Mitt Romney's address to the NAACP was a mixed bag of audience reactions. There was applause when the presumptive Republican nominee said he would reform education and defend "traditional marriage," even though the civil rights organization issued a resolution last month in support of marriage equality. At various points, Romney's references to his father's track record on civil rights were warmly received.
But there were loud boos when he said that he would repeal Obamacare, and some incredulous laughter when he told the audience that he would be better for African Americans than President Barack Obama. "If you're looking for a president who will make things better for the African-American community, you're looking at him," Romney said to more boos and snickering.
David Frum, the conservative commentator, tweeted that he wondered if Romney was actively courting antagonism:
After the speech, Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta, an Obama supporter, said that was exactly the point. Romney's aim, he said, was to appear as a bold leader who could tell hard truths. "I think his statement was more a political stunt," Reed said. "What he tried to have was a reverse Sista Souja moment." (In 1992, Bill Clinton supposedly won the support of white moderates when he chastised rapper Sista Souljah for controversial lyrics, ostensibly proving that he was not willing to pander to black voters.)
"It makes him look like he has character and integrity, when he wasn't really speaking to the NAACP at all," Reed said.
Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia agreed, calling Romney's NAACP appearance "optics."
"It's comparable to his little stunt he pulled in West Philadelphia a couple months ago," Nutter said, referring to Romney's trip to several West Philadelphia schools in May.
Romney has had issues in the past with the NAACP. During his term as governor of Massachusetts, Romney stoked the ire of the NAACP when he tried to overhaul the state's affirmative action policies. "What he did was that he eliminated the executive orders and he created a new so-called Affirmative Action Office under a different name, saying it would do the same thing," Leonard Alkins, who ran the Boston NAACP chapter at the time, told WBUR. "But there were no enabling acts for that office to be guided by."
Then there was the matter of Romney addressing a group that has long been staunchly Democratic. Obama had a record showing with black voters in 2008 with 95 percent of the black vote, but Democratic candidates have captured the overwhelming majority of black votes for decades. Of the last six Democratic nominees, only John Kerry and Bill Clinton failed to capture at least 90 percent of the black vote; Kerry gained 88 percent in 2004 and Clinton gained 83 percent and 84 percent in 1992 and 1996.
An NAACP official during a conference call with the press said that the group had not invited the candidate to speak in order to boo him. "Obviously, we would not encourage anyone to boo Mitt Romney," he said.
To which Nutter added, "He's not for real. He's a character playing a role. He's virtually perpetrating a fraud on the American public."