The minority void in St. Paul is amplified for Republicans who watched Obama deliver his acceptance speech in Denver last week. Blacks made up 25 percent of the delegates at Invesco Field, and black musicians Stevie Wonder and John Legend performed before Obama stepped to the lectern. Vendors inside the stadium sold T-shirts with slogans in Spanish. Martin Luther King's son delivered a brief introductory speech.

"You see what Obama has done, and it's a reminder of what's possible," said Tony Leatherman, a black Republican delegate from Texas.

Leatherman paused and scanned the Xcel Energy Center. "It's obvious we could do better," he said.

A recent Post-ABC poll projects Obama with an 88 percent to 7 percent lead over McCain among African American voters, but black Republicans said that's no excuse for their party to give up. McCain spoke this year to the NAACP and the Urban League, but lately his campaign has focused almost exclusively on white voters.

Over the weekend, McCain traveled with his newly announced running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, to a rally in Washington County, Pa., whose population is 95 percent white.

"There's no doubt that Senator Obama's popularity is going to stymie our efforts to some extent with minorities, and I understand that," said Williams, the railroad commission chairman. "I know about resources and time and money, and you have to make choices. The heavy resources for us are not going to African American voters. But that's different than making no effort all."

McCain's campaign said Tuesday that its strategy to poach what Davis called "Hillary Clinton voters" might be enough to turn the election, since Obama's most loyal supporters -- young voters and minorities -- often turn out in low numbers on Election Day. But later that night, Steele came to a different conclusion.

"I am not going through another election cycle where we fail to energize and engage minority communities," he said. "Have you ever heard that saying -- about how the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result? Well, what we've done with minorities has become a form of political insanity."

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