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At The Republican National Convention, Many Black Faces On The Stage, But Few On The Floor

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A worker walks down the aisle to collect trash on the floor at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/David Goldman) | AP

TAMPA, Fla. -- One hundred forty-three -- That's the tally of black people that comedian and author Baratunde Thurston said he'd counted at the Republican National Convention as of Wednesday afternoon, since landing here earlier this week. Many of them weren't delegates or attendees, but Thurston counted them anyway.

He was pretty sure two besuited men were Republican officials or party members, but it turned out they were state law enforcement. Still, Thurston said visitors kept asking them to carry their bags.

"So they learned to stop standing by the entrance," he said. "We had a good laugh about that."

Thurston created a Twitter hashtag called #negrospotting, and he tweeted every time he saw a black person. (This reporter was No. 132.)

Then the facetious hashtag landed on the radar of Michelle Malkin, a conservative radio host and blogger.

"And that opened the floodgates," he said. Thurston was promptly inundated with complaints from right-leaning Twitter users who echoed Malkin's sentiments.

"It started as something sort of flippant, it was a funny phrase," Thurston said. "But then it was like, 'Let's see what the number can get to.' This party clearly has some trouble attracting minority voters and especially black voters. Not just Romney support, but the GOP membership."

Although several black politicians have had prominent speaking gigs at the convention already -- former Rep. Artur Davis and Mayor Mia Love of Saratoga Springs, Utah, on Tuesday, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday -- it's a sharp contrast to the makeup of the actual convention floor. David Bositis, a researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, found that only 2 percent of the convention delegates were black, according to the Washington Post.

Ashley Bell, a tall, amiable young attorney from Georgia, was one of them. (A former Democrat -- he even spoke at the 2004 Democratic Convention -- Bell switched parties after President Barack Obama's health care law passed with a mandate requiring that people buy health insurance.) Bell said that part of the reason there were so few visible blacks on the convention floor was because of how delegates are allocated.

"This is something I would like to see adjusted, but when the party rules ... switched to reward states that were more Republican with more delegates, that made it probably harder for more minorities," Bell said. "So a state that may not have a lot of population, but is really red, is going to have more delegates. So I think it's more of a rule issue than anything else."

Bell also pointed to the considerable cost of attending a convention. "The people on the floor are longtime party loyalists and people who worked hard for the Republican Party, and I don't think they reflect what the party totally looks like," he said. "And then on top of it, it's expensive to be a delegate for either party." That cost, Bell said, weeds out many party members.

A recent poll found that Mitt Romney has captured 0 percent of the black vote. But that number isn't completely surprising. When former President George W. Bush received more than 11 percent of the black vote in 2004, it was a high-water mark for the modern Republican Party. Democrats regularly pull in 90 percent or more of black voters in presidential races, in part because of a perception of Republican antipathy toward blacks. (Incidents like the ugly exchange on Tuesday night in which two convention-goers were removed from the arena after throwing peanuts at a black CNN camerawoman and yelling "this is how we feed animals" certainly haven't helped. The party denounced the actions, calling them "deplorable.")

And Republicans are more likely to harbor negative feelings about blacks. A survey released Wednesday asked respondents what they thought was the main reason blacks voted for Democrats. People who identified as Republican were more than twice as likely as those who identified as independents to say that blacks supported Democrats because they were government dependents, "want something for nothing" or were on welfare. (The most common response among Republicans, Democrats and independents was "don't know.")

But as white voters continue to become an ever-smaller piece of the electoral pie, the Republican party faces some serious demographic challenges. Because Romney's support is so white, he has little margin of error in his quest to capture the presidency, and must overperform among white voters because so relatively few non-whites are likely to vote for him.

Thurston suggested that this was why Republicans had backed voter ID laws, which could prove to be big barriers to the ballot for blacks and Latinos, who are less likely to have government IDs. "So you suppress X and enhance Y without trying to look like an a**hole," he said.

Davis, the former Obama surrogate who is now a Republican, has said that Republicans can't simply make pitches to socially conservative blacks and think that will be enough to win them over: Many blacks hold socially conservative views and still cast ballots for Democrats.

"I think Republicans can compete in a changing demographic environment," he told The Huffington Post. "It will take two things: a seriousness about using conservative values to close some of the gaps that exist in society and an understanding that conservatism cannot just be a defense of economic liberty. It must engage ways to promote upward mobility and opportunity for the middle class and the poor."

But that might be slow going. Thurston's #negrospotting total as of Wednesday night: 149.

Gene Demby covers politics for Huffington Post BlackVoices. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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