black presidential candidates
What do we learn if we examine the history of Black presidential candidates? By my count, we’ve had three serious Black GOP candidates and maybe four serious Black Democratic party candidates. Among the Republicans, we have Ben Carson (2016), Herman Cain (2012), and Alan Keyes (1996, 2000, 2008). On the Democratic side, Barack Obama (2008, 2012), Carol Mosley Braun (2000), Jesse Jackson (1988), and Shirley Chisholm (1972). By “serious,” I mean actually had their names on the ballot in at least one state. I toss in Herman Cain, who suspended his campaign before the Iowa caucus, because he attracted serious attention in polls.
The first thing to observe is that serious Black presidential candidates are incredibly serious people. We have multiple Harvard graduates, a world famous brain surgeon, a US ambassador, a major social movement leader, and a fairly successful business executive. This probably reflects a selection effect. Since running for president is extremely expensive, Black candidates probably need to pass a higher bar than majority candidates.
The second thing you notice is that the GOP and Democratic Black candidates differ wildly in their relationship to the American political system. GOP Black candidates have almost no experience in electoral politics and Alan Keys had only one electoral victory in his career, the 1992 GOP senate primary in Maryland. He has never held elected office in his career. In contrast, aside from the presidential elections, Democratic candidates have scored two senate wins, multiple state legislature wins, and multiple House wins.
The third thing you notice is that the GOP has never thrown its support behind its Black candidates to the same degree as the Democrats. No Black GOP candidate has a won a state and Alan Keyes peaked at about 5% in the 2000 GOP primary. In contrast, the Democrats have often supported Black candidates. Obviously, Obama won the 2008 nomination by taking 29 states. Jesse Jackson won nine states and a few additional contests. Chisholm did not win states outright, she did receive majority votes from a number of state delegations at the nominating convention and in a non-binding vote, won New Jersey. Carol Mosley Braun is the only “serious” candidate who did not receive much support, even polling fourth in the DC primary of 2000 and then dropping out quickly.
I draw two conclusions from this history. Although political scientists have described African Americans as a “captured” constituency within the Democratic party, they are also still very influential. Candidates can emerge from that constituency and they can compete. In contrast, Blacks are a very small portion of the GOP and seem disconnected from the routine work of the political party. The second conclusion is that the disconnect between minority voters and the mainstream of the GOP is not rigid. Latinos are a small faction of the GOP and yet they’ve managed to field to two serious candidates in this cycle. It shows, in my view, that while the GOP is currently the nativist party, their is some variation in how that plays out.