A new poll suggests that Mitt Romney may achieve the nearly impossible: he may receive even less than the tiny 4 percent of the black vote that Sen. John McCain won four years ago.
President Barack Obama holds a four-point lead over his Republican challenger Mitt Romney in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released in the final week before the Republican National Convention.
What caught my eye were the numbers reported in key segments of Obama’s political base: He led among African Americans “by 94 percent to 0 percent.” Say what?
No, that was not a misprint. The poll showed Romney getting zero black support. Nada. Zilch. Bupkis.
Predictably, black Romney supporters and other conservatives were as infuriated as Obama supporters were amused. Faster than you can say “liberal media conspiracy,” new Twitter hashtags like #BlackConservativesForMittRomney and #WeAreThe0Percent appeared and percolated with defiant Mitt-love:
“Just call me one of the new breed,” said one: “The ‘Zero-Con’.”
OK, let’s pause for a reality check: A zero should not be taken literally to mean that Romney won’t get any black voter’s vote. The poll’s margin of error is 3.1 percent and, let us not forget, 6 percent of the respondents were undecided or had no opinion.
That means Romney’s final black turnout still could exceed McCain’s, although so far he hasn’t done much to improve his chances, in my view. His glaring goose egg among blacks in this poll illustrates the depth of his current dilemma: he’s too busy trying to woo his own party’s base to worry about reaching out to Obama’s.
And that’s too bad, in my view. Although you’d never guess it from the overwhelmingly Democratic turnout of black voters in recent decades, there still is a wellspring of African Americans who are more conservative than Obama on many social and economic issues. Many of us still vote for the Party of Lincoln when Republican candidates reach out to us.
The George W. Bush campaign tapped it in 2004 to win 11 percent of the black vote in exit polls, and even higher into the double digits in some key swing states, largely by targeting conservative churchgoers on social issues like gay marriage.
Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas won 12 percent in 1996. That was partly because his running mate was former Rep. Jack Kemp. The innovative former football star enlisted many grassroots black and Hispanic leaders with his urban agenda of school choice, enterprise zones and tax incentives.
But today’s racial-political divide goes back to the 1960s, when moderate Republicans were not nearly as rare at the national level as they are today. Leading Republicans like Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois helped pushed President Lyndon B. Johnson’s landmark civil rights and voting rights bills to passage over the objection of Southern segregationist Democrats.
But as conservatives regained power -- aided by the white South’s shift from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican -- black voters went the other way. As my father used to say, “We didn’t leave the Republican Party, the Republicans left us.”
Today, Republicans of all colors tell me how blacks should be fed up with Obama’s inability to produce more jobs as he tries to clean up the economic mess that the Bush years left behind. We might expect some of that disappointment to show up in opinion polls, now that the initial thrill of having a president of African descent has worn off.
But on that score, Obama could hardly have picked a better set of opponents. The bold outreach of Republicans like Kemp or Dirksen is as hard to find as any other bipartisan gestures in today’s polarized Washington.
The Romney campaign appears to be paying the price, not only with blacks but also with Hispanics, who favored the Obama ticket by 2-to-1 in the NBC/WSJ poll, among other persuadable groups.
If there is any hope for future Republican crossovers, it may come from up-and-comers like Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Romney’s running mate worked for Kemp as a speechwriter and at his research organization. Ryan calls Kemp his mentor, although he has yet to show similar skills for reaching across partisan and racial divides. But he’s young. There’s still hope.