As Cory Booker joins the ranks of sidelined candidates Julian Castro and Kamala Harris, it is time to ask why these three promising candidates of color were not able to sustain their campaigns. While American politics should assuage the pain and embrace the promise of every community, our system should recognize that people of color are nearly half of those who can become new voters each year simply by turning the age of 18.
If you add to that those potential voters who have become naturalized citizens, and who might be angry about the current tenor of the national debate, around 55 percent of the potential additional voters this year are people of color. It is a share that will only likely rise moving forward. Part of the explanation of course rests on the particulars of each candidate.
Booker never found his own lane and it appeared like he was waiting for others to drop out. He was perceived as somewhat delusional and it stuck in the public mind when his “spartacus moment” at the Brett Kavanaugh hearings included the release of confidential documents that were not actually confidential. Castro ran a dynamic campaign aimed at younger and more progressive voters, but his stable record as a moderate mayor worked against the play. Harris was saddled with a record as a prosecutor that was intended to bring credibility but instead alienated such voters.
While the candidates themselves matter, I am a sociologist and know that individual explanations are simply not enough when you see a remarkably consistent and worrisome pattern over time. So what is going on? Part of it is the way that Iowa and New Hampshire, among the whitest of states in the country, loom large in the early horse race. It is a critical feature that Castro railed against and a stand the others avoided for fear of turning off those lucky voters. It is an issue that cannot be avoided moving forward.
But there is more. Consider that the Federal Election Commission was not even prepared for a candidate with a Latino name, forcing Castro to add an accent over his name by hand. Or that the polling data used to boost up candidates and secure them a spot on the debate stage is quite often plagued by inaccurate sampling of voters of color. Or even that a system that relies so heavily on campaign cash is bound to disadvantage Latino and African prospects affected by the legacy of our racial wealth gaps.
For a country that is slated to become majority people of color in the next few decades, it is critical to address these structural features and offer a more representative set of candidates for voters. Reconsidering the order of the primaries, working to limit the role of campaign contributions, and improving polling methodology are all part of the reform package for the future. So too is an active stance by all candidates and all pundits against racism and prejudice and the way it can filter into notions of electability.
With all of that said, it is now critical that these three candidates lick their wounds and get back into the public square to help ensure the defeat of a president whose policies have been hurtful to people of color and to lift up issues that might otherwise get less focus. Quickly after he suspended his campaign, Castro endorsed his fellow candidate Elizabeth Warren. Her policies on immigration mirror his own proposals and have gained strong support by many advocates. His endorsement of Warren will draw more attention to this issue and could garner her some support from the Latino community as well as from the movement activists to which he appealed.
Meanwhile, Harris will take all her prosecutorial skills back to the Senate. While they worked against her in the campaign, they will help her offer incisive commentary and courtroom strategy during the impeachment trial. While Booker deserves a break, he will need to be out there soon or the issues of urban communities that he stressed may lose attention in a race centered around the battleground states and elusive swing voters.
As Castro ended his campaign, he remarked that “it is simply is not our time.” That may be true in this cycle for him and his fellow candidates of color, but Democrats would be wise to examine what went wrong here and how to ensure that our elections will look a lot more like our future.
Manuel Pastor is a professor of sociology and the director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California.