George W. Bush spoke to the NAACP’s convention in 2000, as did GOP presidential nominee John McCain in 2008, but those speeches came before the extraordinary events of the last three years: the election of a black president, the emergence of a Tea Party movement that many Democrats feel is motivated by racial animus, and an increasing polarization of the electorate into essentially a Democratic Party dominated by minorities and young voters versus a GOP that is older and whiter.
“You all know something of my background, and maybe you’ve wondered how any Republican ever becomes governor of Massachusetts in the first place. Well, in a state with 11 percent Republican registration, you don’t get there by just talking to Republicans. We have to make our case to every voter. We don’t count anybody out, and we sure don’t make a habit of presuming anyone’s support. Support is asked for and earned – and that’s why I’m here today,” Romney said, in describing why he made the appearance.
Romney aides said the candidate came to the NAACP in part because in a very close election, as this November’s is expected to be, even a tiny shift in the black vote to Romney in a state like Ohio could determine the winner overall.
Making the speech here could also help Romney with moderate, white voters who may be wary of the GOP’s lack of diversity, both in its politicians and voters.
Tara Wall, a Romney adviser, said the boos didn’t surprise them, noting “you know people aren’t going to agree with you 100 percent.”
“He got more applause than boos,” she said.
Romney said little about a slew of issues that African-American activists have raised concerns about: the slim number of minority appointees to his administration when he was governor of Massachusetts, his appearance earlier this year with Donald Trump, who has made a number of controversial remarks about the president, or his opposition to affirmative action.
“At the NAACP today, leaders in the African-American community recognized the devastating impact Mitt Romney’s policies would have on working families,” said Clo Ewing, an Obama campaign spokeswoman.
In his speech, Romney praised the NAACP as an organization and pledged to attend the convention next year if he is elected president. He quoted Martin Luther King, Jr and Frederick Douglas and invoked his father George, who marched for civil rights and pushed anti-discrimination legislation as governor of Michigan in the 1960′s.
If elected president, “your hospitality will be returned, we will know one another,” he said.
After the speech, convention attendees had not exactly been convinced.
“He’s not his father, he’s the antithesis of his father,” said Bruce Morgan, head of the New Brunswick, New Jersey chapter of the civil rights organization.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr