The first black vice president

To maintain President Obama's victory formula in 2016, Dems may have to shatter another racial barrier

Topics: Opening Shot, Barack Obama, Editor's Picks, Deval Patrick, 2016, Cory Booker, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden,

An article in Monday’s Washington Post argued that the second inauguration of the nation’s first black president will probably mark the last presidential swearing-in for an African-American for some time. The reason: Despite Barack Obama’s two national victories, the feeder system for future candidates remains largely devoid of blacks and other minorities.

Currently, there is just one black governor, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, and only one other – Doug Wilder in Virginia – has been elected since Reconstruction. A third, New York’s David Paterson, served an interim stint after Eliot Spitzer’s 2008 demise but declined to seek a full term. There is also just one black senator today, a Republican, Tim Scott of South Carolina.

The problem is a familiar one. Governorships and Senate seats are the most common stepping-stone offices for presidential campaigns, and U.S. House seats are the most common stepping-stone positions for statewide campaigns. But just about all of the House’s African-American members represent heavily Democratic districts with large minority populations. Thus do they tend to rack up voting records that place them far to the left of the overall statewide electorate, often prompting state party leaders to regard them as unelectable and to back other candidates for statewide openings. Obama’s improbable 2004 rise, aided by the implosion of two of his opponents and a mesmerizing national convention address, remains the exception to the rule.

But the 2012 election was something of a wake-up call for both parties. The GOP’s problem is well known; in a country where the nonwhite share of the electorate grows with every election – up to 28 percent last November – the party lost by crushing margins among every minority group. Conversely, Democrats’ success with this “coalition of the ascendant” comes with a challenge: to keep it going in future elections.

Particularly notable for Democrats was the level of African-American turnout. The black population, unlike the Asian and Hispanic populations, isn’t growing rapidly. But the level of black turnout has soared in the last two elections, and some of the data from the ’12 election was staggering. According to a post-election study from the Pew Research Center, blacks comprised 13 percent of the electorate, while accounting for only 12 percent of the overall population. In one key swing state, Ohio, the black share of the electorate surged from 11 percent in 2008 to 15 percent this past November.

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The Pew study attributed the overwhelming black turnout to two factors: a backlash against Republican efforts to make access to the polls more difficult, and the presence of a black candidate at the top of the ticket. 2012 marked the first time black voters participated at the same level as whites. Shortly after the election, Nate Cohn explained just how vital it is for Democrats to duplicate this level of energy among black voters in 2016, when Obama will be term-limited off the party’s ticket:

African American turnout could be more important to the outcome of the 2016 election than the ability of Republicans to rekindle their support among Latino voters. A 10 point shift among Latino voters toward the GOP is worth a net-1.5 million votes nationally—even if the Latino share of the electorate increases by another 2 percentage points. But between 3 and 4 million new black voters joined the electorate over the last two cycles, and they voted for Democrats in overwhelming numbers. 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.

Long-term, this ought to spur Democratic leaders to devise strategies to increase the presence of up-and-coming black politicians in the party’s national pipeline. But for the immediate future, it raises a question for ’16: Will the next Democratic ticket feature the first black candidate for vice president?

Right now, the clear favorite for the party’s presidential nomination is Hillary Clinton – if she wants to pursue it. If Clinton takes a pass, Joe Biden would probably be able to make a claim as his boss’s rightful heir – like Al Gore did in 2000 and George H.W. Bush did in 1988. Beyond Clinton and Biden, there’s only one black Democrat who might realistically be in the ‘16 mix, Patrick. If either Clinton or Biden runs, he’d be a real long shot, if he even wanted to run. And even if both Clinton and Biden passed, he’d still face an uphill climb. So the odds of a black candidate heading the next Democratic ticket are indeed slim.

But given the importance of African-American enthusiasm to the party’s new victory formula, Patrick would be a very logical and attractive V.P. option – for Clinton, for Biden, or for any candidate. His résumé is strong – two terms as governor of a large state – and he showed in Charlotte this summer a strong ability to connect with the party base.

And if not Patrick, there are a few other black Democrats who could warrant V.P. consideration next time around. Newark Mayor Cory Booker is already a national figure and will almost certainly win a Senate seat in New Jersey in 2014; a leap to the No. 2 slot on the national ticket two years after that wouldn’t necessarily be crazy. Anthony Brown, Maryland’s lieutenant governor, is set to run for that state’s top job in ’14. He’s been an unusually visible and active L.G., and his personal story – a long military career and a tour of duty in Iraq – is compelling. There’s also Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general. Jerry Brown, her state’s 74-year-old governor, has been on a roll lately and now seems likely to run for reelection in ’14; but if he doesn’t, Harris would be a credible candidate to succeed him.

So even though Democrats are very likely to nominate a white presidential candidate in 2016, they still might end up breaking a racial barrier. Their chances of winning might even depend on it.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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