Whither the Black Vote in 2016?

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.

These numbers have definite implications for national politics. As long as the black turnout remains this high (and with Hispanic voters increasing on a yearly basis due to simple demographics), Republicans at the national level may face insurmountable odds.  Democratic vote margins of 16 million among blacks, 7 million among Hispanics, and 2 million among Asian/Pacific Islanders & Native Americans would put any GOP nominee 25 million votes behind.

Could the 2016 Republican ticket make up that 25 million vote deficit with older white voters? It would be extremely difficult, but theoretically possible. Mitt Romney carried the white vote by 59-40%. Raising his share of the white vote three points to 62% would have swung Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and New Hampshire into the GOP column, giving Romney the presidency with exactly 270 votes.

Has any Republican presidential candidate ever reached 62% of the white vote? Yes, exactly two men have: President Nixon won 67% in 1972 and President Reagan won 64% in 1984. So it can be done. However, these were incumbents who won the two greatest landslides in the history of the two-party system dating back to 1856 — 49 out of 50 states. For Republicans to count on consistently matching those two unprecedented performances is too risky.

The good news for Republicans is that they may have other options: one is to hope that racial voting eases in 2016 and that the black turnout is lower. That is an excellent possibility, unless the Democrats can come up with another candidate who matches Obama’s drawing power among blacks. Since Obama won over 4 million more black votes than Kerry, we can properly call this an “ethnic pride” vote that will be tough for any other Democrat to replicate in the future.  As Nate Cohn wrote in The New Republic:

If black turnout returns to 11 percent of the electorate and the next Democratic candidate only wins 90 percent of the black vote, there’s room for a shift of a net-4 million votes in the GOP’s direction. Whether those 4 million voters stay home or return to their Republican-lean from eight years ago could easily decide a close presidential election, especially in states like Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

An even better strategy for the Republican Party would be to find a candidate who can cut into the massive Democratic black base. Any defections among minorities would count twice: one out of the Democrat Party and one into the Republican Party.

As Jonathan Capehart reported in the Washington Post, a special pre-election poll by the NAACP showed that a Republican candidate who strongly supported civil rights would have increased the Republican vote in the black community from 3% to nearly 15%, thus helping win the election. And the same survey showed even greater gains for the Republicans if they put a black candidate on their ticket.

Who among 21st century Republicans might especially appeal to black voters?

Ever since General Colin Powell’s star turn in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, Republican Party Regulars have hoped that he would join a national ticket. But Mr. Powell resolutely refused to run for office and would be nearly 80 in 2016. (He also disappointed his fellow Republicans by endorsing Obama twice.). However, his successor as secretary of State, Condi Rice, has remained a strong Republican critic of Obama, giving a well-received speech at the 2012 GOP Convention. Might a Rice nomination for vice president offer the promise of big Republican gains?

Ms. Rice would be something of a gamble for Republicans: she’s never run for any office and is conspicuously moderate on social issues like abortion and gay rights.  However, if she boosted the Republican share of the black vote to 12-15% like the NAACP survey suggested, that would add two million more votes to the GOP, thus helping greatly to carry swing states like Florida and Ohio. Some social conservatives would oppose her. But if Condi Rice can deliver two million black votes to the GOP ticket, plus surely some moderate whites in urban areas, thus tipping the balance to the GOP, that would quiet the grumblings of most conservatives.

When the Protestant Henry of Navarre converted to Catholicism in order to become king of France, he famously declared that “Paris is well worth a Mass.”  Perhaps for Republicans in 2016, winning the White House might be well worth putting a moderate, pro-choice black woman on the ticket.