As the nation's first African-American president, Barack Obama benefited from and expanded his party's enormous advantage among minority voters.
But as he prepares to start his second term, Obama hasn't managed to usher in behind him many Democrats who are minorities to top elected office. Conversely, Republicans — despite their highly limited support among non-Anglo voters — have managed to elevate more top politicians from minority backgrounds.
"It's just an objective, empirical fact that more members of minority groups have done well winning in the Republican Party," says Artur Davis, a former Democratic congressman from Alabama who has switched allegiance to the GOP.
"The Republican Party has proven welcoming to minorities, and its voters will elect minorities as long as those minorities share their worldview, as long as those minorities are conservatives," Davis says.
Obama's success disproves the notion that minorities can't be elected as Democrats, and in terms of lower offices, far more minorities are elected as Democrats than Republicans. But when it comes to major statewide offices, Davis is right.
Minority Democrats face several obstacles, if only because they often represent congressional districts that are more liberal than their states as a whole. Many of them, in fact, hail from Southern states that are unlikely to elect Democrats of any color statewide these days.
For their part, Republicans are happy and eager to promote politicians of color who embrace the party's conservative agenda.
When Congress reconvenes next month, Democrats will make history by seating the first caucus in House history comprising more women and minorities than white men. The House GOP caucus will remain dominated by white males.
By contrast, the lineup of Democrats holding top statewide offices is thin — limited to Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, who is African-American, and Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who is Hispanic.
Republicans can boast of a number of minority officeholders whose first two names in news accounts seem to be "rising star," including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and incoming Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Once newly elected officials are sworn in, Republicans will have more female governors and more Hispanic U.S. senators than the Democrats. Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina will be the only African-American in the Senate — appointed by Nikki Haley, one of two Republican governors of Indian descent. (Louisiana's Bobby Jindal is the other.)
Minority politicians are likely to have "a smoother path" running for top offices as Republicans, says Robert C. Smith, author of several books about race and politics.
"The left highway is crowded, and the right highway's less so," he says.
Hobbled By Success?
The nature of the districts many minority Democrats represent handicaps them when they set their sights on statewide offices, says Lara Brown, a Villanova University political scientist.
"When you look at those minority-majority districts, this is why Democrats don't have statewide elected officials [from minority groups]," she says. "Their constituents and these districts are very liberal, and that makes it very hard for these individuals to moderate [their positions] to win their states."
Smith, who teaches political science at San Francisco State University, says this argument was more true 10 or 20 years ago than it is today.
He notes Democratic black politicians with aspirations for higher office — such as Davis, who ran as a Democrat for governor in 2010, and then-Rep. Harold Ford, who ran for Senate in Tennessee back in 2006 — self-consciously adopted moderate or even conservative positions to run statewide.
"Twenty years ago, black politicians had little ambition to seek office beyond being in Congress or being a big-city mayor," Smith says. "Now, they're positioning themselves as centrists so they can run for statewide office."
The Need For Crossover Appeal
Still, reaching the top rungs can be difficult for African-American politicians in particular — because the vast majority of those holding elected office are in the South.
Neither Davis nor Ford was able to win election, and other blacks nominated to statewide posts in the South have done even more poorly.
In addition to the region's conservative nature, in the Deep South, "in terms of statewide elections, there's high racial polarization," says David Bositis, an expert on black politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
Democratic politicians of color frequently are nominated to statewide office in the South, but they rarely win. In recent races in states such as Mississippi and Florida, black candidates have taken roughly 30 percent of the general election vote — about the same share as the minority populations there as a whole.
Following his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention this summer, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro was widely touted as a potential star. But despite prognostications that Texas may eventually turn "blue" in presidential voting, Castro has to include in his calculations the fact that Texas hasn't elected a Democrat to statewide office in nearly 20 years.
Things may be different for Cory Booker, the African-American mayor of Newark, who recently made clear his intentions to run for U.S. Senate. If he's nominated, he'll have a strong chance in the generally Democratic state of New Jersey, Smith says.
Minorities running in Northern states with relatively small minority populations "absolutely" need to have crossover appeal, says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials.
He notes that both Menendez, from New Jersey and former Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar (now Obama's interior secretary) carried states that are both about 15 percent Hispanic.
GOP's Welcome Mat
By contrast, Vargas notes, even successful minority Republican officials have mostly failed to carry majorities among their own ethnic communities. Rubio, the Florida senator, is a notable exception, having won 55 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2010 election.
Given the usual lack of support for Republican blacks and Hispanics within their own groups, there's a certain quality close to tokenism that prevails on the GOP side, Bositis suggests.
"The Republican Party has always tried to have a certain number," he says. "If they could find some black or Hispanic or Asian person to put out front, they were always happy to do it."
There's no question Republicans are eager to showcase minority politicians. Their national convention in Tampa, Fla., at times seemed to feature more black and brown faces on the podium than were otherwise in the hall.
Smith, the San Francisco State political scientist, says this is done from necessity. Giving prominent roles to minority politicians, he suggests, may not help the GOP make deep inroads into minority communities that find the party's platform hostile to them on issues such as voting rights and immigration.
"But it gives the party the image of being an inclusive, multiethnic party," Smith says. "White suburbanites would not be comfortable with a party that is not inclusive."
If an ambitious politician who happens to be African-American or Hispanic or Asian also happens to be conservative, the GOP is going to welcome that person with open arms.
"If you're an African-American or a Hispanic of conservative bent — and you will be, or you wouldn't be in the Republican Party — you're going to be in the mainstream of your party more often than not," says Whit Ayres, a GOP consultant.
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