Mitt Romney, trying to defeat the first black U.S. president, drew boos at times during a speech to the nation’s oldest civil-rights group as he said his policies would help the economic interests of blacks more than those of the Obama administration.
“If you want a president who will make things better in the African American community, you’re looking at him,” Romney said, one of several lines that prompted booing during his 25-minute address today at the national convention of the NAACP in Houston.
Romney, who received a standing ovation from most in the audience at the end of his remarks, was also booed when he said he would repeal the health-care legislation that has been the signature accomplishment of President Barack Obama’s tenure in office.
“If you understood who I truly am in my heart, and if it were possible to fully communicate what I believe is in the real, enduring best interest of African-American families, you would vote for me for president,” the presumptive Republican nominee said.
Pitch for Leadership
“I want you to know that if I did not believe that my policies and my leadership would help families of color -- and families of any color -- more than the policies and leadership of President Obama, I wouldn’t be running for president,” said Romney.
He is unlikely to capture the votes of many members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People over Obama, who won 95 percent of the black vote four years ago, according to exit polls. Still, it would have looked bad for Romney to turn down the group’s invitation, political observers said.
“Were he not to attend the convention, that would send a negative signal to many swing voters,” Mark Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University in Houston, said before the speech. “It’s not a friendly venue for any Republican, but it could send a positive signal to the population at large.”
Four years ago, Senator John McCain of Arizona, then the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, told the NAACP that he would expand educational opportunities, partly through vouchers for low-income children to attend private school. He also praised Obama, then a senator from Illinois, for his historic campaign.
Romney, in an interview after his speech with the Fox Business Network, said of the boos directed at him: “I think we expected that.”
He also expressed confidence during the interview that he could chip away at Obama’s backing among black voters.
“I spoke with a number African-American leaders after the event and they said a lot of folks don’t want to say they are not going to vote for Barack Obama but they are disappointed in his lack of policies to improve our schools, disappointed in urban policy, disappointed in the economy,” Romney said.
Obama isn’t speaking to the group this year; Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to do so. Asked by reporters whether Obama skipping the NAACP meeting takes the black vote for granted, White House press secretary Jay Carney noted that the president has spoken to the group in the past.
“His commitment to the organization and the broader community is easy to see,” Carney said.
Obama has overwhelming support from black voters over Romney, 92 percent to 2 percent, according to a July 1-8 survey by the Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. The poll found Obama leading Romney 46 percent to 43 percent among all voters, helped by an almost 2-1 advantage among single women.
Obama’s re-election prospects hinge partly on how effectively he can rally black voters, whose above-average turnout in 2008 helped him win some of the states Democrats and Republicans views as battlegrounds in this year’s race.
North Carolina, which Obama won by three-tenths of one percentage point, is 21 percent black, the seventh-highest share among the 50 states. In Virginia, where Obama won by six percentage points, the black population is 19 percent, the ninth-highest share. The black population also is above 10 percent in two other populous swing states: Florida, 15 percent, and Ohio, 12 percent.
Like others in the U.S. economy, African-American voters have been hit hard in recent years. Because they tend to be more dependent on home equity, black household wealth fell by 53 percent from 2005 to 2009, according to the Pew Research Center. The unemployment rate for blacks is 14.4 percent, compared with a national rate of 8.2 percent.
Clo Ewing, a spokeswoman for Obama’s re-election campaign, said in a statement after Romney’s speech that the Republican’s policies would hurt working American families while benefiting the wealthiest.
“At the NAACP today, leaders in the African-American community recognized the devastating impact Mitt Romney’s policies would have on working families,” Ewing said. “He’d gut investments in education, energy, and infrastructure, and raise taxes on the middle class even as he gives $5 trillion in tax cuts weighted towards millionaires and billionaires. He’d put insurance companies back in charge, threatening the health of more than 30 million Americans who will gain coverage because of the Affordable Care Act.”
Romney, 65, cited in his speech his experience as governor of Massachusetts to show how he can work across party lines.
“When you are in a state with 11 percent Republican registration, you don’t get there by just talking to Republicans,” he said. “You have to make your case to every single voter. We don’t count anybody out.”
While recognizing the historic nature of Obama’s election, Romney suggested his administration hasn’t lived up to its potential.
“If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, then a chronically bad economy would be equally bad for everyone,” Romney said. “Instead, it’s worse for African Americans in almost every way. The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income, median family wealth are all worse for the black community.”
He also called attention to his difference with Obama, 50, on gay marriage, which the president announced his support for in May. Polls show some black voters splitting with Obama on the issue.
“As president, I will promote strong families - and I will defend traditional marriage,” Romney said.
He pointed to his father, onetime Michigan Governor George Romney, as a role model for his views on civil rights.
“It wasn’t just that my dad helped write the civil rights provision for the Michigan Constitution, though he did,” he said. “It wasn’t just that he helped create Michigan’s first civil rights commission, or that as governor he marched for civil rights in Detroit - though he did those things, too.
“More than these public acts, it was the kind of man he was, and the way he dealt with every person, black or white,” Romney said. “He was a man of the fairest instincts, and a man of faith who knew that every person was a child of God.”
Patricia Kane, 56, a federal worker from Los Angeles who is attending the convention and plans to vote for Obama, said before the speech she was glad Romney came to speak to the gathering.
“It’s pretty bold of him,” she said. “Even though we will vote for Obama, he could be elected and we should hear what he has to say.”