Based on polling of the black electorate, the NAACP is an overwhelmingly pro-Obama organization. So it’s no real surprise that Mitt Romney drew boos when he spoke at the group’s national convention Wednesday and Vice President Biden drew cheers.
But the difference between the two NAACP speeches was greater than simple party-line allegiance. Romney reached out to the African American audience with a speech that avoided many of the issues most important to the NAACP; Biden acknowledged those issues head-on, and promised an Obama-Biden administration would tackle them if re-elected.
Romney’s speech made no mention of voter ID laws. The GOP-led legislative push to make it more difficult to vote is deeply concerning to black leaders, and a central focus of the NAACP convention. The Obama administration has voiced strong opposition to the laws, and the Justice Department is challenging some of them in court. Attorney General Eric Holder told the NAACP earlier in the week that the laws were akin to “poll taxes.”
Biden also pounced. “The president and I … see a future where those rights are expanded, not diminished,” Biden said. “Where racial profiling is a thing of the past. Where access to the ballot is expanded and unencumbered.”
Racial profiling also presents a challenge for Romney. He’s walked a tightrope on the Arizona immigration law minority groups fear will encourage racial profiling, and has even embraced the law’s authors on the campaign trail. Romney can’t condemn racial profiling without endangering his relationship with conservatives, which observers still see as tenuous.
Biden also shouted out the health care reform law by touting its advantages specifically for black Americans. The law provides coverage for “8 million black Americans who would’ve never had insurance,” Biden said to cheers.
Romney’s vow to repeal “Obamacare,” which drew the loudest boos of his speech.
By sidestepping key issues — and challenging the audience on others — there was no real way for Romney to convince the NAACP crowd of much. That hasn’t been the case for all Republicans, but it is the unique position Romney finds himself in based on his policy stances and seeming fear of addressing issues beyond the economy.
Romney refused to address much beyond the economy; Biden gave a broad speech that addressed jobs, pay inequality and the auto industry. Both referred to scripture and faith.
“You certainly couldn’t do better with our crowd than that,” NAACP chief Ben Jealous told MSNBC after Biden’s speech. “He even got into talking about racial profiling, which is something that if you go back 12 years, George Bush campaigned against driving while black.”
It’s not just Obama-supporting black Democrats who think Republicans need to tweak their rhetoric a bit when it comes to the African American vote. Former Alabama Rep. Artur Davis — a former Democrat in the House who is now considering running as a Republican in Virginia — called on his new party to speak differently to African Americans than it has in the recent past. There is a black population Republicans could speak to, Davis told TPM. But Romney’s speech didn’t hit the marks Davis set.
“Republicans will need to appreciate that even affluent blacks are sensitive to the plight of the poor,” he said, “while they don’t want to be condescended to, they expect public policy to engage ‘the least of these’ and they are turned off by ‘blame the victim’ rhetoric.”