First Democratic debate of 2020 could feature only white candidates: Critics

So far, no minority candidates have qualified to appear on stage.

January 7, 2020, 5:10 PM

With just days left to qualify for the first Democratic debate of 2020, the stage is is so far shaping up to include only white candidates and unlike the last debate, the chances of at least one candidate of color qualifying before the deadline seem slim.

The deadline to qualify for the Jan. 14 debate, set to be hosted by CNN and The Des Moines Register at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, is Friday at 11:59 p.m. So far, only five of the 14 candidates still running have qualified, and all of them are white: former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Several candidates -- both current and former -- have taken issue with this year's primary process, including the debate qualifications set by the Democratic National Committee, arguing that a historically diverse primary field has been unnecessarily dwindled down.

PHOTO: Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks as Mayor Pete Buttigieg,  Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar listen during during the Democratic presidential primary debate on Dec. 19, 2019, in Los Angeles.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks as Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar listen during during the Democratic presidential primary debate on Dec. 19, 2019, in Los Angeles.
Mario Tama/Getty Images, FILE

"It's both an honor and disappointment to be the lone candidate of color on the stage tonight,” businessman Andrew Yang said during the PBS NewsHour/Politico debate last month, which was on the verge of only including white candidates after California Sen. Kamala Harris, who is black and Indian American, suspended her presidential bid.

He was able to qualify with just two days to spare.

Yang, who is Asian American, is the only candidate of color with any real shot at qualifying by Friday, according to an ABC News analysis, but he still faces an uphill battle for a spot on stage.

According to his campaign, Yang has already achieved the grassroots fundraising threshold of at least 225,000 individual donors, but, according to an ABC News analysis, he only has one qualifying with at least 5% support -- three short of the four required to meet the polling threshold.

Despite that, and despite not earning enough support in two qualifying polls out of Iowa and New Hampshire on Sunday, Yang said he was "confident" that he would qualify for the next debate.

"We're growing all the time here on the ground in Iowa. You can see it with this crowd, the crowds we've been drawing this entire trip. The electricity -- energy is higher than it's ever been," he told reporters after a town hall in Iowa. "We're going to make history on Feb. 3 regardless of whether I'm on that debate stage or not, but the plan right now is to make the debate stage."

While Yang predicted during the last debate that New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who is African American, would return to the debate stage, his prospects of qualifying are even slimmer than Yang's. According to his campaign, Booker has also met the donor threshold, but he doesn't have any qualifying polls yet, according to ABC News' analysis.

In addition to Booker and Yang, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who is of Southeast Asian, Polynesian and Caucasian descent, and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who is African American, are also likely to be left off the debate stage. Neither Gabbard nor Patrick have met the donor threshold or secured any qualifying polls. Patrick, however, entered the race after his competitors had been campaigning for months, announcing his candidacy on Nov. 14.

Quentin Jones, the founder and executive director of The Collective PAC, a political action committee that works to elect African American politicians, told ABC News that the lack of diversity anticipated for the next debate is "unfortunate." However, he was optimistic about a diverse Democratic ticket come November.

"There is no way in hell the Democratic party can win in 2020 without having a person of color on the ticket," Jones said. "And while I'd love to see a diverse debate stage, it's not necessarily indicative of where voters are and where the ticket will end up in July at the DNC convention."

The DNC has upped the qualifying criteria as the campaign calendar progressed, and unlike the first two DNC-commissioned debates, the candidates must meet both the grassroots fundraising and polling thresholds to qualify for the debates.

In a statement provided to ABC News Tuesday, Adrienne Watson, deputy communications director for the DNC, defended the debate qualifying process: "The DNC has been more than inclusive throughout this entire process with an expansive list of qualifying polls... In addition, we have not only expanded the list poll sponsors this cycle to include online polls, but we have expanded the qualifying period for the January debate to account for the holidays."

But along with the holiday season came a dearth of polling, something the DNC factored in when setting the qualifying window, as Watson noted.

In order to count as a qualifying poll for the January debate, the polls must be both sponsored by an organization on a list set by the DNC and be released between Nov. 14 and Jan. 10 at 11:59 p.m. A total of 19 qualifying polls -- 10 national and nine conducted in one of the first four early voting states -- have been released within the window so far.

In an interview on MSNBC Tuesday, DNC Chairman Tom Perez said there would be at least one more qualifying poll before the deadline.

The lack of early state polling prompted Yang to send a letter to the DNC on Dec. 21 requesting it commission one poll in each early voting state before the deadline. At the time Yang sent the letter, there hadn't been a qualifying poll out of an early state since Nov. 18. The next early state qualifying polls weren't released until Sunday, and neither the Iowa nor New Hampshire poll released helped Yang, or any of the other candidates who hadn't already qualified.

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang speaks at a campaign rally on Jan. 6, 2020, in Davenport, Iowa.
Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang speaks at a campaign rally on Jan. 6, 2020, in Davenport, Iowa.
Andrew Harnik/AP

Perez defended the DNC's decision to reject Yang's request on MSNBC Tuesday.

"The moment the DNC starts doing its own polling and then you get the results, we're going to create a whole new set of trust issues because people will say, 'Oh, you rigged this.' And that's why we use independent pollsters," Perez said.

The DNC chairman also said that in 2016, candidates had to meet a harder threshold to qualify, needing an average of at least 5% in the five most recent qualifying polls preceding the debate. However, only three candidates were vying for the Democratic nomination in January 2016, as compared to the 14 currently in the race.

But some critics have said that another factor potentially at play is the make up of states like Iowa--which is largely white. Such critiques were at the heart of former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro's criticism of the primary process during his final months of his campaign.

Castro, who suspended his bid for president on Thursday, had criticized Iowa and New Hampshire's place in the primary calendar, arguing that the lack of diversity in the first two voting states is not reflective of the Democratic Party's base. He was the only Latino candidate in the race.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, about 85% of Iowa's population identifies as white, not Hispanic or Latino. Under 3% of the population identifies as Asian, 4% of the population identifies as black and just over 6% of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino.

In an interview on MSNBC after ending his campaign, Castro said, "The fact that you start your nominating process in two states that are – that are some of the whitest states that lack people of color -- I mean, it is very ironic that we keep telling black women, you`re our saviors... And at the same time, you start your nominating process of two states that hardly have any black women, any black people at all. It doesn't make any sense."

Even though he hailed the Democratic party as the "bigger tent party," saying it's more representative of this country's diversity than the Republican party, Castro still criticized the DNC's qualifying process.

"The DNC is going to have to go back and look at these thresholds they put in place because I think, clearly, there`s been a misfire on some of this. And we have an opportunity in the future to correct that," Castro said on MSNBC. "There`s nothing sacrosanct about the process that was put in place. In fact, in some very concrete ways, it has failed and we need to improve it."

Also looming over the January debate is impeachment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has still not sent the articles of impeachment to the Senate, and a date for the Senate trial's start has yet to be set. Three of the five candidates who have qualified are sitting senators, meaning they will need to be in Washington for the trial.

"Obviously, if there’s a trial on the 14th, then we’ll move the debate," Perez said on MSNBC.

In a previous statement from communications director Xochitl Hinojosa, the DNC was less definitive, "If a conflict with an impeachment trial is unavoidable, the DNC will evaluate its options and work with all the candidates to accommodate them."

Related Topics