Two years before Donald Trump became president, he tweeted, “Sadly, because president Obama has done such a poor job as president, you won’t see another black president for generations!” But six months into Trump’s tenure, there’s a growing buzz among Democrats that the next black president has already been identified: first-term Sen. Kamala Harris of California. “She’s running for president,” one fundraiser told the Hill. “Take it to the bank.” “The dominant trend in Democratic Party politics is fresh, new and interesting,” another fundraiser told Politico. “And Kamala is the trifecta on that.”
I’m bullish on the idea that we’ll have another black president. But it’s not a given that the next one will be a Democrat.
That might seem like a wild assertion, particularly given the role that racial resentment played in Trump’s electoral victory. It’s no secret that the GOP continues to fail spectacularly at messaging to black voters. The party’s present approach to African Americans is best summed up by Trump’s mockingly unserious entreaty last year to vote Republican: “What the hell do you have to lose?”
Black voters have lent long-standing and overwhelming support to the Democratic Party. And most of the nation’s rising black political stars are Democrats: Harris, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) and former governor Deval Patrick (Mass.) – who is, reportedly, the preferred candidate of several prominent Obama administration alumni, including Valerie Jarrett .
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The conventional wisdom assumes that a black presidential candidate can succeed only in the more racially progressive of the two major parties – the Democrats – and with the widespread support of black voters. But this isn’t necessarily so.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) got personal July 13 when talking about his experiences with law enforcement, saying that he's been stopped by police seven times in one year. (Tim Scott)
An examination of gubernatorial and senatorial elections since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 shows that there have been comparable numbers of popularly elected black Republicans (eight) and popularly elected black Democrats (10). Though the two black governors were Democrats, the majority of the 10 black lieutenant governors have been Republicans, including the two currently holding office: Jenean Hampton of Kentucky and Boyd Rutherford of Maryland. In the Senate, there have been two black Republicans to four Democrats. At the statewide level, where gerrymandered districts aren’t a factor, a black Republican in a top office is no more anomalous than a black Democrat.
More significant to the prospects for a black GOP presidential nominee is the specific convergence of trends playing out across the country, particularly the intensifying hyper-partisanship. As the nation has sorted itself along party lines and antipathy has risen between the two sides , white Republicans who might harbor racial animus are willing to shelve that impulse to ensure that Democrats lose elections. “At a minimum, the level of ideological polarization in American politics masks racially prejudiced voting behavior, and at a maximum, it renders it inoperable,” according to a recent study on white conservatives in the GOP’s base from professors M.V. Hood of the University of Georgia and Seth McKee of Texas Tech. The pull of partisanship is so strong and has become so central to the identity of white Republicans that their views on race take a back seat when they enter the voting booth .
Hood and McKee also found that “white conservatives are either more supportive of minority Republicans or just as likely to vote for a minority as they are a white Republican,” and that “the base of the GOP does not discriminate against minority nominees in high-profile contemporary general elections.” This finding helps explain the relative surge in black Republicans in Congress since the tea party movement, including Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) and Reps. Mia Love (Utah), Will Hurd (Tex.) and Allen West (Fla.) – not to mention Indian American former governors Nikki Haley (S.C.) and Bobby Jindal (La.).
This phenomenon also can provide an advantage to black candidates in primaries and the general election. In Republican primaries, voters are overwhelmingly white and are becoming more conservative; they tend to choose the more conservative candidate. Understanding this, minority candidates often run to the right flank. It’s unsurprising, then, that Heritage Action for America, an advocacy organization associated with the conservative Heritage Foundation, scored Scott, Love and West as more conservative than the average House Republican. (Hurd, who represents a purple district that is majority Latino, necessarily tacks more to the center.)
Two related studies show that in South Carolina, “Nikki Haley and Tim Scott are more popular than their white Republican colleague Lindsey Graham,” and that “conservatives, evangelicals, and less-educated individuals respond more positively to Scott when he is described as a ‘Tea Party favorite’ ” than as the “first African American Senator from South Carolina since Reconstruction.”
Consider Ben Carson’s 2016 presidential campaign. Carson, an inexperienced politician, rode a strong evangelical message and critiques of the media – both of which play well with conservative audiences – to the top of the GOP presidential polls. He held steady there for a few weeks until terrorist attacks and national security concerns (not his strong suit) changed the tenor of the race in Trump’s favor. In other words, it’s not that racial animus doesn’t exist, it’s that the power of conservative identity can outweigh it.
