African-American Democratic Presidential Candidates Post-Obama

Patrick Obama

Ben Smith of buzzfeed posits an interesting theory about presidential primaries with the linkbait headline “Why The Next President Will Probably Be Black Too.”

But there are also strong reasons to believe that the Democratic nominee, at least, will be African-American. First, African-Americans represent a vital voting bloc in Democratic primaries, and they — like most ethnic groups — typically rally around the favorite son or daughter. Black voters represented an overwhelming 55 percent of the vote in South Carolina in 2008, and almost 20 percent in, for instance, Florida. And the liberal white Democrats who make up the primary electorate in places like Iowa obviously have no problem voting for a black candidate.

Indeed, as Obama showed, the two great tranches of the Democratic coalition are well-educated white voters and voters of color, of whom most primary voters are still black. (That has only become clearer as the Democrats shed, and win without, working class white voters.) The candidate who can unite those two constituencies is the one who wins the primary. Without a true white liberal champion, a la Howard Dean, an African-American primary candidate has a head-start in 2016.

Second, the strongest sub-rosa argument that backers of Hillary Clinton and John Edwards made against Barack Obama in 2008 is now moot: A black man, they claimed, simply wouldn’t be able to win in November. He has twice. Indeed, you could easily argue from recent precedent that a black man has a better shot than anyone of getting elected President of the United States in the current decade.

Third, and most important, two of the very strongest candidates for the job are black. There’s an establishment candidate, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, someone who might fill a cabinet post in the second Obama term and has the classic credentials of a Democratic nominee: He’s a Harvard-educated blue state executive and former prosecutor. And there’s the Obama-esque outside star, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, already a national figure with a national fundraising network, and on a cruise course to the Senate in 2014. Both are Obama allies (which won’t hurt either), and if there was any lesson they should have taken from his 2008 run, it is: Don’t wait. Booker, in particular, is perfectly positioned to unite those two key wings of the party, should he run from the Senate.

Smith used a slightly misleading image of Cory Booker and Michelle Obama to illustrate the piece. There isn’t much serious speculation about the first lady as a potential presidential candidate in 2016. Cory Booker is very likely to be elected to the Senate in 2014, although I’m not sure he can follow that with a presidential bid in 2016. One political disadvantage for Booker is that he’s single. A spouse is a strong asset for a presidential campaign, an effective surrogate for campaign events in crucial primary and swing states. Voters also trust candidates more if they’ve seen pictures of the family.


The more serious problem is the troubles a second-year senator would have running for statewide office. Booker currently has a media presence greater than many governors and senators, but it’s been a long time since we had a presidential candidate who had just been elected to statewide office. There have been a few first-term governors elected to the White House (Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson) as well as a few more who were nominated (IE- Governor Tom Dewey of New York in 1944), and even more who have been serious contenders (Ronald Reagan in 1968, Jerry Brown in 1976.) But it’s been a while since anyone who had been elected to statewide office in the preceding midterm has become a major candidate. Things have changed since then.

The current presidential primary system essentially requires years of national campaigning, so it’s difficult for a candidate to make a late entrance, which is required for anyone running for another office two years before the presidential election. There are some exceptions. Bill Clinton became a strong contender after a late entry in the 1992 presidential primary. Recent late entries such as Wesley Clark in 2004, Fred Thompson in 2008 and Rick Perry in 2012 faltered. But it shows that the right candidate could shake up the race. Cory Booker has the political talent to inspire hope among liberals disappointed with the field two years from now, and to remain a contender after the honeymoon period.

Interestingly enough, the guy who isn’t in the Buzzfeed photo, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, is likely an underrated presidential candidate for 2016. The two main arguments against him would be that he’s from the wrong state, and that the nation just had an African-American President, although Smith notes the “ahistorical tendency in politics to argue that because something just happened, it’s not likely to happen again.” After Nixon, Republicans didn’t wait long before nominating another Californian. After Papa Bush, the party didn’t wait long before before nominating another Texan named George Bush. Had Bobby Kennedy not been assassinated, or Ted Kennedy not left a girl to drown in a submerged car in Chappaquiddick, Democrats would probably have had multiple Catholic nominees for President.

Massachusetts politicians have won their party’s nominations, and then lost a few general elections in the last few political cycles, with Mike Dukakis in 1988, John Kerry in 2004 and Mitt Romney in 2012. So there is the perception of a potential backlash, with politicos attributing aspects of success in the state to shortcomings in national campaigns. But it could just be the benefits of serving in the biggest state neighboring New Hampshire during open presidential primaries. And that suggests Deval Patrick’s advantages in the primaries, especially if Hillary Clinton doesn’t run.

He might be the frontrunner in New Hampshire. A win there will energize African-American primary voters, just as Obama’s win in the Iowa primary (which neighbored the state he represented) made him the favorite with that group in 2008. It wouldn’t be the same as 2008, because he wouldn’t be running as a historic first. There would be more pushing for the first female president, as well as the first hispanic prez. But there would still be a few arguments about how it would help the country to have another African-American President.

Winning the primary wouldn’t automatically make Cory Booker or Deval Patrick the next President. It’s entirely possible that the 2016 Democratic presidential primary will be as consequential as the 2008 Republican presidential primary, determining nothing more than the general election loser.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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