First, the debate criteria eliminate serious candidates (e.g., New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has yet to qualify for the December debate) and reward rich, non-serious candidates who can bump up poll numbers with massive ad buys (e.g., Tom Steyer, who qualified for this month’s debate later on Tuesday). If Democrats cannot come up with a methodology to include the former and exclude the latter, they should have a lower debate threshold or eliminate them entirely. Instead of incoherent events with candidates trying to create viral moments, a series of roundtables with candidates chosen randomly would be more useful before actual voting begins. Thereafter, the top five or six candidates can be invited to debate.
Second, the primary schedule is outrageously imbalanced for a party so reliant on nonwhite voters. Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s locks on the first two contests needs to end, or their importance diminished by adding more diverse states. Iowa and Ohio could be paired, for example, as could New Hampshire and New Jersey. Allowing candidates to gain momentum and eliminate other contenders without ever attracting significant nonwhite support shows a stunning lack of concern for the Democrats’ most important voters. It risks producing a nominee who cannot inspire and turn out the demographic essential for a Democratic victory.
None of this is to say that, with different states in the mix or a different debate set-up, nonwhite candidates would still be in the race. However, as things are currently structured, the party is eliminating candidates that its most loyal voters might have seriously considered while perpetuating candidates who do not have to appeal to those same voters.
No one should expect the remaining candidates to go after Iowa and New Hampshire’s prime positioning just weeks before voting starts. However, the party itself should pledge to revisit the entire nominating process — including the order of primary states. All the candidates on the stage later this month should be pressed as to whether the current system should be perpetuated simply because that is the way it has always been done.
The problem goes beyond the party rules, certainly. The media’s fascination with white, male, working-class voters, the Democrats’ own perceptions of who is “risky” and who is not, and the money advantage some candidates enjoy (because they are self-funded billionaires or because they can move money from previous campaigns to the current race) all play a part. This does not, however, excuse the party from addressing factors that are within its control.
Given that the Democratic nominee will almost certainly be white, we might expect a nonwhite vice presidential pick. Indeed, the days of Democrats running two white males may be over. However, the vice presidency is not a consolation prize. A party dedicated to rooting out racism needs to start with some introspection and recognition that the system as presently structured is neither fair nor helpful in selecting the nominee best situated to win.