San Francisco Chronicle: Democrats‘ ’most diverse field’ ended up with two white men. Can that be changed next time?
San Francisco Chronicle – March 7th, 2020
Last year at this time, Democrats were proudly touting “the most diverse field in history” for their presidential campaign — one that they said reflected their voters.
It included six women, two African Americans, three Asian Americans, a Latino and a gay man. Now the list of major candidates consists of two white men in their late 70s — and some are wondering how that happened after four years of women’s marches, record numbers of African American women being elected to office and a burst of progressive grassroots activism.
The electoral journey that led to Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders began “even before people jumped into the race,” said A’shanti Gholar, president of Emerge, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office. “All people would ask was, ‘Who can beat Trump?’
“The fact that Hillary (Clinton) lost made people think, therefore, a woman can’t take him on — even though she got more votes,” Gholar said. “And when pundits started saying that Trump’s election was a backlash to Obama, then being a person of color was seen as being a detriment.”
Amanda Renteria, an adviser to Clinton’s campaign four years ago, said that “people ran back to 2016 as opposed to looking at the data in front of us in 2018,” when a record number of Democratic women were elected to the House. “We went back in time to be where we ended up today.”
“Electability” became the dominant word to many Democratic voters from the start. In June, a Gallup Poll found that 58% of Democrats surveyed said it was more important that a candidate be able to beat President Trump than that their views on the issues line up. Majorities also said it was not more important to pick a woman instead of a man, or a person of color instead of a white candidate.
That single-minded Trump focus never faded and led Democrats to Biden, a 77-year-old three-time presidential candidate who had never won a primary until a week ago, and Sanders, 78, a Vermont senator who was runner-up to Clinton four years ago.
Exit polls showed Biden was the overwhelming favorite of Super Tuesday voters who said they preferred a candidate who could beat Trump. The former vice president won 10 of the day’s 14 contests. He won states where he barely campaigned, including Massachusetts, home state of campaign rival Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Texas, where Sanders outspent him on advertising by more than 40 to 1.
“It’s almost like Democrats have amnesia and forget that Barack Obama is the only Democrat that was elected to be president over the last 20 years,” said Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, which works to advance women of color in politics.
“His being black was actually an asset, as it brought out a lot of different kinds of voters,” Allison said. “But for some reason, this amnesia has led to Democrats giving a lot of grace and credit to where it is really not deserved.”
Rep. Barbara Lee got her start in politics volunteering in 1972 for Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to seek a major party’s presidential nomination. “I heard the same types of terrible narratives and questions being asked then,” the Oakland Democrat said. “‘Can a black woman win?’ ‘Is it time for a woman?’
“I’m furious” with how the race has shaken out, said Lee, who supported Kamala Harris before the California senator ended her presidential campaign in December.
Lee said she has asked both the Biden and Sanders campaigns “to choose a black woman for vice president.”
But James Taylor, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, said some progressives were too willing to overlook flaws in candidates that deterred other Democratic voters for whom race and gender were secondary.
“We have to take a step back and look at Elizabeth Warren as a candidate and then as a woman,” said Taylor, author of “Black Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama.” It’s possible sexism contributed to her candidacy’s demise, he said, but Warren also “made critical strategic errors at bad times in her campaign, when she was being viewed as the front-runner” last fall.
Some advocates argue that the nominee-selection process is stacked against even high-quality candidates who aren’t white men. They floated suggestions for changes, including:
Downplay Iowa and New Hampshire: Candidates emphasizing issues important to nonwhite voters are at a disadvantage when the electorates of the first two states on the calendar are 90% white. Instead, start with a set of five states that better represent the party’s demographics, said Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, co-founder of Way to Win, which aims to spend $50 million on minority- and female-led community groups organizing in 10 battleground states this year.
Georgia could be one early state, Ancona said. It is both urban and rural and has a diverse population and affordable media markets. The states should be small enough so that, as in Iowa or New Hampshire, a lesser-funded candidate can emerge from the pack, she said.
“Then rotate the states every year,” Ancona said. “It would be an interesting baby step to take.”
The political website FiveThirtyEight suggested a reordered Democratic primary calendar by ranking the states by how closely they matched the race, ethnicity and education levels of Democratic voters nationwide. The No. 1 state by those factors: Illinois, followed by New Jersey and New York. California was No. 21.
Allison proposes an easier route: “Go straight to Nevada and South Carolina. It was the reality of what the electorate looks like in (Iowa and New Hampshire) that took out Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Julián Castro, because they weren’t seen as viable there. They would have done better if we started in Nevada.”
Reform the debates: By the time many voters started paying attention to the race in January, only white candidates met the Democratic National Committee’s qualifications to be on the debate stage.
“It was such a crucial part of winnowing the field this time that we’ve got to get it right,” Addisu Demissie, who managed Booker’s campaign, told The Chronicle’s “It’s All Political” podcast.
The party set polling and fundraising criteria as qualifying standards. Critics said early polls favor candidates with strong name identification, such as Biden and Sanders, and that campaigns that have more money to start with are better able to raise additional donations.
“If you put enough ads out there, you’ll find somebody who is willing to give you money,” Demissie said.
Ancona suggested allowing outside groups to stage debates and pick the candidate participants. For example, environmental groups, African American groups and organizations representing rural interests could all sponsor debates.
Switch to ranked-choice voting: Ancona said allowing voters to choose their top three candidates in primaries would give people of color a better shot at breaking through. A 2018 study of four Bay Area cities that use ranked-choice voting showed that more people of color have been elected in those cities since the system went into effect. The study was done by Fair Vote, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for electoral reforms.
“It takes away that pressure that we’ve been seeing in this election of voting for who you think other people want to vote for, instead of who you want to win,” Ancona said.
In other words, Democrats need to revise their idea of who is electable.
“Electability should not be the new way to separate candidates, because we’re extraordinarily bad at it,” said political scientist Corey Cook, an administrator at St. Mary’s College in Moraga. “We’re evaluating candidates based on what we believe are other voters’ perceptions.”
That wasn’t what happened in 2008, when “Obama was the riskiest choice, but Democrats decided to pick who they thought was the best candidate, even if he was the least known,” Cook said.
Gholar, the leader of Emerge, said Democrats should remember the phrase that many Warren supporters circulated online and wore on T-shirts: “She’s electable if you vote 4 her.”
“Just because other people are framing the discussion around electability,” Gholar said, “doesn’t mean they are right.”
Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer and John Wildermuth is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.