Romney's Diversity Handicap

His problem isn't that he lost the black vote -- it's that his party doesn't understand black voters.

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(The Root) -- Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have had some interesting takes on the scope and, uh, complexion of their Election Day throttling. The former governor was reportedly shell-shocked by the results. But they're telling on themselves, as the old folks say.

Romney hopped on a conference call with his wealthiest donors Wednesday and told them that Obama spurred turnout among his coalition by offering "gifts" to voters of color and young people, like health care and student-loan forgiveness. "You can imagine for somebody making $25,000 or $30,000 or $35,000 a year, being told you're now going to get free health care, particularly if you don't have it, getting free health care worth, what, $10,000 per family, in perpetuity -- I mean, this is huge," Mr. Romney said, while weirdly mischaracterizing how the Affordable Care Act actually works.

Ryan told a Wisconsin television station the day before that they were surprised by that surge in turnout, especially in "urban" areas. "When we watched Virginia and Ohio coming in, and those ones coming in as tight as they were, and looking like we were going to lose them, that's when it became clear we weren't going to win," he said. (Whatever helps you sleep at night, my dude: Romney lost in lily-white states like New Hampshire and Iowa, too.)

Surprised? That surge in "urban turnout" wasn't some unknowable, unpredictable variable, like a massive Election Day earthquake. For months, it had looked like a very real possibility. The National Urban League published a study this summer about the import African Americans would have in this election -- they expected the black electorate to grow by several percentage points from 2008, found that registered black voters were the group most likely to vote in 2008 (93 percent did so) and that if black turnout dipped to 2004 levels, Obama would struggle in several other swing states. If the Urban League's relatively small research and policy shop knew this, then the number crunchers in Obama's Chicago headquarters certainly did, as well. So why didn't Team Romney? (Those devious Urban Leaguers! Hiding their research by holding open conference calls with the press and then sneakily plastering it all over the country's major news outlets!)

Romney ran on his business acumen and his purported ability to find pragmatic solutions to big problems. But his failed campaign might inadvertently make a great business-school case study on the many ways diversity matters. Yes, there are lots of obvious, compelling moral and ethical reasons for making diversity an organizational goal, but there are practical, functional ones, too: Organizations with narrow fields of vision become institutionally incapable of spotting where the icebergs ahead are located. Romney's campaign apparently didn't even acknowledge that there might be icebergs.

Republican talking heads kept saying that black voters would stay home because disproportionately high unemployment would have sapped their enthusiasm. Some conservative news outlets reported on claims that black people would stay home because of President Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage. There wasn't a lot of evidence to back either of those things.

It's also become obvious that Team Romney comically misjudged how galvanizing the Republican push for voter-ID laws would be among a voting bloc that has a long history of state-sponsored disenfranchisement. And so pastors preached to their flocks about it on Sundays, reporters covered stories of ordinary people whose voting rights were suddenly in question and voting and civil rights groups not-so-quietly went out and registered hundreds of thousands of new voters. But Romney never saw it coming.  

Back in my home state of Pennsylvania, the strict voter-ID law there became a major election-year issue -- especially after a Republican state legislator gloated that the law would help Romney win the Keystone State -- because it seemed so nakedly about suppressing voters. (The state was forced to concede in court that it had no evidence of any history of in-person voting fraud, which was the law's ostensible rationale.)

"This infuriated the black clergy and local civic groups such as the Committee of Seventy, which resented all the charges of voter fraud going on in Philadelphia," one Philadelphia attorney who has worked on voter verification issues told the conservative magazine Human Events. "And even after the judge delayed implementation of the voter ID law, there were commercials being run reminding voters the law would be enforced next year. This just got the opponents more worked up."

Unsurprisingly, black turnout in Pennsylvania was robust; Obama handily won Pennsylvania, and 56 precincts in Philly didn't record a single Romney vote.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM