Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney likely expected to met with some skepticism at the annual NAACP conference Wednesday. But he clearly wasn’t expecting to get booed — not once, not twice, but three times.
Any Republican running against Barack Obama is probably going to be greeted with some hostility by this audience. While Obama’s support among black voters has dipped a bit since 2008, it has never gone below 85 percent. In mid-June it was at 90 percent.
But that doesn’t mean the booing was inevitable. For comparison, look at the speech Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) gave to the NAACP convention in 2008.
Like Romney, McCain focused on school choice, an issue where African-American opinion diverges from the Democratic party line. He touted his energy and economic policy as superior to Democratic plans. But he also praised his opponent profusely; of the four times McCain mentioned Obama, two of them were positive. “Don’t tell him I said this, but he is an impressive fellow in many ways,” he told the crowd.
By contrast, Romney criticized Obama for running a negative campaign, said the president could not bring economic recovery, and said he would eliminate “non-essential, expensive” programs like “Obamacare.”
His only reference to the historic nature of Obama’s win was to say that “if someone had told us in the 1950s or 1960s that a black citizen would serve as the forty-fourth president, we would have been proud and many would have been surprised.”
When the crowd started to boo, the candidate shot back combatively, ‘‘If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him. You take a look.”
While McCain said at the end of his speech that he was “a candidate for president who seeks your vote and hopes to earn it,” he did not press the point. “John McCain sounded like he had a new hero Wednesday: Barack Obama,” said the New York Daily News’ Michael McAuliff. “McCain came to praise Senator Barack Obama, not to bury him,” said the New York Times Larry Rohter.*
That low-key approach won McCain praise from attendees, if not support. Obama took 96 percent of the black vote in 2008. But reaching out to the black community, for Republicans, is not just about African-American voters — it’s about appearing inclusive and tolerant to white swing voters.
Romney seemed to think that four years after Obama’s barrier-breaking win, the NAACP audience would be open to a more combative approach. He thought wrong.
* Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman also got a warm reception from the NAACP in 2004.