WASHINGTON—For a while, it seemed the Democratic presidential primary debate scheduled to air Thursday night might not happen. A contract dispute involving food service workers at the debate venue meant candidates might have had to cross a picket line to appear. All seven candidates scheduled to participate had said they wouldn’t.
It was an instance of the party that prides itself on its principles — as it has been trumpeting loudly its congressional members’ efforts to impeach President Donald Trump — finding its values clashing with its strategic interest in getting its candidates in front of voters in prime time.
But while the Democratic National Committee intervened to help negotiate a resolution to the labour dispute, another possible conflict of principles and electoral interests will be just as evident onstage as the debate takes place.
The rules governing which candidates are considered worthy of appearing in the televised debates, consisting of certain polling and fundraising thresholds, mean that neither Cory Booker nor Deval Patrick, the remaining Black candidates, nor Julian Castro, the only Latino candidate, will appear. The only non-white face onstage will be that of Andrew Yang, who is Asian-American.
It seems to highlight a disconnect between the demographics of Democratic voters and the front-runners to carry its banner into the election. In a party where both youth and ethnic diversity define a massive part of the voting base and the face of its most recently celebrated congressional members — “The Squad” — the five front-runners in polls (Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Mike Bloomberg) are all white, four of them are men, and four of them at least 70 years old.
As in the case of the labour dispute, the candidates seem united in embracing the apparent principle of inclusion — all signed a letter spearheaded by Booker appealing to the party to loosen eligibility requirements to allow him and Castro to appear in future debates. But unlike in the case of the picket lines, the party is not swooping in to accommodate. Officials have fairly clearly indicated that the rules, set before anyone knew how candidates would perform, were put in place for a reason, and would be upheld.
Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College in California and the author of “Mobilizing Inclusion: Redefining Citizenship through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns,” says it is the polls more than the rules that are leading to discomfort in the party. “Maybe the reality that folks were kind of dancing around is that the majority-white debate stage reflects the choices of voters,” she said.
“I think the Democratic Party and a lot of democratic voters are having the same reaction to the impact of these polls. There’s a feeling that the Democrats want to be the party of diversity, and so it was disturbing when it looked like it was only going to be white people on stage.
“At the same time, the rules were put out there in order to make sure that the party was able to narrow the field fairly quickly and come behind a candidate. The Democratic Party also has a very strong interest in winning.”
That Black voters have so far appeared to lend a good deal of support to Biden, and that young voters form a large and enthusiastic base of support for the 78-year-old Sanders, suggests that voters are not always interested in supporting someone who looks like them so much as someone who they feel might do a good job serving their interests.
Many women and minority voters have seldom been represented by elected officials who share their demographic traits, Michelson points out, so they are used to looking for other qualities even if, all things being equal, they would like to see barriers broken.
“They want to make sure they get somebody as the nominee who can beat Donald Trump,” she said. “And a lot of folks, you know, whether it’s true or not, are equating that idea of electability with someone white. Their concern is that many Democrats won’t come out vote for a person of colour as their nominee. So they want to vote for somebody who can win.”
Given the optics of a majority-white stage, Michelson thinks the candidates and moderators may be more likely to emphasize issues such as immigration and race. “I’m thinking strategically as the Democratic Party and I want to reassure communities of colour that they are not forgotten,” she said.
She also pointed out that in some ways, this remains a more diverse field of debaters than in past elections and “it’s less stark because Andrew Yang will be there.
“And I think many people will be reminding folks that, hey, there’s multiple women (Warren and Amy Klobuchar), and an openly gay candidate (Buttigieg), and that’s also fairly new for the party,” she said. “Really, compared to prior cycles, this is actually pretty diverse.”