As recently as Thursday morning, CNN — one of the networks carrying the debate broadcast — was reporting that the debate narrowly missed being “all white.” In recent weeks, many have decried this eventuality, including 2020 hopefuls Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) and former HUD secretary Julián Castro. Booker organized several candidates to write to the Democratic National Committee requesting a change in qualification criteria that would “produce a debate stage that better reflects our party and our country.” The DNC, led by its first Latino chair Tom Perez, rejected the appeal, citing a “fair and transparent process” that produced the debate lineup.
But arguing that the diverse Democratic coalition won’t be represented isn’t quite right. This week’s debate is a reminder that electoral politics often don’t accord to our preconceived notions about group preferences. Moreover, as the candidates chastise each for spouting “Republican talking points” and reporters note the gendered differences in how going on the attack has, at times, hurt Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) while helping South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the focus on the demographic makeup of the debate stage feeds Republicans’ (and some Democratic critics’) mantra that “identity politics” is undermining Democrats’ chances next fall.
At present, though, the six white and one Asian American candidates on the debate stage Thursday night represent what Democrats, including Democrats of color, want. In fact, as New York magazine’s Eric Levitz points out, the reason the primary front-runners are white is because they’re the ones nonwhite voters currently support. In the latest Economist-YouGov poll, former vice president Joe Biden and Sens. Warren and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are the top three contenders overall and, combined, the first choices of 75 percent of black voters and 65 percent of Latino voters (among them, Biden dominates with voters of color).
By comparison, Buttigieg — who is among the top four contenders overall and had no problem qualifying for the debate — still trails the top three nationally, in part because of his lower support among black and Latino voters, 0 and 5 percent, respectively, in the same poll (a showing with voters of color that’s closer to Booker and Castro territory). So, the idea that the desires of nonwhite voters are excluded simply because they are not descriptively represented onstage discounts their expressed preferences.
Certainly, descriptive representation matters. The historic nature of Barack Obama’s presidency and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 nomination are proof that underrepresented groups take particular pride in candidates with shared lived experiences. But those appeals alone have never been enough to attract those groups’ support. The myth that nonwhite voters automatically lend support to presidential candidates in their same racial and ethnic group is one that Booker, Castro, Yang, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) (who recently suspended her campaign), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) and former two-term Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick (a late entry into the race) can all confirm to be untrue.
More important to these groups is nominating a candidate who has the best opportunity to win the White House. As it turns out, political efficacy — the belief in one’s ability to effect change — among partisan voters is higher when their nominee wins than it is when simply supporting a candidate that looks like them. With the vast majority of nonwhite Americans thinking President Trump has made life worse for them, Democratic voters of color are especially keen on supporting a candidate who can beat him. Evidently, in their present estimation, an older white nominee provides the best chance.
This realization can feel at odds with our conceptions of which candidate is best situated to the pull together the Obama coalition. There’s long been a sense that reconstituting the group of nonwhite voters, younger voters and female voters that twice-elected Obama would require someone who is young, female, a person of color or someone who embodies more than one of those attributes. Indeed, in the last debate, Harris — who checks several of those boxes — made this point explicit, saying Democrats need to “rebuild the Obama coalition” because “that’s the last time we won.”
It’s the two oldest white men in the field, Biden and Sanders, who’ve assembled the multiracial coalitions that most resemble what Obama accomplished. Much of this is a result of those candidates’ high name recognition and the perception that their appeal to working-class white voters is key to success on Election Day. This may seem out of step with the general sense that the last three presidential election cycles signaled a changing of the guard in the Democratic Party (and a corresponding whitening of the Republican Party), but it’s these two candidates, along with Warren, who are leading with its voters across lines of age, sex, race, ethnicity, income and education.
It’s true that in the past debates it was often the nonwhite candidates who raised issues of racial inequality and challenged the field to point out how they’d address them: Booker brought up voter suppression, Harris famously chided Biden for his stance on busing and Castro went after Biden over how the Obama administration handled immigration. Without these candidates on Thursday’s debate stage, it remains to be seen which presidential hopeful, if any, will highlight issues of specific import to nonwhite Democrats. As Patrick told Politico’s Laura Barrón-López, “The question is whether the issues of concern to black people [and] to brown people get raised without black and brown people on this stage.”
Of course, it won’t be good if these policy concerns get short shrift in this debate or subsequent debates, but it’s worth remembering that the top two issues for nonwhite voters are the economy and health care. Not only are these issues that all voters care about, they directly impact racial disparities that reduce economic mobility, worsen health outcomes and diminish quality of life for voters of color.
But for now, Yang and the six white candidates onstage will need to convince an increasingly nonwhite Democratic electorate that while the stage may not reflect the party, their support is not misplaced.