The Democratic Primary is Broken: 3 Suggestions on How to Fix It

Less than four years after the most successful presidency of the modern era, Barack Obama’s party is looking at an all-white top tier in our primary. But even more critically, less than four years after the presidency of the country’s first African American president, his party is stuck with the structural advantages of white voters.

I should say at the outset that this is not an issue about a white candidate winning. A white candidate who can pull together a broad, majority coalition of white, black, Latino, Asian, and Native American voters the way Hillary Clinton was able to do in 2016 should win, as would be the case for a non-white candidate who can build the same coalition.

The question is whether qualified candidates who have proven their accomplishments and ability to draw support from a broad coalition - but are not themselves white - have a level-playing field in the Democratic primary. After the departures of Kamala Harris and now Julian Castro, it is abundantly clear that our party, the party built on the core values of equal opportunity and coalition building, is failing to deliver it in our own presidential primary.

Harris and Castro were not just two most prominent candidates of color in the race. They had both shown the ability to build a multiracial coalition in a way none of the candidates in the top tier has. Julian Castro, as mayor of San Antonio, Texas, represented a majority Hispanic city. Kamala Harris represents the most diverse state - and one with a majority minority population - in the United States senate, and her election in 2018 was not a close race.

Every candidate of color in this primary who’s been elected to office has represented larger and more diverse constituencies than their comparable counterparts - with, once again, the exception of Vice President Biden, whose last elected office was Vice President, and in addition to being elected with President Obama, there’s only one vice presidency.

Kamala Harris represents nearly 40 million people in the Senate. Cory Booker represents 9 million (45% non-white). Elizabeth Warren represents 7 million, and Bernie Sanders a depopulating state of just 600,000.

Castro and Harris were the only candidates of any race in the 2020 Democratic primary who had been elected to office by constituents numbering more than a million who are majority non-white. Cory Booker, the sole remaining candidate of color who’s been elected to office, represents a state that is on the verge of becoming majority non-white.

Compare that to the only place Bernie Sanders has ever been elected in, the state of Vermont, where non-Hispanic whites make up 93% of the population. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg have constituents that are relatively diverse, but still majority white (and Buttigieg’s city is very small), and they seem to be showing strength only in early, white states. In the top tier of candidates, only one - Joe Biden - is showing signs of strength among the Democratic party’s most loyal constituency, black voters.

This is shameful, and it’s time to start thinking about real solutions in the Democratic primary process. Here are some suggestions, not simply for the sake of representation of candidates of color, but for voters of color in future primaries.

1. End first-in-the-nation primary status of small, overwhelmingly white states. 90% of New Hampshire’s 1.4 million population and 85% of the 3.1 million people in Iowa are non-Hispanic white. The only whiter state Democrats could pick is Vermont. This is insane. States with larger, more representative Democratic voters should lead the primary. States in the south and elsewhere with large black populations should lead, and states like Nevada, Texas, and California should be voting before the whitest of white states.

2. Eliminate caucuses. As we have discussed during the previous primary, caucuses are the most undemocratic way to be choosing a Democratic candidate. With the exception of Hawaii and Nevada, all caucus states have a majority white Democratic electorate, and caucuses require people to show up in person for extended periods of time of at schedules difficult for working people (who are disproportionately people of color). We cannot be the party that complains about the Electoral College nullifying the popular vote and about voter suppression of the Republican party while we incorporate a racist, antidemocratic voting system as part of the process for choosing our nominee. All states should vote in the primary by secret ballot.

And here is what will be the most controversial of these proposals:

3. Require all candidates who run to contribute a large part (50% would be my choice) of their campaign funds to a common DNC primary fund and distribute this fund to qualifying candidates who have a fundraising disadvantage. This should apply to self-funding candidates as well. As we have shown here at TPV, the campaign donation universe - especially the individual donor pot - is a very small sliver of the American public, made up overwhelmingly by men and to a smaller degree white women, and by design disadvantages candidates of color and those who draw the most support from voters of color.

This is a direct result of the much smaller disposable incomes held by black and Latino Americans and the systematic disenfranchisement for voters of color (with things like caucuses) creating an atmosphere of powerlessness. The remedy should be simple: the Democratic party must recognize that fundraising prowess should be used for the benefit of the party and its ideas, and not taken as a singular sign of exclusive support. Just because white donors and men donate more doesn’t mean white candidates should continue to have a systemic, undemocratic advantage because of money.

This would serve two key purposes within the Democratic party: first, a system that requires candidates to contribute a large share of campaign funds to the party would reaffirm that the primary is for the benefit of Democratic voters and weed out candidates who care only about personal ambition and not about build a strong Democratic party as a vehicle for positive change.

Second, a system that earmarks these contributions for qualifying and qualified candidates with a fundraising disadvantage ensures that the primary will be a battle of ideas rather than a contest for dollars. It will increase resources of candidates who create concrete policy proposals and appeal to a diverse voter base, and it will raise the profile of candidates of color, especially women of color.

Let’s find out whether the socialists in our party really believe in redistribution.

The Democratic party can and must do better. We cannot simply parrot talking points about how important people of color are to the future of our party - it’s time we acted like it. It’s time we reformed like it.

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