A year after candidates of color flourished in Democratic primaries around the country during the midterm elections, the three leading candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination are all white, while Asian American, Black and Latino candidates are trapped in single digits in public polling.
Heading into the fourth presidential debate in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday evening, three of the leading candidates of color find their campaigns in varying degrees of peril. Former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro has suggested he may drop out of the race if he fails to qualify for the fifth debate in Georgia next month. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) just threatened to quit the contest unless he raised $1.7 million in 10 days. (He succeeded.) And Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who briefly ascended to the race’s top tier during the summer, is rejiggering her campaign with a focus on Iowa and a reworked stump speech.
In 2018, the picture was much different, with Democratic voters across the country eager to cast history-making ballots. Black candidates won gubernatorial primaries in Florida, Georgia and Maryland, and Arizona Democrats nominated a Latino. Democrats elected the first two Native American women to Congress, the first two Muslim women, the first Latina to ever represent Texas, and sent Rep. Lauren Underwood, an African American, to Congress from a district that is 86% white. Overall, 216 candidates for House, Senate or governor were people of color in 2018, which included a 42% spike in the number of women of color running for those major offices. (The field for down-ballot contests in 2020 is still developing, but candidates of color could make similar gains this cycle.)
Interviews with voters, campaigns, candidates and operatives nationally and in the early primary states indicate there is no single cause for the struggles of the candidates of color. Many of the factors keeping them behind the three leading candidates in polling also affect white candidates who have failed to break into the race’s top tier. But the race’s focus on electability, the structure of the early nominating contests and differences in how the media treat candidates of color compared with white candidates are making things even more difficult.
The Electability Conversation
Democratic voters, in poll after poll and conversation after conversation, have indicated their priority when selecting a nominee in 2020 is someone who can beat Donald Trump. There’s plenty of reasons to think voters and pundits are bad at evaluating which candidates stand the best chance of defeating Trump, but that isn’t stopping the conversation.
“The conversation has been ‘Hmm, I don’t know if America is ready to elect a Black woman president of the United States,’” Harris told a crowd of about 50 at a block party in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday. “It’s been a conversation, ’Oh, I can see it, but I don’t know if my neighbors are ready. Maybe it’s not her turn, maybe it’s not her time, maybe it might be too hard. We got to play it safe. … Maybe we can’t take that bet.’”
The riff is a new one for Harris ― she also mentions her undefeated record in elections and her work to persuade an Iowa caucus-goer about Barack Obama’s electability in 2008 ― and it shows how she still needs to convince a broad swath of the electorate that she can win.
Booker, similarly, has argued that turning out younger and African American voters is as important as winning over the much-ballyhooed white working class when it comes to defeating Trump.
Not everyone is convinced electability is what’s holding back Booker, Harris and Castro. Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, which works to turn out Black voters, said Obama’s wins in 2008 and 2012 had largely quieted concerns about whether race was a barrier to winning the country. And Warren, who faced more concerns than any other candidate about her ability to beat Trump in the first half of the year, has managed to persuade voters.
But Ross Wilburn, an Iowa state representative who has endorsed Harris, said the constant barrage of news from Trump’s White House and the president’s willingness to engage in out-and-out racist rhetoric have made voters more cautious.
“Because of what President Trump is doing, and the hate he spews, and the chaos that he’s creating to divert our attention from illegal acts, people get cautious,” he said after Harris’ block party. “They want to go with the familiar. Part of her message is: ‘We can believe. We’ve believed before.’”
The campaigns have also occasionally found themselves trapped in unfriendly media dynamics and dealing with a political press corps that still has a long way to go on the diversity front. Several operatives pointed to Castro’s showdown with former Vice President Joe Biden at the most recent debate. The first person voters heard from after the debate ended? It was former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who served with Biden in the Obama administration and criticized Castro for challenging Biden.
The post-debate pundits “overwhelmingly tend to be older, white and more moderate or conservative voices, which is absolutely crazy in a primary with this many diverse candidates, where the diversity of our base is going to be what propels us to victory,” said one operative working for a candidate of color, who requested anonymity to freely critique media coverage of the race.
Indeed, a post-debate Univision poll found that 64% of Latino voters thought Castro’s attack on Biden was fair.
