vision 2020

Why Nobody Can Prevent the All-White Debate Stage

Castro drops out, Yang hangs in, but may not make the next debate stage. Photo: Getty Images

The next Democratic presidential candidate debate — and arguably the most crucial, since it is in Iowa not long before the caucuses — will be on January 14. So far just five candidates (Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren) have met the Democratic National Committee’s more stringent polling and fundraising criteria for participation. All of them are white. When for a while it looked like the December debate in Los Angeles would be a similarly homogeneous event (before Andrew Yang made the cut), there was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth and even some implicit suggestion of DNC racism (mostly linked to the traditional complaints about the very pale electorates of Iowa and New Hampshire having a disproportionate say in the nominating process).

Now any analysis of why nonwhite candidates were struggling to make debate stages has to begin with the fact that nonwhite Democratic voters overwhelmingly favor white candidates. Why this is the case is subject to debate: perhaps it’s about perceived electability, or about the perceived racism of general-election swing voters; perhaps it’s attributable to Joe Biden’s Obama connection or to Bernie Sanders’s strong appeal among younger voters across racial lines. Maybe this year’s crop of nonwhite candidates just wasn’t as strong as it appeared initially. A sense of disappointment definitely surrounded Kamala Harris’s once-promising bid, and suffused the perpetually struggling efforts of Julián Castro, who just left the race, and Cory Booker, who has been barely hanging on for months. It’s quite possible that by the time the next debate rolls around, there won’t be any black or Latino candidates still in the race, much less on the stage.

Yang remains the candidate most likely to (again) bust up an all-white debate stage; he has reached the required grassroots donor threshold (as has the poorly polling Cory Booker). But with eight days left before the January 10 cutoff, Yang is three qualifying polls short (or two in the unlikely event he could post over 7 percent in two early-state polls). He and other non-qualifiers are most definitely handicapped by a dearth of recent national and early-state polling data, mostly attributable to pollsters’ reluctance to pursue representative samples during the holidays. This led Yang on December 21 to ask the DNC to commission its own polls, as the Daily Beast reported:

Andrew Yang is urging the Democratic National Committee to take an unorthodox step in its debate oversight process: commission more polling over the next several days. 

In a letter sent to DNC Chairman Tom Perez on Dec. 21, obtained by The Daily Beast, the Democratic contender calls for the DNC to commission four early-state polls before Jan. 10 as part of an effort to encourage more diversity on the debate stage in Iowa. 

“With the upcoming holidays and meager number of polls currently out in the field, a diverse set of candidates might be absent from the stage in Des Moines for reasons out of anyone’s control,” Yang wrote. “This is a troubling prospect for our party. Regardless of the DNC’s best intentions, voters would cry foul and could even make unfounded claims of bias and prejudice.”

Once Yang’s request went public, the DNC quickly shot it down, per NBC News:

“The DNC has been more than inclusive throughout this entire process with an expansive list of qualifying polls, including 26 polls for the December debate, more than half of which were state polls,” Deputy Communications Director Adrienne Watson said in a statement. “The DNC will not sponsor its own debate qualifying polls of presidential candidates during a primary. This would break with the long-standing practice of both parties using independent polling for debate qualification, and it would be an inappropriate use of DNC resources that should be directed at beating Donald Trump.”

It is questionable whether an appropriate mix of DNC-sponsored polls was logistically possible in the first place in such a constricted time frame. But it is embarrassing to the DNC that the last qualifying polls from Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada were all conducted in November.

An alternative approach to opening up the debate stage was proposed earlier in December by Cory Booker (with a sign-on from all the December debate qualifiers) to return to the system used in the first debate last June, which let candidates qualify via either polling or grassroots donors, instead of requiring both. That approach would quickly lift Booker and Yang to the stage, but might have the collateral effect of including still more white candidates, as Riley Beggin noted at the time:

[A]lthough the letter focuses on the increase in diversity a rules change would bring about, such a change would also have the effect of opening the path to the debate stage to even more white candidates: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is polling high enough, while self-help guru Marianne Williamson may have enough donors to return to the stage.

The DNC, raising the specter of a return to split two-night debates, quickly rejected the idea of radically relaxing debate requirements.

The situation really creates a conundrum for the DNC and for Democrats generally, given the certainty media critics and, yes, a hypocritical Trump campaign will harp on any all-white debate stage in mostly white Iowa as though nonwhite candidates were never given a chance in this cycle. There is no system short of an actual quota that will guarantee the surviving nonwhite candidates a spot on the debate stage without blowing up the whole process for gradually winnowing nonviable candidates. And it’s obviously far too late to do anything about the prominent role this year of Iowa and New Hampshire, though party officials should most definitely emphasize the idea of the four early states together functioning as a unit to test and reduce the field. After all, Nevada and South Carolina were added to the protected “early state” category in the first place (prior to the 2008 nominating contest) to address concerns about the unrepresentative Iowa/New Hampshire duopoly. But nobody can do anything about the disproportionate impact of the first two states on the third and fourth, and subsequently, on the shape of the overall race.

Maybe Yang (or less plausibly, Booker or Gabbard) will somehow make the January stage and relieve his party of this particular burden. If not, Democrats must prepare to make the case that an all-white field of major candidates is no more objectionable now than it was in 2016, 2000, or 1992, particularly when the rival is Donald J. Trump.

Why Nobody Can Prevent the All-White Debate Stage