Democrats face prospect of no black candidates on December debate stage

Brittany ShepherdNational Politics Reporter

WASHINGTON — The most diverse Democratic candidate field will likely be represented by no black candidates in the next televised debate.

California Sen. Kamala Harris’s abrupt exit Tuesday afternoon rendered the field without a black woman — and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, although sailing off a campaign fundraising high post-November debate, has yet to hit the DNC’s polling threshold of at least 4 percent in four qualifying national polls or 6 percent in two early state polls. Real Clear Politics national polling averages show Booker making the board at just 2 percent — consistent with his polling in consequential early states like Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s unlikely that he will clear a higher bar in a week’s time.

As it stands, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the only candidates to make the stage. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and businessman Andrew Yang are only one qualifying poll away but are running up against a Dec. 12 deadline. 

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Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Kamala Harris. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP)
Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Kamala Harris. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP)

If neither of them qualify, a stage representing an increasingly racially diverse party would consist of all white candidates. (Deval Patrick, the black former governor of Massachusetts and a relatively new candidate, entered the race on Nov. 14, too close to the cutoff to qualify.)

Black voters have handed Biden a presumed frontrunner status in key early state South Carolina, and conventional wisdom dictates that a candidate who can’t secure support from black voters across the country — given that they make up an estimated 25 percent of the Democratic electorate — will be unable to clinch the nomination come July. 

During several media appearances Wednesday, Booker described an “anger” he felt after he learned that fellow black candidate Harris would no longer be in the race, especially in light of recent deep-pocketed, low-polling rivals like Tom Steyer qualifying.

"My first reaction was just anger ... I don't understand how we've gotten to this place where there's more billionaires in the race than there are black people,” he said during BuzzFeed News’ AM2DM.

Latino candidate Julián Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary, expressed similar gripes. He too did not quality for either the November or December debate.

“The media’s flawed formula for “electability” has pushed aside women and candidates of color,” Castro wrote on Twitter Tuesday evening. “Our party’s diversity is our strength, and it’s a shame that we’re headed for a December debate without a single person of color.”

In the past few debates, some candidates have expressed frustration at their speaking time. In October’s event at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Harris spoke for 11 minutes, 20 seconds and Booker spoke for 11 minutes, 38 seconds, while Warren spoke for nearly 13 and a half minutes.

It’s increasingly possible that December’s debate will see zero seconds of speaking time for any black candidates. Instead, the lone black voice onstage will be found in one of the event’s moderator, PBS NewsHour’s Yamiche Alcindor. 

Xochitl Hinojosa, the Democratic National Committee communications director, told Yahoo News that requiring each network to have at least one person of color and one woman host the debates is part of what will ensure diversity at the event. Hinojosa said the DNC has offered multiple opportunities for candidates to quality, despite criticism that their qualifications are too rigid.

“We’ve been as inclusive as possible to allow as many people as possible to have that debate stage and speak their message,” said Hinojosa.


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