Despite the media's fascination with Obama's lead in most nationwide polls, presidential elections ultimately turn on the results of state-to-state contests. And historically, very few blacks have won statewide elections. For example, only two blacks, Deval Patrick and Douglas Wilder, have won gubernatorial elections. In 1990, Wilder became the first elected black governor when he won the Virginia gubernatorial contest by only .5% of the vote. Two years ago, Patrick won in blue-state Massachusetts -- a year when Democrats regained control of both the Senate and the House. P.B.S. Pinchback and Douglas Patterson served as lieutenant governors, before replacing incumbents. Pinchback served as governor during Reconstruction, and Patterson became governor of New York this year.
Results of U.S. Senate elections also demonstrate the thin record of blacks winning statewide elections. Although five blacks have served in the Senate, only three earned their seats through statewide elections. In 1966, Ed Brooke won the U.S. Senate contest in Massachusetts, making him the first black person elected to the Senate. Carol Mosely Braun of Illinois won the senate election in 1992, making her the first and only black woman to serve in the Senate. Barack Obama won the Illinois race in 2006 during the Democratic midterm elections sweep. Two other blacks, Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce, served as senators during Reconstruction. Both, however, were chosen by the Republican-dominated Mississippi legislature for that role.
With respect to presidential elections, Jesse Jackson was the most famous and successful black candidate prior to Obama. Jackson ran in 1984 and 1988. Jackson finished second behind nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988, and he won 11 primaries along the way. Shirley Chisolm and Carol Mosley Braun also launched unsuccessful campaigns in 1972 and 2004, respectively.
Against this historical backdrop, Obama's candidacy emerged. Although the country has certainly made progress in terms of race relations, race continues to influence voter attitudes. Despite the poor historical record of blacks in statewide election politics, when the Democratic primaries first began, many Obama supporters rejected as utterly cynical the assertion that race would hinder his electability. Ironically, many of those same individuals have invoked racism to rebut critiques of Obama by Hillary Clinton and John McCain and have offered racism (rather than class, gender or other factors) as the only reason why he lost several election contests to Clinton.
The intense scrutiny of race and politics during the year's election cycle leaves the impression that race has never mattered in presidential politics until this year or that it only impacts candidates who are not white. But to assume that race has not impacted presidential elections until 2008 would grossly distort the history of U.S. politics. Race has substantially affected prior elections and has, naturally, impacted white candidates. Distinguishing racism against a particular candidate from the issue of race relations helps illuminate this point.
During Reconstruction, the presence of federal troops in southern states allowed blacks to exercise their political rights. At the time, virtually all black votes went to Republican candidates, and blacks who won elections were all members of the Republican Party. The Democratic Party, by contrast, had a monopoly on the white southern vote.
As the southern states were "redeemed" and re-admitted to the Union, Democrats slowly regained more and more power in southern governments. In 1876, the presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden was closely divided. Tilden won the popular vote by a 51-48 margin, but the electoral college was in dispute due to a controversy over how to allocate votes from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. The elections in those states involved a large degree of violence against black voters and whites who supported Republicans. Previously, President Grant had responded to election-day violence by dispatching federal troops to polling places, but that year, his advisers convinced him to refrain from doing so, believing that this would harm the electoral performance of Republican candidates. Just a few years after the Civil War, the public had grown intolerant of federal efforts to quell southern racial violence. The "Compromise of 1877" gave the election to Hayes, on the promise that he, as president, would remove troops from the South. Although Hayes eventually won the election, race contributed to his popular vote loss, but his concession on race and Reconstruction ultimately gave him the victory. When Hayes assumed office, he withdrew the remaining troops from the South. After the demise of Reconstruction, blacks would not vote in significant numbers in the South until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1968.
The New Deal Coalition and Race
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's political dominance from 1933-1945 relied on a coalition of southern white Democrats, blacks and other people of color, liberals, urbanites, labor, and religious minorities. The "New Deal Coalition" secured victory for the Democrats in seven of nine presidential elections from 1932 to 1964. Roosevelt gained support of nearly 80% of blacks, who abandoned the Republican party due to Roosevelt's liberal economic policies, which drew mass appeal following Republican Herbert Hoover's presidency and the Great Depression. Roosevelt's scattered embrace of civil rights would keep blacks within the Democratic Party -- and blacks' growing political leverage helped to secure those sporadic gains.
Race, the Great Society, and Southern Political Realignment
After a century of Democratic dominance in the South, a dramatic realignment took place after 1964. When Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he accurately predicted that the Democrats would lose the South for a generation. Johnson probably did more in terms of promoting and endorsing civil rights than any other president in U.S. history -- although Kennedy tends to receive more praise and attention from liberal elites. Johnson's efforts shattered the New Deal coalition and ushered in decades of Republican dominance in presidential politics.
Johnson's programs solidified black support for the Democrats, but they also caused "white flight" from the party. Beginning in 1968, a white backlash from the Great Society programs caused a southern political realignment, which has cost the Democrats a string of presidential elections. The Deep South effectively turned red.
If Obama wins in November, this would mark a reversal of fortune for the Democrats, but it remains unclear whether his victory would usher in a new "liberal" trend in U.S. politics or whether it would only represent a momentary change. Although Obama's charisma, intellect, and excellent communications skills have helped him tremendously, the poor performance and disfavor of President Bush, the terrible state of the economy, the ineffective campaign of John McCain, public distrust of Sarah Palin, and a very Obama-friendly media have all combined to make victory a strong possibility for the Democrats. Obama's policy proposals do not rank as more liberal than Gore's or Kerry's. Thus, Obama's success does not seem to result from a fundamental shift in the nation's overall political ideology (for a more pointed discussion of this issue, see this link).