The path to the presidency for GOP candidates requires winning a majority of white voters in the general election, not just the primaries. But every Republican presidential nominee since the Voting Rights Act has handily won white voters, except in 1968, 1992 and 1996 , when margins of victory were smaller because of somewhat competitive third-party candidates. In the current hyper-partisan atmosphere, if a black candidate can appeal to Republican voters, he or she can capture the same coalition that white Republicans use to win elections.
The Democratic Party, for its part, is well aware of its poor performance among white voters and has begun focusingits attention on them, specifically the white working class. Post-election analysis shows that it was these voters, shifting from the Democratic Party to Trump, who were ultimately responsible for Hillary Clinton’s undoing. Some progressives have expressed concern that the party’s attempts to win back white working-class voters will come at the expense of black voters, despite the fact that black voters are the most reliable part of the Democratic base. “With its obsessive focus on wooing voters who supported Donald Trump,” writes “Brown Is the New White” author Steve Phillips, the party is “neglecting the cornerstone of its coalition.”
The Democrats’ intramural debate was evident in the recent race for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship, when an ally of eventual winner Tom Perez said of Rep. Keith Ellison – who, as the first black congressman from Minnesota and the first Muslim elected to Congress, holds more progressive positions than many others in the party – “Is he really the guy we need right now when we are trying to get all of those disaffected white working-class people to rally around our message of economic equality?” This quote illustrates a desire to address oft-cited white economic anxiety by subordinating issues of race and religion. Now Democrats must determine whether their next electoral victory lies in recapturing the white working-class voters who used to be part of their base or doubling down on the demographics-is-destiny strategy, which prioritizes appeals to the growing segment of minority voters.
So while a black liberal is fighting upstream in a political climate of racial and ideological polarization, that same climate could work in favor of the black conservative candidate. And though black Democratic candidates often increase black voter turnout –see 2008 and 2012 — the rash of restrictive state voting laws has suppressed turnoutamong minority voters. Because a black Republican nominee doesn’t rely on black voters, the electoral factors that hurt black Democratic candidates don’t have nearly the same effect. In an irony befitting today’s bizarre political landscape, a black Republican nominee may benefit electorally from discriminatory voting laws.
This leads to yet another trend that could help: growing black dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party. Even the election of a black Democrat to the presidency wasn’t enough to compel the federal government to meet demands to address systemic racial disparities in a meaningful way. For all its loyalty to the party, the black electorate has not realized the policy gains that should accompany its voting power. Yet, black voters continue to support the Democratic Party for lack of viable options in the voting booth. This conundrum is called electoral capture, a concept that Princeton professor Paul Frymer describes as a bloc’s overwhelming support for one political party as a result of the opposing party having no interest in, or making no effort to win, the bloc’s votes. As a result, some black Americans have turned to other forms of political expression — black turnout was down seven percentage points from 2012 to 2016 — such as rallies and demonstrations, the Black Lives Matter movement, protest votes, and principled exits from the electoral process. Black Americans’ dissatisfaction hurt Democrats, not Republicans, on Election Day.
This is where black men put their finger on the scale. A black Republican nominee would peel away a small but significant portion of the black electorate, mostly men. Though black men largely hold liberal views, more of themthan black women buy into the conservative mantra of self-determination, small government and economic sufficiency as a remedy to racial discrimination. Also, my research, supported by similar findings, found that black men are much more likely than black women to vote for a black presidential nominee regardless of party or policy views. This suggests that a black Republican candidate can cut into the Democratic base to some extent in the absence of a black Democratic candidate. If Trump managed to get 13 percent of black men to vote for him (Mitt Romney drew 11 percent in 2012 against Obama), a black Republican candidate is certain to exceed that by some noticeable margin. And in a razor-thin election, black men voting along racial lines could help tip the outcome.
Taken together, the current landscape provides fertile soil for the idea of a black Republican in the White House. Of course, when it comes to the presidency and electoral politics, good conditions are hardly enough to win. There are simply too many other factors at play, from candidates’ likability to things they can’t control, such as the state of the economy.
And race still matters: White Republican primary contenders could try to employ coded racial appeals to denigrate competitive black candidates (or to denigrate white candidates – recall the George W. Bush team’s attacks on Sen. John McCain during the 2000 South Carolina primary). Further, being black and very conservative is insufficient (recall the Alan Keyes, Herman Cain and Carson campaigns). And there’s the reality that the Republican bench for viable black candidates is basically empty, except, perhaps, for Sen. Scott.
Still, if the notion of a black Republican presidency occurring before the next Democratic one seems doubtful, it’s becoming less so as our politics becomes more divided and stress fractures emerge in historic coalitions. Given the unpredictability and hyper-partisanship of the current political environment, the political winds now blowing could indeed fill the sails of a black Republican presidential nominee.
Johnson is a fellow at New America and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's School of Public Policy