If there is anything approaching an iron law of American politics, it’s this: The next president will be a member of the same race as the current one. It’s a rule that has held through 42 of 43 transfers of power. And there’s every reason to think it will hold through the next one. The next president will, in all likelihood, be African-American, most likely one of the two African Americans who would make anybody’s list of the top 10 contenders for the Democratic nomination.
This is, obviously, the sort of statistical bullshit with which political and sports pundits amuse themselves all day on cable TV and talk radio. It’s equally true that 43 of 44 presidents have been white men.
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.
There are also a handful of strong white candidates, none without flaws. Hillary Clinton, assuming (and hoping) that her health issues subside, would face the same questions she did in 2008: How can she be the face of the future, not the past? Andrew Cuomo is at home with power, but personally and ideologically disliked within his party. Martin O’Malley has chosen to run to the left in general and toward, in particular, an African-American base he might find it hard to woo away from a strong black candidate.
There’s an ahistorical tendency in politics to argue that because something just happened, it’s not likely to happen again. In fact, politics is the sport of repetition and of copycats. (See also: train wrecks, House Republicans and.) Whatever just happened is about to happen again and again, as ambitious individuals see their opportunities, and as voters follow a familiar path of least resistance.
The way to get elected after a successful two-term presidency is to run as its continuation. It’s what George H.W. Bush did in 1988, and what Al Gore is widely viewed as having failed to do in 2000. Should Obama finish strong, the more similar in profile his would-be successor is, the better.
Obama might also end his second term weak and unpopular, giving the Republican ticket the advantage. There isn’t an obvious black Republican presidential candidate this cycle, though Condoleezza Rice has been acting like she’s interested in politics. But the Romney-Ryan debacle did probably guarantee one thing: That the Republican Party will never again present a ticket with two white men on it.