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 Senator 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.”
It is not a farfetched idea that the US will 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 Republicans continue 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, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and former governor Deval Patrick (Massachusetts) — who is, reportedly, the preferred candidate of several prominent Obama administration alumni, including Valerie Jarrett.
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. 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 harbour racial animus are willing to shelve that impulse to ensure that Democrats lose elections.
“At a minimum, the level of ideological polarisation in American politics masks racially prejudiced voting behaviour, and at a maximum, it renders it inoperable,” according to a recent study on white conservatives in the Republicans’ base from professors MV 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 Senator Tim Scott (South Carolina) and Reps Mia Love (Utah), Will Hurd (Texas) and Allen West (Florida) — not to mention Indian American former governors Nikki Haley (South Carolina) and Bobby Jindal (Los Angeles).
Advantage to black candidates
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 organisation 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 centre)
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 favour. In other words, it’s not that racism doesn’t exist, it’s that the power of conservative identity can outweigh it. (Washington Post)