For Democrats, #DebatesSoWhite

The New York Times Politics 5 days ago

We’ve talked a lot in this newsletter about the historic diversity of the Democratic primary campaign. At its peak, the field boasted six women, two black senators, a Latino former cabinet secretary, an American Samoan member of Congress and an Asian-American businessman.

Now, as we move into the final stretch before primary voting begins, those demographics are changing.

While Senator Kamala Harris’s decision yesterday to drop out of the race is unlikely to reshuffle the contest, it does expose a long-simmering problem for her party: Despite all the boasting about unprecedented diversity, the Democratic candidates doing the best are white and mostly men.

With Ms. Harris out, the current standing means the next debate will feature an exclusively white, largely male slate of candidates (though Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang could soon get in). As Senator Cory Booker, who plans to give a speech about racial representation in Iowa tomorrow, pointed out, “There are more billionaires than black people who’ve made the December debate stage.”

So, how did Democrats end up whitewashing their rainbow coalition?

Some of the problem is structural: Iowa and New Hampshire — two of the whitest states in the country — play an outsize role in determining who makes the debate stage and who makes it to March, based on their early place in the primary calendar and the weight given to their polling by the Democratic National Committee’s debate criteria.

Some of the problem is emotional: The Democratic primary electorate’s obsession with who can beat President Trump — the infamous “electability” factor — can certainly hurt candidates of color and women who inherently do not fit the traditional image of a president.

It’s a problem Ms. Harris detailed quite well in a recent interview.

“Are there four words who would describe who I am? There’s no frame of reference,” she told New York magazine. “Like, we have terms for that guy. He’s the boy next door. That’s your uncle, who’s at the Thanksgiving dinner, who does this thing and that. There are images. The girl next door, there’s an image for that, too.”

But I’d argue the whiteness of the field also reflects dynamics among black and Latino voters. Polls have consistently shown Joe Biden leading among African-American voters, while Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is widely popular among Latinos. As my colleagues Astead Herndon and Jenny Medina have reported, there’s little hunger for a barrier-breaking candidate — even in communities of color.

Younger voters of color have grown disenchanted with the idea that representation is enough to create change — particularly when a candidate follows the more moderate model of Barack Obama, as Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker have generally done. At the same time, older black voters worry that swing-state voters won’t support a candidate of color and don’t want to take a risk on someone they perceive as facing a harder path to defeating Mr. Trump.

“We’re past Barack Obama now,” said Leah D. Daughtry, a longtime Democratic Party official who now runs an annual convention for black women. “In some circles, we’ve checked that history box so now it’s like, O.K., I don’t feel compelled to make more history on the basis of race.”

Those kinds of attitudes have left Mr. Booker and Ms. Harris struggling to win significant support from the very demographics they initially expected would be the backbone of their bids. And they’ve left their party facing the possibility of an all-white field of finalists — an image some Democrats worry could hurt the party’s brand as a bastion of diversity in the Trump era.

“It’s damaging in terms of the fact that it’s not who we say we are,” Representative Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio told me today. “The other side is going to have an all-white team, too. But it’s just, if we are who we say we are, we have done ourselves a disservice.”

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On the road with the ‘No Malarkey’ tour

My colleague Katie Glueck has just returned from Iowa, where she spent several days following Joe Biden’s latest campaign swing. I asked her about it:

Hi, Katie! Tell me a little bit about why Joe Biden is on this eight-day bus tour.

Iowa has long been challenging for Joe Biden. It was the site where his plagiarism controversy in the 1988 campaign originated. In the 2008 contest, he came in fifth place in the caucuses and dropped out.

And Iowa has also been challenging for Joe Biden this time. We’ve seen evidence of a real enthusiasm gap on the ground, even as his lead in national polls has been pretty resilient. His numbers in Iowa — the first caucus state — have gone down quite a bit over the course of the fall.

So this week he’s racing to shore up some support by initiating this bus tour. They’re calling it the “No Malarkey” tour, which is a play on one of his favorite Bidenisms. And the goal is to visit counties where he needs to perform well in the caucuses. These tend to be more rural counties where there are more moderate Democratic voters and independent voters. Biden is strong — and stronger than a lot of his opponents — with voters who do not have college degrees, and is certainly making some overtures to those folks as well this week.

So what’s been the vibe? Is the tour changing how people talk about Biden?

At many of the stops I was on, Biden was introduced by Christie Vilsack, the former first lady of Iowa. She’s a prominent Democratic leader in the state. The point that she kept reiterating was to think not just about the kinds of candidates who may speak to Democratic voters, but to also really be thinking about who might connect with independent voters and with Republicans in the battlegrounds where Democrats need to win if they want to take back the White House.

But I certainly did meet voters who feel very warmly toward Joe Biden, beyond just the calculation about whether he can win. He’s had experience with cancer in his family. His son, of course, died from cancer. There are a lot of people who feel like because of that, they’re able to share their experiences with grief with him. And you see people who are emotional, and connect with him on a more personal level.

One other dynamic that was really notable to me was that voters who said they were considering Joe Biden would routinely also bring up Pete Buttigieg. Joe Biden is 77 years old, Pete Buttigieg is 37 years old. And people who would bring up Buttigieg often did so in the context of age. They expressed some concerns about Biden’s age. And they said that they were interested in Buttigieg because he was of a different generation.

So, other than the bus and the branding, how was this different from Biden’s many other tours through Iowa?

Joe Biden is known for being long-winded, for speaking in a choppy fashion or making misstatements, which we have covered. This time, the goal seemed to be to focus a little bit less on delivering speeches and much more on voter interactions. So he would give his stump speech, but afterward he would just tell voters to come up and talk to him instead of taking questions in front of everyone. He’s the strongest in individual conversations with voters, and people find him to be relatable.

… Seriously

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