Before Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected president of the United States in 2008, other African Americans attempted that feat. One of them was the Reverend Al Sharpton, who in 2004, declared himself a candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Though he finished far behind John Kerry, the eventual Democratic presidential nominee, and John Edwards, the eventual Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sharpton was a lively contender.
Sharpton was one of the prominent black leaders of his time. During the 1980s, his activism in New York City brought him national prominence, with several controversial incidents bringing notoriety. Though he lacked political experience, Sharpton was not exactly a political novice. He had previously run for the U.S. Senate in 1992 and 1994 and for the mayor of New York City in 1997. Furthermore, he was a leading civil rights activist and the founder of the National Action Network (NAN), an organization he started in 1991 to continue the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to fight for social justice for all Americans.1
After announcing his candidacy on January 21, 2003, Sharpton trailed six other candidates with about 4 percent support among Democratic respondents. While he knew he was a longshot for the nomination, he believed that President George W. Bush could be defeated if Democrats would boldly run on strong principles. Unfortunately, he believed, Democrats often ran from their core party ideas as he thought they did in the 1990s under the “New Democrat” leadership of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and the Democratic Leadership Council. In an appearance on CNN’s Crossfire, days after he announced his candidacy, Sharpton asserted that on a range of issues, “The whole new Democratic Party is the old Republican Party.” While he did not name names on this occasion, he declared, “I do believe that the party has a bunch of elephants running around in donkey clothes.” 2
Sharpton saw his main role in the race as an energizer for the Democratic Party, or as he put it, “to slap the donkey” into action. In particular, he wanted to raise issues of concern to minorities and urban centers that he did not think would be raised by the other candidates. In his 2013 book, The Rejected Stone, he wrote, “When I ran for president, I put affirmative action, police misconduct, and racial profiling on the national agenda. These issues never would have been discussed during the campaign, wouldn’t have had the chance to become more mainstream, if I hadn’t been at the table.” Sharpton’s candidacy was about issues, not winning. “I never ran to win.”3
Of the Democratic candidates, Sharpton had the highest negative pollings. By the end of 2003, according to the Gallup Organization, 49 percent of Americans had a negative view of him; only 16 percent had a positive view. He never cracked double-digit support in national Gallup surveys, and hit his best was 7 percent.4
For Sharpton, the voting season began in the January 13th District of Columbia primary. It was a chance for him to demonstrate his level of popular support among black and urban voters. In this event, Sharpton finished with 34.43 percent of the vote, a strong second behind Howard Dean. However, because Democratic Party rules designated the Iowa Caucus as the “first-in-the-nation” caucus and the New Hampshire Primary as the “first-in-the-nation” primary, the vote in D.C. was non-binding; there were no delegates at stake.5 Because of this, some of the other candidates, including Kerry and Edwards, skipped the primary.
The limits of Sharpton’s candidacy became evident in the days ahead as the voting began in Iowa on January 19 and New Hampshire on January 27. He had virtually no discernible support in either state. In the February 3 primaries and caucuses, Sharpton performed the best in the South Carolina primary. There, he finished in third place with 9.65 percent. His next best showing was in the Delaware primary where he won 5.65 percent. He had 3.42 percent of the vote in the Missouri primary and 1.30 percent in the Oklahoma primary. A week later in the February 10 primaries of Tennessee and Virginia, Sharpton earned only 1.65 and 3.25 percent respectively.
On Super Tuesday, March 2, ten states held primaries and caucuses. Kerry swept almost all of them and the 2004 contest was essentially over. Sharpton ran strongest in his home state of New York with 8.03 percent. He came in third behind Kerry and Edwards in Georgia with 6.24 percent. He also finished in third in Maryland with 4.53. In the remaining states, Sharpton obtained little support, receiving less than 3 percent in each contest where he was on the ballot.
At the outset of his campaign for president, Sharpton pledged, “I’m not running an African-American campaign.” Still, he clearly ran strongest among black voters. For example, in the New York primary, he won 34 percent of the black vote, second only to Kerry’s 54 percent. He had a mere 1 percent among New York’s white voters. Sharpton effectively ended his campaign on March 15, 2004 and endorsed Kerry.6
At the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts, Sharpton challenged President Bush’s effort to gain African American votes. A few days before, Bush had spoken at the National Urban League Conference in Detroit, Michigan where Sharpton was in attendance.7 Bush welcomed him and acknowledged his presidential bid: “I appreciate you putting your hat in the ring.” In his closing remarks, Bush made a case for his administration’s policies and the Republican Party. At one point, he said, “I believe in my heart that the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, is not complete without the perspective and support and contribution of African Americans.”
Sharpton explained at the Boston Convention that what Bush did not understand was that the Republican Party had failed to deliver their promises to African Americans.8 “We never got the 40 acres. We went all the way to Herbert Hoover, and we never got the 40 acres. We didn’t get the mule. So we decided we’d ride this donkey as far as it would take us.” However, he claimed, the Democratic Party delivered. “It was those that earned our vote that got our vote. We got the Civil Rights Act under a Democrat. We got the Voting Rights Act under a Democrat. We got the right to organize under Democrats.”
1Lydia Saad, “‘Black Spokesman’ Title Still Up for Grabs,” Gallup Poll News Service, July 14, 2008; James W. Ceaser and Andrew E. Busch, Red Over Blue: The 2004 Elections and American Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005), 87; Al Sharpton, Go and Tell Pharaoh: The Autobiography of the Reverend Al Sharpton (New York: Doubleday, 1996).
3Sharpton, The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path to American Leadership (Cash Money Content, 2013), 126.
4Frank Newport, “AIDS, Al Sharpton, Prescription Drugs, Ethics, Honesty, and Business,” Gallup Poll News Service, December 2, 2003; Jeffery M. Jones, “Lieberman Continues to Pace Democratic Field,” Gallup Poll News Service, June 25, 2003.
7George W. Bush, “Remarks to the National Urban League Conference in Detroit, Michigan,” July 23, 2004, online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=72700.