Tuning in to the Republican National Convention this week, viewers could be forgiven for thinking they had switched on the Democratic convention of yesteryear, what with all the up-and-coming women and minority politicians taking the stage. It’s a contrast with Democrats, who will trot out a bunch of timeworn white guys next week in Charlotte to help make the party’s case to the nation.
It is one of this presidential election’s most striking juxtapositions that Mitt Romney, a Republican throwback, is leading a renaissance of down-ballot diversity. And President Obama, dependent on high minority turnout and support, is counting on a group of largely white political veterans to vouch for him at next week’s Democratic National Convention.
But the seeming incongruity belies a bigger political truth: Both parties are using their conventions to portray weaknesses as strengths. Republicans, traditionally lagging in support from women and minorities, are highlighting fresh, diverse faces. Meanwhile, Democrats, struggling to win over white, working-class voters, have chosen speakers who they hope will resonate with that crowd.
As Republicans work to project the image of a party evolving with the country, they have tapped a diverse group of speakers: Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Brian Sandoval of Nevada, and Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Senate candidate Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who will introduce Romney on Thursday. Also notable is Utah congressional candidate Mia Love, who could become the first black Republican woman elected to Congress.
It was just 16 years ago that Colin Powell was the party’s de facto minority liaison. In his 1996 floor speech, he urged Republicans to be “the party of inclusion.” Now, there are so many elected officials fitting the bill that they couldn’t squeeze them all into prime time.
“We have a deep and interesting and young bench coming up where the faces of the Republican Party defy all the stereotypes. It’s a much different terrain, visually, than we’ve ever had before. And that’s very good for the party,” said Florida-based Republican strategist Rick Wilson. “They’re coming out of an emerging conservative movement. They’ve come out of tough races; they’re the leaders of the future.”
Democrats also have a diverse lineup, but their biggest stars are party elders: Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, and former Presidents Carter and Clinton. The immensely popular 42nd president will introduce Obama to voters next week, a direct appeal to the white working-class voters and Reagan Democrats that Clinton helped bring back into the Democratic fold.
“It’s a good thing for the Democratic Party to have some moderate, Anglo speakers to show that we’re not the party that the Republicans are trying to make us out to be, exclusively ... a minority-only party,” said Democratic strategist John Michael Gonzalez. “We’re proud to be a party welcoming of minorities and women, but they want to tell white voters they’re the party for them. We’re trying to tell a story that we’re a party for everybody.”
And the numbers demonstrate why. In a recent national Quinnipiac University poll, only 33 percent of whites without a college degree said they would be supporting Obama.
Not that Romney is doing much better among his holdout constituencies. In the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll, Romney won just 23 percent of registered Latino voters—less than John McCain’s 2008 total. And among women voters, Obama had a 10-point lead.
Both parties are hoping that their conventions will help them make inroads among skeptical voters. But the political world will have to wait until the lights go out in Tampa and Charlotte before it’s clear whether their strategies worked.