All the candidates of color have also faced another trap: They’re expected to be both representatives of their race on the national stage while also appealing to the broader electorate. No small amount of coverage of businessman Andrew Yang’s campaign has focused on how Asian American voters are reacting to his candidacy. Coverage of Castro has focused on his bold immigration policy. But if his campaign had released a more by-the-numbers plan, the media likely would’ve zeroed in on that and questioned why he wasn’t more aggressive. Similarly, much of the coverage of Harris and Booker has focused on their criminal justice reform plans and records.
“If you don’t talk about it, it’s ‘why aren’t you talking about this when it impacts people who look like you?’ But if they do talk about it, it’s ‘She’s just going to be the president of Black people,’” Shropshire noted, while praising the candidates for unveiling expansive platforms regardless. “But they’ve done a good job managing it. None of these people are single-issue candidates.”
Harris and Booker have faced another problem. Both are running as candidates trying to find a sweet spot between progressives and moderates, neither embracing policies as liberal as those of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), nor bashing those policies and tacking to the center in the style of Biden. That means they’re occasionally minimized or left out of stories about the race’s central ongoing narrative: the ideological clash within the Democratic Party.
“They just really haven’t defined their base yet,” Yvette Simpson, the president of the left-leaning group Democracy for America, said of Booker and Harris. “Biden is sucking all the air out of the room for anyone who’s not a pure progressive, while Sanders and Warren are winning over the votes of progressives.”
And generally the candidates’ lower standings in the polls mean they get less media attention. Another operative working for the campaign of a candidate of color complained about struggling to get coverage of major policy rollouts and campaign speeches, “while CNN and MSNBC cover Joe Biden eating an ice cream cone.”
The Inevitability Of Biden And Sanders
Some of the challenges for Harris, Booker and Castro aren’t totally dissimilar from those facing white candidates like former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) or Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). Biden and Sanders, the 2016 runner-up who changed the Democratic Party, were always going to dominate media attention, early polling and fundraising. Warren’s steady rise has ensured she’s joined that group.
Now the three top candidates are in a self-fulfilling cycle of sorts: They get more media coverage, money and strong poll results than anyone else, helping them get even more money and media attention, which helps them keep their strong position in the polls. Breaking into this virtuous cycle has proved difficult for most of the candidates, except for Warren, Buttigieg and ― for a time over the summer ― Harris.
“There’s the idea of electability, and there’s the idea of anoint-ability,” said the second operative working for a candidate of color. “The media, the [Democratic National Committee], the benchmarks they set, the white candidates were always going to be able to meet them. It’s been a lot harder for candidates of color.”
But the early-state voting order ― Iowa, which is the nation’s fifth-whitest state, votes first; and New Hampshire, the nation’s third-whitest state, votes second ― is part of the problem. Much of the public polling, which influences donors, voters and who makes the debate stage, is focused on these two states. During the time period to qualify via polling for the third debate, only one public poll of Nevada, the most diverse of the four early-voting states, was released.
Still, it’s not unprecedented for Black candidates to triumph in either state. Obama won the 2008 Iowa caucus, and Deidre DeJear ― now Harris’ Iowa campaign chair ― won an upset victory to become the Democratic nominee for secretary of state in 2018.
How Things Could Turn Around
So far, the lack of a candidate of the color in the top tier has bewildered some Democratic operatives and left some worried about generating sufficient Black and Latino turnout in order to win the nomination. But there is still time for the candidates of color to sprint to the nomination race’s upper ranks. More voters may tune into the race as voting nears, and Tuesday night’s debate stage provides them with another high-profile opportunity.
And if Harris or Booker, in particular, manage to break through, there could be immense political rewards. Black voters in South Carolina and in delegate-rich Super Tuesday states, several operatives noted, may flock to support a viable Black candidate.
“African Americans and voters of color tend to wait until they’re sure you can win,” said Simpson. “It’s a bit of a Catch-22 for these candidates.”
And even if the candidates fail to win, they can still point to personal and historical progress. Castro, little-known nationally before this race, has emerged as a favorite of progressives for his willingness to push the envelope on policy and sharply challenge more moderate Democrats. Few Democratic operatives give the unorthodox campaign of Yang much chance of success, but he’s managed to popularize the idea of a universal basic income and created a mini-movement at his back.
“When I began my career a decade ago, it was unimaginable we might one day have two Black candidates for president,” said Rosy Gonzalez Speers, the executive director of Forward Florida. “I’m excited for our party. It’s only October, and there’s a lot of race left to run, so I wouldn’t count any candidates out yet.”
Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.