There are few empirical studies focusing on the public's perceptions of hypothetical Black presidential candidates (Sigelman and Welch 1984), and none examining their viability: whether or not a Black candidate can win. (1) In part, this is due to the limited number of presidential contests in which there are Black candidates to consider, coupled with the belief that after the 1980s, Black presidential candidates have not received serious consideration in terms of primary support or campaign contributions. However, the current political climate presents both a new political reality for African Americans, as well as a new pool of experienced Black presidential prospects.
The current political situation in the United States is ripe for a Black presidential challenger. Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama is among the top contenders for the Democratic nomination, and there are a number of Black political figures being mentioned as future leaders in their parties, both Republican and Democrat, and male and female. The public reports an overwhelming willingness to vote for a Black candidate if nominated by their party (Bardes and Oldendick 2006), and at least among Democrats, there appears to be some broad acceptance of Black candidates. For instance, during the 2004 presidential campaign, a June 2003 Gallup Poll found the public supported activist Al Sharpton (who is Black) more than it did Wesley Clark (a White retired army general). Thus, based on current political signals, prospects for viable Black presidential candidates appear positive.
However, the perceived racial realities of Black Americans paint a different picture. There are discouraging reports about the deepening pessimism and alienation of African Americans (Bobo 2001; Cose 1993; Hochschild 1995). For example, Dawson's (1994) Black politics survey of 1993 found African Americans report high levels of cynicism and frustration with America. In the survey, 81 percent of Blacks believed that "American society owes Black people a better chance in life than we currently have." The study also reported that 50 percent of African Americans believed it was time to support a separate national political party. Studies by the Gallup Organization (2004) also support a pessimistic view. In 2004, African Americans reported less positive views of Black-White relations than Whites, they were more likely to believe that race relations will always be a problem, they were more pessimistic about job and housing opportunities and educational opportunities for their children relative to Whites, and they were more likely than Whites to believe discrimination and racial profiling exist.
The climate in America is both ripe for political success for Black candidates, and at the same time, African Americans feel their opportunities for fairness and equality are still limited by race. These competing realities call for a renewed attention to the political climate for Black presidential candidates. In this paper, the author questions how perceptions of viability are influenced by voter race, political party affiliation, localized context, and/or perceptions about race relations.
These questions are important because they help understand the prospects of current presidential candidates like Barack Obama. As a Black candidate, his perceived racial background will bring about expectations and stereotypes related to other Black political figures, including past candidates. During the primary season, the electorate tends to vote for candidates who have a strong chance of winning in November; thus candidates who are perceived as less viable start off at a disadvantage. Even more problematic are factors (e.g., race, sex, handicap status) that the candidate cannot control but that influence perceptions of viability in presidential primaries. In these cases, the candidate and his or her public relations staff must find ways to direct attention back to relevant candidate issue positions and objective qualifications. …