Why Candidates Like NAACP Cheers and Jeers

You have probably already heard that they booed Mitt Romney and cheered Joe Biden at the NAACP convention in Houston this week. Here is why it goes much deeper than that.

I've covered my share of NAACP conventions over the years. The attendees are aggressively middle-class, overwhelmingly well-churched, and incredibly well-informed. They are also mostly Democrats.

But educated, churchgoing middle-class people are also usually pretty polite. They boo when they feel they have been goaded.

Knowing his audience was probably out of his reach when it comes to winning their votes, Romney came to Houston with a different mission -- to tell home truths. And Biden, who cheerily admitted to the crowd that he was "preaching to the choir," was -- in his way -- there to do the same thing.

There is a fine line to be negotiated here. In 1992 Ross Perot, then an unannounced candidate for president, stumbled all over that line when he spoke to the NAACP. Twice, he referred to the audience as "your people," or "you people," which one delegate told The New York Times "was like waving a red flag in front of a bull."

"I don't think he helped himself by telling stories about how his father used to pay his old black sharecroppers," another delegate said.

Perot wasn't just booed by the offended audience. He was heckled.

But it's not that NAACPers are nice only to Democrats. George W. Bush, who visited the convention when he was running against Al Gore in 2000, fared much better. A transcript of his speech that day shows the audience responded with laughter or applause 17 times.

Sprinkling his remarks with references to "the party of Lincoln," W.E.B. Du Bois, and the evils of Jim Crow, Bush acknowledged that he was at a political disadvantage.

"I recognize the history of the Republican Party and the NAACP has not been one of regular partnership," he said. "But our nation is harmed when we let our differences separate us and divide us. So while some in my party have avoided the NAACP, and while some in the NAACP have avoided my party" -- (laughter) -- "I'm proud to be here."

Bush talked of civil rights and the virtues of home ownership. He even touted his plan -- impossible to imagine today coming from a Republican nominee -- to provide a family health credit that would cover 90 percent of the cost of basic health insurance for the poor.

Romney got booed this week for saying essentially the opposite. "I will eliminate expensive, non-essential programs like Obamacare," he said, before the vocal objections began.

Up until that point in the speech, which was punctuated by churchy organ music, Romney had received a reasonably warm reception. The applause was polite, if perfunctory, even while he was making the case that the first black president should have been able to make black peoples' lives better.

"Americans of every background are asking when this economy will finally recover," he told the delegates. "And you, in particular, are entitled to an answer." (Note he did not use the term "you people.")

Romney clearly understood that using the term "Obamacare" would upset an audience that overwhelmingly supports the president. His remarks -- which included references to the fossil fuel that could be provided by the Keystone pipeline -- also referenced Republican buzzwords like "economic freedom," "hostile regulation," and "destructive labor policies."

And speaking to an audience where many had attained middle-class status because they or their parents got classroom jobs in segregated schools, he dismissed teachers' unions as "special interests." Romney clearly was not there to pander. The references to Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass went unnoticed.

The difference between Romney's appearance on Wednesday and Vice President Biden's the next day was striking.

Biden, who began his remarks by saying it was "good to be home," called Romney a "fine family man." Then he launched into a sustained -- and well-received -- critique of nearly everything the Republican nominee stands for.

Biden praised teachers, touted "clean, renewable" energy, defended the health care law, and endorsed Planned Parenthood. He even talked about foreign policy, which Romney raised only to denounce "cheaters like China."

An underreported detail from the Romney speech is that the audience applauded frequently and rose in an ovation at the end -- mostly, members said afterward, because he was respectful enough to show up.

But, if you're keeping count, Biden was cheered 65 times, and the only boos he got were when he was threatening to wrap up. The crowd wanted more.

The case Romney made for agreeing to disagree, by our transcript count, was cheered only 28 times. If what Republicans and independents watching at home saw was a candidate of principle who would carry his message into the political lion's den, I'm betting that was just fine with Romney.

Gwen Ifill is the host of Washington Week on PBS.