In the height of another #OscarSoWhite season, the democratic presidential race is taking its own diversity hit. On Monday, Sen. Cory Booker withdrew his bid for the 2020 election, making him the third candidate since December to quit the race. Preceding him were Sen. Kamala Harris, who dropped out on December 3, and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, who withdrew on January 2.
Month-to-month debate qualifiers showed white candidates at the forefront, but it was businessman Andrew Yang in the December debate who said it best: "It's both an honor and disappointment to be the lone candidate of color on this stage tonight." Now, we head into the Iowa debate on Tuesday, Yang won't appear on stage for the first time since the 2020 democratic debates began. And this officially marks the first time in this election cycle that only white candidates have qualified for a debate.
As Booker, Harris, and Castro are no longer in the running, one thing is blatantly clear: the 2020 race is now very, very white. At the start of the election season, the Democratic party boasted perhaps the most diverse pool of candidates in history: two black senators, a latinx former secretary, a black mayor, and an Asian-American businessman. Not to mention, it was a record year for women running for office.
The topics addressed in these campaigns also put minority issues at the forefront. Castro made immigration policy a standout position throughout his candidacy, and Booker spoke out on criminal reform quite frequently. Harris, whose prosecution record was never far from sight throughout her presidency, still broke barriers as both a black and Asian-American woman in the race, often speaking to the disparity in women's health care for minorities.
Now, we find ourselves at an impasse for the first time in this presidential cycle: not only did Yang, the only remaining candidate of color, not qualify for the debate, but so much of the diverse representation that once existed in this race has now been eliminated.
According to Booker and Castro, who called out the Democratic National Committee for excluding minority candidates with increasingly growing debate requirements, this is a systematic issue.
After Harris dropped out of the race for lack of funding, Booker and Castro surprisingly received their highest donations to date. Booker's donations actually peaked during the December debate, which he wasn't even a part of. In an interview with the Associated Press, Booker reported that the continuing lack of diversity on stage (which Yang blatantly called out) triggered a push to keep him in the race.
Castro also hit a campaign high just before dropping out and managed to cross the 200,000-donor threshold, again, post-Harris. If one thing was clear from these sudden donations to Booker and Castro's campaigns, it's that voters suddenly realized what they would lose in this election without these candidates. In their absence, representation would be lost, diversity would be minimal, and more than anything, minority issues would take a back seat.
But debate qualifiers prevented both of them from moving forward. “I did not expect the DNC to raise the thresholds so close to the Iowa caucus, because when you get that close to the caucus, shouldn’t you just let the people vote?” Castro told Politico. “I’m worried that if we have a debate stage without any … racial or ethnic diversity on it, that we’re putting ourselves at a greater risk for failure in November of 2020.”
Requirements for the January debate in Des Moines, IA ahead of the caucus were higher than ever. With a minimum-required 225,000 total donors and 4% approval rating in four polls, some candidates were at a disadvantage. Castro called to reform the entire process of the democratic debates while Booker pleaded his supporters to reach the final goal.
According to Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, the political system was designed to disadvantage the Democratic party's primary voter-base, specifically. “Anyone with an understanding of civil rights law understands how the rules can be set up to benefit some communities," Robinson told the Washington Post. "The Democratic Party should look at the impact of these rules and question the results.”
Ultimately, neither Booker or Castro proposed an alternate qualification system, and the DNC doubled down on diversity by saying that it was a "top issue" in the 2020 race. "We have made diversity a priority by requiring that every debate have women and people of color as moderators. We’ve never seen a political party take this many steps to be inclusive,” said Xochitl Hinojosa, a DNC spokesperson to Politico.
But without any candidates of color on the stage in the seventh debate, we won't hear about certain issues with as much depth: We won't hear from Booker about slavery reparations; We won't hear from Harris about the maternal mortality crisis for black women; We won't hear from Castro as an authority on immigration policy; And, we likely won't hear about the crisis of police brutality that all of these candidates made a central issue.
Above all else, we won't see diverse representation in the political leaders that are taking us into 2020. In the aftermath of Trump's America, it's clear just by the last-minute outpouring of donations to Castro and Booker's campaigns that people hoped to see more diversity heading to the White House. Now, as we gear up for the Iowa caucus, people of color won't be able to recognize themselves in the candidates speaking at the debates, and a large part of this has to do with the way the rules are structured. As Castro said, the aim of an election should be allowing people to vote for the candidates they most connect to instead of creating regulations that prevent them from having a voice.