Despite an increasingly diverse party, Andrew Yang will be the only non-white face on the stage in Los Angeles
When the Democratic presidential candidates gather in Los Angeles next Thursday to debate for the sixth time, the stage will look rather different than it did when the contenders first faced off back in June.
A field that was initially celebrated for its diversity has been whittled down to seven debate participants: the former vice-president Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Amy Klobuchar, billionaire activist Tom Steyer and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Five of them are men, and all but one of them are white.
The radical reversal of fortunes for the women and people of color in the Democratic presidential primary has led to some criticism even from the candidates themselves about the qualifications for making the debate stage. Some White House hopefuls have argued the Democratic National Committees debate requirements have sidelined candidates of color, even as the party becomes increasingly diverse.
In order to qualify for the Los Angeles debate, candidates had to hit at least 4% in four national polls or at least 6% in two early state polls in the weeks leading up to the event. Candidates also had to attract at least 200,000 donors, although more campaigns were able to meet that requirement. The DNC announced on Friday the scheduling of four additional debates between January and February, but the qualifications for those debates have not yet been released.
The Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard announced on Monday that she would not participate in this months debate, even if she qualified. (The Iraq war veteran ended up falling one poll short of qualification.) Gabbard, who has previously accused the DNC of trying to hijack the election by only accepting results from certain pollsters, said she would instead choose to spend that precious time directly meeting with and hearing from the people of New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Although Gabbards incendiary accusations against the DNC are unique among the presidential candidates, some of her opponents have joined her in criticizing the debate qualifications. Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator who failed to pick up a single qualifying poll for the December debate, has complained since the withdrawal of fellow senator Kamala Harris that the DNCs requirements prop up billionaire candidates like Steyer and Mike Bloomberg, who will not participate on Thursday, at the expense of candidates of color.
Is that really the symbol that the Democratic party wants to be sending out? That this is going to be made by money and elites decisions, not by the people? Booker recently told BuzzFeed News. The New Jersey senator has suggested the DNC should use metrics beyond polling such as grassroots support and endorsements to determine who makes the debate stage.
While his fellow presidential candidate Julin Castro, a former member of Barack Obamas cabinet, has similarly complained about the difficulties that candidates of color have faced in the nominating contest, the former housing and urban development secretary does not echo Bookers call for a re-evaluation of the debate qualifications.
Sawyer Hackett, Castros national press secretary, told the Guardian: Hes not looking for any sort of change to the rules at the last minute to benefit himself for the Democratic debate in December, but rather looking for a more systematic, wholesale change to the process so that our primaries are a little more reflective of our party and our countrys diversity.
Castro has previously argued the medias flawed focus on electability has buoyed white candidates, an advantage that he says is amplified by the mostly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire voting first in the primary.
Aaron Kall, the director of debate at the University of Michigan, noted that debate-related complaints are not unique to this election cycle, recalling criticism from Sanders supporters about the number and the scheduling of the events during the 2016 primary. The DNC later added debates to appease concerns that the party establishment was trying to tip the election in favor of Hillary Clinton. Every cycle, these complaints have happened, and the DNC has tried to address them, Kall said. In some ways, theyre kind of damned if they do, damned if they dont.
While Kall acknowledged the polling requirements established by the DNC are not perfect, he pointed out that Booker and Castro face steep odds of winning the primary given their current levels of support.
I think that anyone thats probably likely to be the nominee at this point would be polling at the threshold set up by the DNC, Kall said. However, he added, Whatever the qualifications or thresholds may be, the impact is really hurting the diversity of this Los Angeles debate.
Despite the challenges facing them, the candidates of color remaining in the race are not showing any sign of calling it quits. While Gabbard campaigns in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Booker is kicking off an Iowa bus tour on the day of the debate.
Bookers campaign manager, Addisu Demissie, said on a Thursday press call that the team had raised $3m since the last debate and would soon launch a $500,000 ad buy in Iowa. Hackett also noted that Castro saw better fundraising numbers during the November debate, for which he did not qualify, than he did during either of his previous two debate performances.
Whether hes onstage or not, hes shaping the debate on a lot of important issues, Hackett said. He will continue to do that.