The Democratic Party’s field of 2020 candidates was supposed to be among the most diverse and accomplished in recent memory. Despite their modest differences, each candidate would reflect core Democratic values in their own way. And in the end, any one of the candidates Democratic voters settled on would likely be acceptable to both the party’s base and its influential elites. Most important, all of them could beat Donald Trump.
None of this is going according to plan.
Today, those hopeful expectations are being replaced by a sense of panic. Progressive Democrats are beginning to confront the unpopularity of their policy preferences and the candidates who advocate them. The more viable moderates in the race are so underwhelming that the party’s skittish donor base is coaxing late entrants into the race.
But the primary source of liberal anxiety, it seems, is the fact that the candidates whose support stubbornly refuses to collapse are overwhelmingly white and/or male. It’s all too much for Democratic partisans, some of whom have begun to wonder if they even recognize their party’s voters anymore.
In an analysis of the 2020 Democratic field’s fundraising efforts earlier this month, Axios painted a disturbing portrait of the Democratic electorate. “The leading white candidates in the Democratic presidential primary combined have nearly four times as much cash on hand as all five non-white candidates,” observed reporter Alexi McCammond. The disparity is reflective of the nation’s broader racial wealth gap and, a sentient observer must intuit, the suspect preferences of Democratic contributors.
The amount of “cash-on-hand” from which a campaign can draw is not a perfect reflection of a candidate’s appeal to voters and donors. Rather, it’s a measure of how much a campaign takes in versus how much it spends. Nevertheless, McCammond found the party’s white candidates maintain a financial advantage over their non-white competitors.
McCammond observed that “Kamala Harris was forced to lay off dozens of her campaign staffers this week,” which is supposedly illustrative of the societal obstacles placed in her path. But Harris still had more in the bank at the end of the last quarter than Joe Biden, who has consistently underperformed in the fundraising race despite his strength in national polling. More to the point, though, if Harris (or any of the other minority candidates in the field) had a base of support comparable to the top-tier candidates, her capacity to fundraise would surely improve. This is not an exercise in pure speculation. In the immediate wake of the June Democratic debate in which Harris effectively put Biden on his heels over the issue of forced school busing, the California senator took in $2 million over just 24 hours. If she could have sustained that performance, her fundraising tallies would reflect that. But she could not.
“One of the largest impediments for women running for office, particularly women of color, is the ability to raise money,” former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams told The Grio in a quote highlighted by McCammond. “We don’t believe we can because we rarely see folks who do.” And yet, the very visible Abrams outraised her Republican opponent in 2018. Moreover, as McCammond concedes, Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum’s $50 million haul (also beating his GOP opponent) did not equate to victory at the polls. But all this complicates an otherwise simple narrative, which is of instrumental utility for Democrats underperforming in the polls; that is, their party is less racially enlightened than the Obama years would suggest.
And latent racial enmity isn’t the only backward resentment Democrats are prepared to lug along with them into the voting booth. Sen. Amy Klobuchar hung a lantern on the Democratic Party’s gender disparities over the weekend when she took aim at South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “Of the women on the stage,” Klobuchar said, “do I think we would be standing on that stage if we had the experience that [Buttigieg] had? No, I don’t. Maybe we’re held to a different standard.”
The Associated Press took its cues, adding that, despite the presence of six women in the Democratic race, only one—Elizabeth Warren—polls competitively with the men vying for the White House. “Is it sexism or just politics?” the dispatch pointedly asked. This framing of the race sets the stage for an intersectional Gotterdammerung in which aspirants to be the first women president and the man seeking to be the first openly gay president bludgeon one another with their respective identities until voters defer to their collective sense of historical guilt.
What we’re left with when we clear aside all the rhetorical clutter is the self-serving assertion that the choices Democratic voters and donors are making are fueled by sexism and racism. It’s less an argument than a primal scream, and a familiar one to Republican ears. Maybe our partisan divisions aren’t so deep after all.