Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of Jesse Jackson Sr.’s first bid for the presidency. Inspired by Mayor Harold Washington defeating the Democratic Machine in Chicago, Reverend Jackson decided that the time was ripe for a black president and that he, Jesse, was destined to be The Man. In the fall of 1983, he jumped into the Democratic primaries, invoking a “Rainbow Coalition of blacks, women, Hispanics and Native Americans” who would register & vote en masse, helping to oust President Reagan and other conservatives in the 1984 election.
Needless to say, this did not happen. In the Democratic primaries, Jesse’s Rainbow Coalition failed to coalesce: while he received overwhelming support from his fellow blacks, Jackson won less than 15% of the Hispanic vote and less than 10% of white voters. Then, in the fall, Jackson had to glumly watch as President Reagan was re-elected by running up a record-breaking 525 electoral votes — in no small part because numerous white voters were scared off by Jackson and Louis Farrakhan. With white voters outnumbering blacks by 10-1 margins in the 1980s, a “Black Power” strategy was hopelessly quixotic — something the Democrats learned the hard way. Even with a 100% black turnout and 100% Democratic support, Walter Mondale still would have lost the 1984 election.
While the new black voters registered in part by Jackson helped the Democrats re-take the Senate in 1986, Jackson also failed to win a spot on the Democratic ticket in 1988. And when the Democrats finally returned to the White House under Bill Clinton in the 1990s, Clinton helped his campaign immeasurably by publicly distancing himself from Jackson. He did this by criticizing rap singer (and Jackson ally) “Sister Souljah” for inflammatory comments and by embracing welfare reform.
While Jackson, who clearly identified with the biblical story of Moses, failed to lead his people to the Promised Land, a quarter century after his first presidential run, someone else did. Barack Obama capitalized on the financial collapse of 2008 and other Republican mistakes to win the presidency with a coalition of, well, “blacks, women, Hispanics and Native Americans.” Like Jackson, Obama was able to inspire a record black turnout. But unlike Jesse, he was also able to appeal to other minorities and numerous white voters.
Barack Obama was able to defeat first Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries and then Republican opponents in 2008 and 2012 due to his charisma and coalition-building ability. But the black base was the key, and it bears further examination.
In 2004, according to CNN exit polls, black voters were 11% of the total vote and voted roughly 90% for Democratic nominee John Kerry, who lost narrowly to President George W. Bush.
With a total of 122 million Americans voting for president, this meant that Kerry won roughly 12 million black votes to Bush’s 1.5 million.
Fast-forward to 2008, when Obama-mania had created massive excitement in the black community. Both network exit polls and Census Bureau studies indicate that black turnout equaled white turnout for the first time ever, with blacks accounting for a record high 13% of all voters. Over 16 million blacks voted in November of 2008, with virtually all of them going for Obama. (The networks’ “adjusted” exit poll gave Obama “only” 95% of the black vote, but both the Gallup Poll the day before the election and urban black precinct studies indicate that Obama won closer to 97-99%.
With a total of over 131 million Americans voting for president in 2008, this meant that Obama won roughly 16,000,000 black votes to John McCain’s roughly 250,000. This multi-million vote black margin put the Republicans in too steep a hole to dig out of. Obama lost the white vote, but still carried the national popular vote by 9.5 million due to his massive black bloc support.
Then in 2012, the same patterns repeated themselves. Mitt Romney won an even higher share among white voters, but Obama’s overwhelming margins among minorities kept him in office. The 10-1 ratio of white voters to black voters from 1980 is now a lot closer to 5-1, and that makes all the difference.