Posted on April 22, 2019

Should a White Man Be the Face of the Democratic Party in 2020?

Astead W. Herndon and Matt Flegenheimer, New York Times, Apirl 21, 2019

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As former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. prepares to enter the 2020 race this coming week, Democrats have seen the strong diversity in their field—with candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris reflecting the multiracial and largely female base of the party—become somewhat overshadowed by white male candidates. Bernie Sanders has a wide fund-raising lead, he and Mr. Biden lead in polls, and Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg have enjoyed outsize attention from voters in early primary states, extensive media coverage and viral success with online donors.

Interviews with several dozen Democratic voters around the country show how the party, which enjoyed victories in 2018 that were powered by female and nonwhite candidates, is now grappling with two complicated questions about race, gender and politics in the Trump era.

Is a white man the best face for an increasingly diverse Democratic Party in 2020? And what’s the bigger gamble: to nominate a white man and risk disappointing some of the party’s base, or nominate a minority candidate or a woman who might struggle to carry predominantly white swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that both Barack Obama and President Trump won?

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White men have largely ruled both the Democratic and Republican parties throughout American history, even as they have declined to roughly 30 percent of the population, and many voters still have preconceptions of presidents as white and male. Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders are starting off with other advantages as well: They are the best-known candidates at this stage, both with experience running for president, and they are well positioned to have the money and resources to compete through the 2020 primaries.

But as older white men, they are out of step with ascendant forces in the party today.

Women, minorities and young people are fueling much of its energy, and they are well represented by multiple well-qualified, politically savvy female and nonwhite Democrats who are running. Ms. Harris in particular has had a strong start in fund-raising, and only Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders consistently outpace her in polls.

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Many of the voters interviewed said that the most important qualification was the ability to defeat Mr. Trump, who has come away from the recent release of the Mueller report more angry than elated and wants a political victory untainted by questions of legitimacy. To some, the best Democratic candidate will be one who can wrest voters who backed Mr. Trump in battleground states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as Democrats did somewhat successfully in 2018 to flip the House.

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David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said the key to threading the electoral needle in 2020 was a diverse presidential ticket able to stop the hemorrhaging of white rural voters and to excite minority voters. He pointed to Senator Sherrod Brown’s success in Ohio in appealing to both electorates in his 2018 re-election in a state that otherwise voted for Republicans in statewide campaigns.

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Others see the focus on electability as too limited—and even as an underhanded way to discount black and female candidates.

For this group, which includes voters and several political observers who focus on race and gender, there is a particular annoyance around code words they feel unduly penalize candidates. Questions about which contender is “electable” and who can “bring the country together” distract from areas where female and minority candidates may lead the pack, including policy proposals and who best energizes typical nonvoters.

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For some voters interviewed during Ms. Warren’s tour throughout the South, which included stops in heavily black communities in Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, there was interest in candidates such as Mr. O’Rourke, Mr. Sanders or Mr. Biden because of factors unrelated to identity.

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In conversations across eastern Iowa, Democratic voters acknowledged a feeling of whiplash after a midterm campaign defined largely by the success of women and people of color. Many of those interviewed seemed almost resigned to having a white male nominee, reserving their angst for what they view as a greater priority than diversity atop the Democratic ticket: defeating Mr. Trump.

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