In 1972 Richard Nixon won 18 percent of the black vote, according to New York Times exit polling.
In 2008, John McCain won 4 percent of the black vote.
The conventional explanation for this has something to do with civil rights and Democrats and the “Southern strategy” followed by Republicans. And, to a large extent, the explanation is probably right.
But part of the reason African-Americans have been trending Democratic recently has as much to do with chance as with fundamental political shifts.
Democrats have had the good fortune of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The two most influential, recognized Democrats of the past two generations are incredibly popular amongst blacks. Bill Clinton was so well-regarded by African-Americans that Toni Morrison called him “the first black president”. Today Barack Obama is even more popular amongst blacks than Clinton (the fact that he actually is “the first black president” might have something to do with this).
Republicans haven’t had such luck. No Republican presidents have been relatively popular amongst blacks since Eisenhower’s time. And even he lost the black vote by a 3:2 margin.
Imagine if Republicans nominated Colin Powell in 1996. He might have cracked the black vote and won 25%; that was how well Michael Steele ran in his 2006 Senate campaign. Or he might have utterly broken the alliance between blacks and Democrats and taken more than 90% of the black vote.
That would have changed politics forever. But as luck would have it, the exact opposite happened. Barack Obama, not Colin Powell, was nominated by the Democrats and elected president. Today it looks like Democrats have locked up the black vote for another generation.