Eric Levitz, New York Magazine, December 12, 2019
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 would have 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 primary-goers, 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.
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).
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.