‘I’m not watching the debate:’ Bay Area activists, politicians discouraged by all-white presidential debate stage

As the presidential election kicked off in early 2019, Democrats celebrated the most diverse field of presidential hopefuls in American history. A year later, voters tuned in Tuesday night to a debate featuring zero candidates of color — the first so far this election cycle.

That dynamic discouraged many activists and politicians of color in California, who say they’re fed up with a primary process that has prioritized far less diverse states and presented structural barriers to minority candidates.

“Tonight, I’m not watching the debate,” said Lateefah Simon, a BART board member who had previously supported California Sen. Kamala Harris, earlier Tuesday.

“It was so amazing to see an Asian American, a black woman, a black man, a Latino all on the same stage fighting for these very central American ideals, becoming their grandparents’ wildest dreams,” she said. “Now, we still have great folks with great ideas, but to me it’s more of the same.”

The absence of candidates of color went unmentioned during the debate. But the void was apparent in which issues got talked about and which got less attention, said Amanda Renteria, a Bay Area Democratic activist and the president of Emerge America, which recruits and trains women to run for office.

“You didn’t hear about gun violence, you didn’t hear about immigration — it wasn’t until about three-fourths of the way through the debate that any candidate even mentioned black or brown women,” said Renteria, who attended the debate in Des Moines. “It was a lot of the candidates of color who were raising those issues, and those conversations were really missing from the stage.”

The all-white stage is a far cry from the early days of the 2020 campaign, when about a third of the Democratic presidential hopefuls were nonwhite. But one by one, black and Latino candidates have dropped out — most recently, Sen. Cory Booker, who quit the race on Monday as he acknowledged he had no path to victory.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick are still in the running, but none of them qualified for Tuesday’s debate at 6 p.m. Pacific time on CNN. The candidates facing off were former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and former hedge fund chief Tom Steyer, the only Californian left.

“It started out with the presidential field looking very much like the Democratic voter base around the country, for the first time ever,” said Jaime Regalado, an emeritus politics professor at the University of Southern California. “It’s nothing like that now.”

Many activists and observers point to the Democratic National Committee’s rules for debate qualifications as a big reason behind the all-white debate stage.

Escalating thresholds for individual donors and poll numbers shut candidates like Booker and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro out of the spotlight — and perpetuated a deadly spiral, with candidates who didn’t get on the stage finding themselves losing out even more on the donors and support necessary to qualify for the next debate.

Candidates of color also had a harder time raising the large sums of money necessary to stay competitive. Harris qualified for every debate, but still dropped out of the race in December after concluding her campaign couldn’t afford to continue, especially as the billionaire candidates Steyer and Mike Bloomberg flooded the airwaves with advertising.

The fact that Iowa and New Hampshire — two of the whitest states in the country — vote first and second also presented a barrier to minority candidates, some observers say. Even though California has taken on more importance this year as a Super Tuesday state and the largest delegate trove on the calendar, it still has far less influence than two states that add up to about 11 percent of its population — and the presidential hopefuls are far more likely to show up to a Des Moines diner than a San Francisco taqueria.

“The problem with that is that whichever states vote first set the tone for the rest of the country,” said Lam Nguyen, the co-chair of Orchard City Indivisible, an anti-Trump activist group in the South Bay. “If we started in California, I think the results would be very different.”

Democrats are counting on voters of color for support. About 40 percent of the people who voted in Democratic primaries in 2016 were nonwhite, according to the American National Election Studies, a survey of voters conducted every election cycle.

Meanwhile, the two top white presidential candidates have held onto strong support from voters of color. Former Vice President Joe Biden has kept a strong lead among black voters, especially in the key early state of South Carolina, while Sen. Bernie Sanders has led in polls of Latino voters in California, as well as young voters of all races.

The latest California primary poll, from the Public Policy Institute of California, found Sanders leading among Latino voters with 38 percent, Biden leading among white voters with 27 percent, and Warren leading among voters from other racial or ethnic groups, with 31 percent. The poll’s sample was too small to calculate percentages among black or Asian voters.

African-American candidates like Harris, Booker, and Patrick failed to convince black voters they had what it takes to win the general election, argued James Taylor, a political science professor at the University of San Francisco who studies the history of black activist movements.

“There are no voters in America more mobilized than black women and black men,” he said. Biden, he said, is “benefiting from black people’s cynicism — that he’s the only one who can beat Trump.”

Of course, Tuesday’s debate is hardly a historical outlier. All of the Democratic presidential debates in 2016, for example, included only white candidates.

But Democratic activists point out that at this point in the 2016 Republican primary, the race still featured multiple prominent minority candidates, such as Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and surgeon Ben Carson.

“Even though we think we’ve come a long way as a country,” Nguyen said, “that debate stage shows there’s a lot more work to be done, even within our own party.”