Sanders to headline Iowa event amid impeachment trial
Democrats voice frustrations at plight of black, Hispanic presidential candidates
Democrats are searching for answers as their largest and most diverse field of presidential contenders ever has been whittled down to a top tier of white candidates.
California Sen. Kamala Harris's exit from the race on Tuesday underscored the degree to which candidates of color have struggled to gain traction in the Democratic primary.
At the moment, it appears that the party's nominee is likely to be one of four white people - former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), or South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
And with Harris gone, the remaining six candidates who have qualified for the December debate are all white. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and billionaire activist Tom Steyer are the other two candidates to have met the requirements.
It's still possible that one or more candidates of color could qualify for the December debate. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) have seven days to reach the polling thresholds set by the Democratic National Committee.
But for now, the finger pointing has begun.
Some are accusing the media of going easy on white candidates. There are also arguments that late-arriving billionaire candidates are drowning out other campaigns.
"It's very troubling and I'm worried that Democrats might be setting themselves up for failure," said Cornell William Brooks, a former NAACP president and current director at the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at Harvard University.
"The demographic shift in this country, which is most pronounced in the Democratic Party, is toward a younger, more progressive and more diverse electorate. We could be looking at a debate stage that's far different from that. When you have more billionaires than black people on stage, how are you supposed to sell that?"
Democrats pride themselves on a racially diverse party, and the plight of candidates of color is raising new concerns about a primary calendar that gives significant weight to Iowa and New Hampshire.
About 90 percent of people in Iowa and New Hampshire are white. The third and fourth states to vote, Nevada and South Carolina, are far more racially diverse.
"It's profoundly unfair and anachronistic," Brooks said. "The national party has to create a calendar so we have a truly representative segment of the citizenry and electorate who will vote. That's the only thing that will give us the best gauge of who is most electable."
Not all Democrats share this view.
Former President Obama pulled off a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses in 2008, which subsequently generated momentum for his campaign among black voters in South Carolina.
This time around, Biden appears to have a deep and lasting bond with black voters, who have boosted him to a double-digit lead in the polls of South Carolina.
Harris and Booker, some Democrats say, have been unable to generate as broad of a bond with black voters.
"African Americans are not monolithic and the assumption that we are is a mistake," said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina. "The depth and width of Biden's support among black voters has been underestimated, and that's been proven out time and time again."
Former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, a 2020 Democratic White House hopeful, blasted the media Tuesday, saying a pile-up of stories about Harris's campaign imploding in the weeks leading up to her exit were unnecessary.
Castro and others are arguing that every national campaign is rife with drama, but that the stories of infighting were peculiar to Harris's campaign.
"The way that the media treated Sen. Harris in this campaign has been something else," Castro said. "In the last few days, to see articles out ... that basically trashed her campaign and focused on one small part of it, and I think held her to a different standard, a double standard, has been grossly unfair and unfortunate."
Democrats interviewed by The Hill agreed that candidates of color - and women in particular - face unique challenges and a steeper climb to perceived electability than white candidates or men.
"It's a self-fulfilling prophecy," said one Democratic campaign staffer. "Poll well in a predominantly white state and then the media buzzes about you and then the donors give you money."
But others said the media is mostly equal in its treatment of candidates, propping them up when they're flying high and kicking them when they're down.
And the complaints about the media, some Democrats say, ignores the glaring deficiencies in the Harris campaign, which ran out of money. Harris also struggled at times to define herself and her positions.
"We're not at a point in this country where it's easy to run as a woman or a candidate of color," said one Democratic strategist. "But that said, Harris ran a shitty campaign."
By far, the most venom is being reserved for Steyer and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the white billionaires who joined the race late and have combined to spend more than $100 million, dwarfing the rest of the field and bigfooting the candidates who are struggling most.
Emotions are still raw among Harris supporters, who lashed out at the billionaires and accused them of encroaching on turf that they should have conceded to the party's diverse, next generation of leaders.
"We cannot allow billionaire candidates to strangle our democracy," said Melissa Watson, a Harris supporter and the chairwoman of the Berkeley County Democratic Party in South Carolina. "We cannot allow candidates to come and drop $100 million of their money and erase the work that people have been doing on the ground for 10 months.
"That's morally unacceptable."