democratic debates

The ‘Message’ of the Mostly White Debate to Voters of Color: This Is What You Wanted

Photo: Martina Albertazzi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Voters of color in the Democratic presidential primary have few illusions about the electorate to which they’re submitting a candidate. It is majority white. It elected President Trump with majorities of white voters across age, gender, and income in 2016. It generates outcomes, more often than not, based on the whims of a minority of fickle white voters living in a handful of mostly midwestern swing states, like Wisconsin and Ohio. As with most other Democrats, the majority of these voters of color claim electability is the key feature of their preferred candidate — and even when they design a prototypical candidate that doesn’t align with their polling preferences, generally concur that the 2020 primary’s white options are more electable than their nonwhite counterparts. Whether this calculus proves to be correct in the general election is yet to be seen. But so far, these considerations have produced a consensus that Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren are the party’s top three best bets to defeat Donald Trump next November.

With this in mind, Thursday’s lamentations about the lack of black or brown candidates on the Democratic primary debate stage seemed incongruous. After Cory Booker, Tulsi Gabbard, Julián Castro, and Deval Patrick failed to qualify for the Los Angeles event and Kamala Harris dropped out, moderators put it to Andrew Yang — the only nonwhite candidate who both qualified and showed up — to articulate what “message” he felt their absence sent to voters of color. Yang was predictably diplomatic. He said he missed Harris and expressed his belief that Booker would eventually fight his way back into contention, with all the “buck up, pal” energy of a dad reassuring his child that they’d hit that game-winning home run next time. (The “Cory will be back” line drew a round of applause that belied the New Jersey senator’s polling at around 1 percent.) Yang said it was “both an honor and a disappointment” that he’d made it when they had not. He further attributed their shortfall to a lack of disposable income among nonwhite donors — even though Booker, Harris, Castro, Gabbard, and Patrick had failed to amass substantial nonwhite support that wasn’t financial, and Booker and Harris in particular had each raised more money as of September than either Yang or Amy Klobuchar, both of whom qualified.

So despite the prevailing mood of regret, the “message” seemingly being sent to voters of color by the racial composition of Thursday’s debate stage was that it more or less mirrored their own stated preferences. There’s no evidence that the will of a sizable constituency is being overlooked to exclude black and brown candidates from the proceedings. Polling above 4 percent in four different DNC-approved polls is not an insurmountable task, particularly for someone who’s had the opportunity to make their case at several previous debates. Booker and Castro have sought to change the qualifying rules for the next debate nevertheless. Several of their fellow candidates have signed onto their request. The DNC doesn’t seem interested.

Nor is there an especially compelling argument for why it should be. There’s little doubt that most Democratic voters’ standard of electability is shaped by their knowledge of the general electorate’s biases, which leaves many nonwhite candidates at a deficit. And a primary calendar which grants outsized king-making influence to two of America’s whitest states, Iowa and New Hampshire, is not an ideal method for nominating a candidate who reflects the party’s diversity. Yet the impulse to cast Thursday’s outcome as undermining the primary process itself doesn’t hold water. The polling preferences of nonwhite voters alone would’ve given us a debate stage much like the one we saw on Thursday. Even in their hands, it’s a stage that looks uncannily like debate stages past, rather than what the unprecedentedly-diverse primary field seemed to predict. But it wasn’t exactly imposed on Democratic voters from the top down — save perhaps by the tyranny of electability fever and its implications for candidates competing in an electorate that just sent a white nationalist to the White House.

The rift between what polling suggests most voters of color say they want and the disappointment those gathered in Los Angeles performed when shown the results was no more apparent than in the audience’s response to Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator was decimated in the 2016 presidential primary by Hillary Clinton among black voters, and has since committed himself to building a more diverse coalition. Longstanding criticism that cast him as uniquely inept at marshaling nonwhite support seemed to burst forth when Thursday’s moderators asked him the same question they’d asked Yang. Sanders inquired whether he could first address a previous question about climate change. Moderator Amna Nawaz responded, “Senator, with all respect, this answer was about race. Can you answer the question as asked?” Cheers erupted from the audience, as though Nawaz had foiled an escape attempt. A flustered Sanders — who seemed intent on prolonging the moment’s awkwardness when he shouted, “I’m white, too!” after a subsequent question about him being the oldest candidate onstage — had to wait out the applause before making the point that communities of color would be among the hardest hit by climate change.

Sanders is the leading candidate among nonwhite Democratic primary voters, according to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. This doesn’t negate the shortcomings on race he can exhibit. He bafflingly insisted during Thursday’s debate, “The issue is where power resides in America, and it’s not white or black or male or female. We are living in a nation increasingly becoming an oligarchy, where you have millionaires buying elections and politicians” — a curious claim about a country where wealth is concentrated among white people. But if Democrats of color are capable of holding the duality of Sanders being their preferred candidate and an imperfect analyst of racism, it shouldn’t be a mystery to anyone else why the debate stage in Los Angeles looked like it did. Accepting its outcome as one that nonwhite voters actually supported might make Yang and others less obligated to lament the absence of rivals who’d otherwise hurt their chances of winning. For reasons fair, unfair, and not yet vindicated, his nonwhite counterparts have largely failed to convince. Better candidates have failed for worse reasons.

Democrats Asked for a Mostly White Debate Stage