GOP debate: In African-American city, crowd was mostly white

Tuesday's Republican presidential debate was held in a city with a strong African-American population, but the audience was mostly white.

The crowd was predominantly guests of the Heritage Foundation and AEI, two conservative think tanks and co-sponsors of the debate with CNN.

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In tailoring the debate to the think tank audiences, organizers were able to parlay the tradition of audience members asking questions into an opportunity for candidates to field harder and more policy-oriented inquiries. Prominent conservative figures like Mark Thiessen, a former Bush administration speechwriter; Paul Wolfowitz, an architect of Bush's Iraq policy who served in the Defense Department; and David Addington, former Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, all asked questions of the candidates.

That decision likely pleased debate sponsors, who placed an emphasis on nurturing substantive discussion — and played up their role as influential figures in policy shaping. The program for the debate featured a page of a combined 40 scholars from the two institutes.

But it may have surprised those tuning in from outside the Beltway and expecting to see a crowd representative of the nation's capital city.

Officials at CNN did not respond to a request for comment about the audience makeup.

While Washington is perhaps best known nationally for its political scene, residents of the city take pride in its historical diversity. The nation's capital was the first city to have a majority black population — blacks slipped below 50 percent of the population for the first time in more than five decades earlier this year but still represent a robust plurality — and has prided itself on the moniker of "Chocolate City" bestowed by funk band Parliament in 1975.

But the crowd at Tuesday's debate was notably not representative of that diversity. And while organizers heralded the contest as amongst the more substantive of the 11 contests GOP candidates have thus far participated in, the room seemed to lack some of the local culture that has influenced previous meetings.

In CNN's Tea Party debate in Florida, for example, candidates played to an audience that skewed older and more conservative. Mitt Romney repeatedly attacked Rick Perry for his position on Social Security, an issue close to the heart of Florida retirees.

That debate also provided a moment where the crowd feedback seemed to indicate that some in the room would support allowing the ill and uninsured to fight for themselves. Ron Paul was asked by moderator Wolf Blitzer if he would allow individuals in that circumstance to perish, and some in the crowd seemed to encourage that response.

So too did the crowd provide a memorable moment when, during a Fox News debate in Orlando, some in the audience booed a question from an openly gay service member. And at a debate at the Reagan Library in California, audience members cheered when Rick Perry defended Texas death penalty laws.

The Republican candidates might have appreciated the opportunity to speak to the type of diverse audience that D.C. could have offered. Newt Gingrich's comments on illegal immigration  likely would have played better to a more diverse audience. 

The former Speaker argued that those who have "been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you've been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don't think we're going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out."

In a similar vein, Herman Cain has argued throughout the campaign that he should be the nominee because he will be able to engage the black community, a reliably Democratic base.

According the The Des Moines Register, the Cain campaign released a seven-page mailer this week in Iowa that argues that Cain will "lead the Republican party to victory by garnering a large share of the black vote, something that has not been done since Dwight Eisenhower garnered 41 percent of the black vote in 1956" because Cain is "a descendent [sic] of slaves."

But CNN's debate Tuesday lacked much feedback from the crowd at all, save general applause scattered throughout the proceedings. In choosing a debate focused on conservative elites, organizers may have missed an opportunity to have the candidates engage with an audience — and city — of diverse cultural backgrounds.