A recent photo could be a symbol of potential problems for the Republican Party. In it, the lonely figure standing on stage is Tom Tancredo, the only Republican candidate to show up for the NAACP presidential forum in Detroit yesterday.
Before we move on, let's get some qualifiers out of the way. Campaigns are, by their very nature, exercises in the efficient distribution of resources. Put plainly, you spend time and money to go where the votes are. Conversely, you do not spend time and money to go places where you're unlikely to find potential voters or get a decent return on investment (ROI). For example, you don't see any presidential candidates of either party visiting Hawaii or Alaska — or even North Dakota, for that matter — because the potential benefits are simply not worth the cost.
Clearly, by the cold mathematics of such an equation, the NAACP forum is not an efficient use of resources for Republicans. Indeed, the NAACP is a viciously partisan organization. So given the recent voting history of African-Americans, making an appearance at the NAACP is just one step removed from visiting a Democratic convention. That's probably especially true this year with an African-American having a very real chance of becoming the first ever on a national ticket, either as the nominee or the vice-presidential selection of the Democratic party.
So while Republicans' skipping of the NAACP event may have been justified, it does bring up a larger point, which is how this sort of thing plays in the media and generates the perception — justified or not — that the Republican party is not interested in competing for minority votes.
Take another example. The country just finished a raucous debate over illegal immigration that was framed in a way —- thanks in part to brass knuckle infighting among Republicans themselves — that almost certainly hurt the Republican Party's standing with Hispanic voters in the short term. One of the reasons Republicans came out on the losing end of that debate with Hispanics is because they did a poor job of framing the issue in general and also of articulating their positions directly to Hispanic audiences in particular.
The weekend after comprehensive immigration reform died in the Senate, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials held its annual conference in Florida. NALEO is a small organization (6,000 members nationwide) and heavily Democratic. And again, seven Democratic presidential candidates showed up for NALEO's forum, but only one Republican: Duncan Hunter.
The consequences of these types of events are more or less the same. First, the audience takes offense at being "snubbed" by Republicans — a point that is picked up and repeated in the local and national media, generating negative publicity for the GOP far beyond those in attendance. Second, there's no presentation — or at least very little presentation — of the Republican viewpoint. Meanwhile, Democrats all show up and lambaste Republicans in unison, making a connection with the audience and at the same time reinforcing all the worst possible stereotypes about the GOP. Regardless of the venue, it's never a fair fight when the other side flees the battlefield.
The larger point is that, barring a few exceptions like the NAACP and perhaps a couple of others, Republicans can and should be competing for minority votes at every possible opportunity. It's better for them to show up, say their piece, and to let audiences — even Democratic-leaning ones — know where they stand rather than to walk away.
When they do walk away, Republicans allow their political opponents to define them, and the resulting media coverage helps propagate the perception that Republicans either aren't interested in or aren't willing to make the effort to reach out to minority voters. That perception, if it is allowed to continue, is politically dangerous - perhaps especially among Hispanics - and could have negative implications next year and beyond.