White Democrats Are Leading the Primary Because Nonwhite Voters Support Them
Maybe nonwhite Democrats just aren’t that into you. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The Iowa caucuses are a disgraceful institution, and the New Hampshire primary isn’t much better. There is no reason why some tiny, lily-white farm state — that clogs our nation’s arteries with its corn syrup, and bores our nation’s readers with its formulaic literary fiction — should exert disproportionate influence over our presidential politics. Nor is there is a sound rationale for the raw-milk licking libertarians of the Granite State to have outsize say over anything. The preeminence of these two states in our primary system has forced America’s top politicians to endure an ungodly number of country fairs, and America’s taxpayers to shell out ungodly sums for ethanol subsidies.
It has also indefensibly diluted the influence of African-Americans over the Democratic Party’s nominating contest. Black voters make up about a quarter of the Democratic primary electorate, yet account for a negligible fraction of the voting public in the first two primary states (as do Asians and Latinos). This inequity is mitigated somewhat by the overrepresentation of black voters in South Carolina and subsequent early-voting states. But there’s still no reason for it to exist. Ideally, all states would hold their primaries on the same day after a few weeks of robust campaigning, and then the party could turn its attention to the general election. Failing that, a state with a demographic composition that better resembles the nation’s should host the opening round of voting. The existing system needlessly risks giving white Democrats the chance to veto their nonwhite co-partisans’ preferred nominees: Candidates who win Iowa reliably see a polling and funding surge, while those who lose are often forced to drop out. So it is plausible that a candidate with strong approval among nonwhite voters has his or her campaign nipped in the bud by the unrepresentative electorates of two tiny states.
Fortunately, there is relatively little risk of that happening this cycle. Judging by recent national polls, if only African-Americans were allowed to vote in the Democratic primary, the top three contenders would be Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren — the same three candidates preferred by the Democratic electorate as a whole. Meanwhile, black Democrats’ overwhelming favorite among that trio is also the race’s clear front-runner. If Joe Biden retains his current standing, then the Democrats’ 2020 nominee will better reflect the preferences of black Democrats than those of white ones: In Quinnipiac’s most recent poll, the former vice-president boasts only 21 percent support among white primarygoers, but a whopping 51 percent support among African-Americans.
For this reason, Biden’s numbers are much weaker in Iowa and New Hampshire than they are nationally. But the Democratic front-runner remains competitive in both those states, and his national lead is large enough to survive narrow losses in them, if historical precedent is any guide.
One could also argue that if South Carolina voted first instead of Iowa, the mayor of South Bend wouldn’t be in serious contention, and Kamala Harris would still be in the hunt. But then, in RealClearPolitics’ polling average, Harris and Pete Buttigieg were running nearly even among South Carolina Democrats in the days before she dropped out. And in Quinnipiac’s November poll of black Democratic voters in that state, Harris boasted a mere 6 percent, putting her behind Warren and just a shade ahead of Tom Steyer. Given reports that Harris exited the race out of fear that her numbers were collapsing in California, and that a poor showing in her home state would damage her long-term political prospects, it’s not clear that a reordering of the primary calendar would have been enough to keep her in the game, let alone make her a top-tier contender.
All of which is to say: The Democrats’ top 2020 contenders are not “all white” because the party has silenced nonwhite voters, but because it has listened to them.
This is an inconvenient truth for Julián Castro and Cory Booker. In my personal opinion, the New Jersey senator and former HUD secretary have both run fine campaigns, and are much more appealing than Biden or Buttigieg. But the median nonwhite Democrat disagrees. Booker is polling at 1.8 percent in RealClearPolitics’ national average, while Castro is at one percent. To state the obvious: It is not possible to poll that low in a Democratic primary if you have significant support among nonwhite voters.
Nevertheless, the Democratic National Committee’s lax qualification standards for the party’s primary debates has allowed Booker to make his case to a national audience five separate times, and afforded Castro the same opportunity four times. None of these appearances meaningfully increased their support. The DNC set a higher threshold for its December debate, and both Castro and Booker have failed to clear it. Desperate to justify the ongoing existence of their quixotic candidacies — and regain access to the debate stage in January — Castro, Booker, and their sympathizers within the party have begun framing the light complexion of the Democrats’ remaining contenders as an affront to nonwhite voters.
A Politico article tendentiously titled “Nevada ‘Demoralized’ By All-White Democratic Top Tier” provides a sampling of their arguments:
“People are incredibly demoralized about that,” said Bob Fulkerson, a Warren supporter who co-founded the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “It’s definitely the biggest failure of the campaign so far … the all-white crowd that we’re left with, and what forces institutionally have led to that.”
