President Obama’s historic election in 2008 and his reelection last year proved decisively that race is no longer an insurmountable hurdle to high political office in the United States.
But the current pool of possible candidates suggests that the next black president will not be taking the oath of office anytime soon.
“In the shadow of Barack Obama, there’s not been a lot of growth,” Cornell Belcher, a pollster who was involved in the president’s 2008 campaign, said. “It is really hard for minorities to get elected at the statewide level, and before you start talking about president, frankly, you have to get elected to statewide office.”
The notion of a post-Obama reformation of black politics has not been borne out at the ballot box, as black politicians continue to struggle to win the statewide offices that are the traditional paths to the presidency.
While the election of the first black president marked a significant break from the country’s history of racial prejudice, race still matters: The vast majority of black elected officials are put into office by black voters. Even Obama needed large numbers of black and Latino votes to win, particularly last year, when a majority of whites voters voted for someone else.
Ashley Bell, a former county official in Georgia who switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party with an eye on a future run for statewide office, said that Obama “did convince a lot of young black politicians that they can aspire to crossover offices. We may not live in a post-racial America, but I think we do live in a new era of politics where, on either side of the aisle, everyone knows that a good political candidate is one with crossover appeal, be they white or black or Latino.”
While the country’s changing demographics will favor political leaders of color in the future, the current landscape remains challenging for minority candidates seeking statewide office, particularly governorships and U.S. Senate seats, the typical steppingstones to presidential bids.
Deval L. Patrick (D-Mass.) currently is the nation’s only black governor, and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) is the only black member of the Senate, having recently been appointed to fill a vacancy.
Patrick, 56, is often mentioned as a potential presidential candidate, but he has said he has no plans to run in 2016. No other black politicians’ names have come up on the short list of credible contenders for the next national election.
On the GOP side of the aisle, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has been mentioned as a possible candidate but has steadfastly denied any interest. Colin Powell, who preceded Rice as President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, was once a favored GOP prospect, but he also declined to run.
Most recently, Herman Cain, a black Georgia businessman, was briefly a hit among Republican grass-roots activists in the run-up to the primaries, but he dropped his candidacy after a woman revealed a longtime extramarital affair and other women accused him of sexual harassment.
Obama’s political trajectory was extraordinary for any political figure. He rocketed to the top tier of national politics after a stirring speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where he used his personal story and oratorical skills to call for uniting a country long divided by race and partisan politics. His election that year to the Senate was helped by the implosion of his strongest opponents in the primary and general elections.
Obama was the third African American to be elected to the Senate since Reconstruction when he won the seat from Illinois seat in 2004; Patrick is only the second black governor elected since that period.
Black politicians seeking to build cross-racial coalitions must make sure they don’t alienate black voters with their appeals to white and others. Former Washington mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), whose name was often included in the list of black political leaders who, like Obama, crossed the old lines of racial politics, lost his bid for a second term after African American voters deemed him more concerned with pleasing the city’s growing white professional class.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D), whose name is still on the A-list of nouveau black pols, struggled to overcome the skepticism of African American voters in his first, unsuccessful mayoral campaign.
Booker, a Rhodes Scholar who grew up in Harrington Park, N.J., an upscale suburb of Newark, lost in 2002 to longtime former mayor Sharpe James (D), who said Booker was “not black enough.”
The 43-year-old Booker, now in his second term as mayor, filed papers this month to form a campaign committee for a Senate run in 2014. He also is mentioned as a potential future presidential candidate. Booker’s office did not make him available for an interview.