Busted Brand

The lily-white show in St. Paul spells trouble for the future of the GOP.

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Fundamental to the marketing of any brand is the establishment of trust: A brand builds trust when promises are met and destroys that trust when promises are broken. It's a fact of life in retail and true in the world of retail politics. Barack Obama has been busy trying to improve the Democratic Party brand. His Republican challenger, Sen. John McCain, has much more work to do, even after his relatively successful nominating convention in St. Paul.

And the task is especially daunting in regard to African Americans.

Watching the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, even through the narrow lens of a pool camera, it was inescapable: Black Republican delegates were a rare breed, indeed. Here and there a black face amid a sea of the older, white conservatives who have been the bedrock of the GOP for more than 40 years.

The black Republicans at the Xcel Energy Center likely felt more isolated than usual. Not just by virtue of their numbers, which pale in comparison to those of black Democratic delegates in Denver last week, but also because they have been abandoned by some of the former colleagues. This year, a significant number of black conservatives, conflicted by McCain, are surprisingly open to the idea of voting for Obama (apparently without the obligatory reflex of holding their noses). And so there were fewer of them in St. Paul.

In June, black conservative talk-show host Armstrong Williams, once an ardent supporter of Bush Republicanism, said of Obama: "I don't necessarily like his policies; I don't like much of what he advocates, but for the first time in my life, history thrusts me to really think seriously about it…

"Among black conservatives," Williams told The Associated Press, "they tell me privately it would be very hard to vote against him in November."

For Williams, and probably other black conservatives, it must have been hard to ignore the striking demographic populism built into this year's Democratic convention: 24 percent of the delegates were African American, a record; 12 percent were Latino. Nine percent were Asian, Native American and Pacific Islanders. At least inside the Pepsi Center and Invesco Field in Denver, the Democratic Party sure looked like America.

In 2004, the Republican Party began to make a move in the right direction. There were 167 black delegates at the GOP convention in 2004—7 percent of the total number, and the largest such percentage since the convention of 1912.

Fast forward to St. Paul, where a bad representation got worse. There are just 36 black delegates at the Republican Convention this year, 1.5 percent of the total delegates, according to a Aug. 29 report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. "The 36 black delegates in 2008 represent a 78.4 percent decline from the 167 black delegates at the 2004 GOP convention," the Joint Center reported.

While the singular appeal of Obama to black voters is certainly a factor in the decrease in black delegates and the black Republican voters they represent, this is nothing new. The consistent challenge for the Republicans in trying to woo African Americans has always come from their own limited perception of black Americans; contemporary Republicanism has repeatedly mis-branded black and continues to cast African Americans in the context of "the other."