He said, “The whole field is diminished, and the whole process is diminished.”
… On the same day that Sanders addressed [Las Vegas’s Culinary Workers Union], Castro, the only Latino in the race, was in Iowa, lamenting that because Nevada and other diverse states come later in the primary schedule, some candidates will never make it there.
Castro, Booker, and Congresswoman Marcia Fudge aired similar concerns to the New York Times last week:
In a year that began with the inauguration of the most diverse class of House Democrats, and quickly built to a barrier-breaking lineup of presidential candidates, do Democrats want an all-white slate of top-tier candidates to be the face of their party in 2020?
“What message is that sending that we heralded the most diverse field in our history and now we’re seeing people like her dropping out of this campaign?” Mr. Booker asked a crowd [in Iowa] Thursday morning.
… “It’s really unfortunate that the party that’s seeking justice and fairness and inclusion has created a set of rules that can be undermined so easily, and also rules that don’t reflect ultimately what has determined outcomes here in Iowa,” Mr. Booker said in a news conference following his speech, taking explicit issue with billionaire candidates flooding airwaves to “juice their polling.”
… We have a system designed by our own Democratic National Committee that is not in any way intended to elevate the most qualified candidate but designed to elect the person with the most money or most access to it,” said Representative Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio, who was a supporter of Ms. Harris. “That’s why you’re going to see an all white debate stage.”
… “By not having anyone of color onstage, the party loses a lot,” [Castro] told reporters after a fund-raiser in Los Angeles on Tuesday. “The party also loses partly the ability to inspire and excite constituencies that we need to win in November 2020 against Donald Trump. And, you know, the D.N.C. ought to do some soul searching on these thresholds.”
All else being equal, it would surely be preferable for the Democrats’ top contenders to be more diverse. Equity in representation matters. But it doesn’t matter more than honoring the preferences of nonwhite Democratic voters, as determined by the best available metrics (i.e., opinion polls). And while Castro and Booker’s desire for the Democratic Party to project an inclusive image is well-founded, the arguments they mount here are simply false. The order of the primaries has nothing to do with either candidate’s struggles. A recent Fox News poll of likely Nevada caucusgoers put Castro’s support among Latinos in that state at 3 percent, placing him two points behind entrepreneur Andrew Yang (who has qualified for the December debate, ensuring that it will not actually be “all white”). Further, Nevada’s Democratic electorate as a whole is not “demoralized” by their party’s all-white top-tier — Biden, Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg are the four highest-polling candidates in that state. Booker, meanwhile, mustered only 2 percent support among African-American voters in South Carolina in last month’s Quinnipiac poll. The idea that nonwhite voters are better represented by leaders who share their skin tone — than by ones who’ve earned their support — is not a progressive one.
Booker’s complaint about the influence of billionaires on the primary is more legitimate. It is almost certainly true that if Booker and Harris had as much personal wealth as Tom Steyer, they would be outpolling him. But it’s not clear what rule changes could have barred Steyer from the debate stage. The DNC already tried to marginalize self-funders who lacked popular support by requiring candidates to amass a large number of individual donors. For this reason, Michael Bloomberg will not be eligible for the debates even though his avalanche of paid advertising has given him the requisite popular support. The only way the DNC could prevent billionaires from unduly influencing the nomination contest with massive ad buys — or ensure that its system “elevates the most qualified candidates” — would be to stop holding primary elections and let party leaders pick a nominee. But nobody’s advocating that.
Finally, Castro’s suggestion that the DNC must do some “soul searching” about its debate thresholds is absurd. For the sake of inclusion, the Democrats have already allowed candidates with no significant voter support to participate in five debates. This leniency had its benefits. But it also came with the cost of denying Democratic voters the opportunity to see their party’s genuine contenders engage each other in extended argument. If four turns in the spotlight weren’t sufficient to get Castro above one percent in national polls, he should not be allowed to once again divert attention from those with an actual shot at the nomination. By refusing to allow candidates with abysmal poll numbers onto the debate stage, the DNC isn’t sending a message to nonwhite voters — it’s listening to the message they’ve sent to the DNC.
The American political system really does dilute the influence of nonwhite voters in myriad ways. But that is precisely why politicians should not baselessly attribute their own unpopularity to discriminatory procedures. Doing so achieves little beyond undermining the credibility of more truthful (and less opportunistic) advocacy for redressing electoral inequities.