Politics

The Democratic presidential field is the most diverse it's ever been, but early primaries lack the same representation

Key Points
  • With the entrance of former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick into the race this week, the Democratic primary for the 2020 presidential election continues to be the largest and most diverse race in American political history.
  • Candidates from all over the nation with a variety of backgrounds are battling to represent the party, but early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina lack the diversity of the rest of the party.
  • Despite the criticism of the current structure, the format is unlikely to be changed. Iowa holds a unique place in American politics, and despite lobbying from other states for a bigger role, the Hawkeye State remains first in the nation.
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro speaks at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, August 9, 2019.
Eric Thayer | Reuters

With the entrance of former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick into the race this week, the Democratic primary for the 2020 presidential election continues to be the largest and most diverse race in American political history.

Candidates from all over the nation with a variety of backgrounds are battling to get the nomination, but some in the Democratic Party are voicing their concerns that the early state primaries lack the representation of many of the party's core voters.

"We can't as a Democratic Party, continually and justifiably complain about Republicans who suppress the vote of people of color, and then turn around and start our nominating contest in two states, that even though they take their role seriously, hardly have any people of color," Julian Castro, presidential candidate and former Housing secretary, told reporters in Iowa on Tuesday.

Castro is not the first candidate to criticize the order in which the primary contests are held. Every election cycle creates a discussion about the sequence in which states go first. Iowa prides itself on its caucuses being the first in the nation, while New Hampshire law dictates that it holds its primary seven days before any other states.

Upending decades of tradition in any circumstance is hard, but with a field of 18 Democrats still in the running, many are wondering if the primaries should also reflect a changing electorate.

Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina are the first states in the Democratic primary, with an early say in choosing front-runners and culling challengers from the herd since the 1970s. South Carolina serves as the bookend of the early contests before the cascade of voting on Super Tuesday, which is March 3.

"The first three states are about creating momentum for your candidacy, it's not about the delegate maps," says Andrew Feldman of Feldman Strategies, who previously was political director of John Delaney's 2012 congressional campaign.

"Voters want someone who can win, not only in a Democratic primary, but a general election."

Even though they go first, Iowa and New Hampshire barely reflect the demographics of the party. Demographically, the population of Iowa is 90.7% white, while New Hampshire is 93.2% white, a far cry from the national average of 66.6% white.

According to the Census Bureau, South Carolina's black population of 27.8% makes it the most diverse of the first four states, with Nevada in a distant second at 9.1%. African Americans now make up 26% of the Democratic Party, making them one of the most powerful voting blocs in the party.

"South Carolina can be a booster rocket, or it could finish you off if you're one of the people limping in there," says longtime Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who was national campaign manager for Howard Dean's presidential campaign in 2004 and senior advisor to John Edwards' 2008 presidential campaign.

Candidates with deep support in South Carolina historically have been able to use the Palmetto State as a springboard to Super Tuesday, when diverse states like Texas, California, Virginia, Alabama and North Carolina will take their pick of candidates.

"If you don't have the excitement of those that are in diverse populations in diverse states, you cannot win the general election," says Amanda Loveday, former communications director for South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn. Loveday currently is senior advisor to the Joe Biden-affiliated super PAC, Unite the Country.

But some strategists and party figures think despite Iowa's demographics, the case could be made that any candidate could win there if they can appeal to the state's well-informed voters.

"[Iowa's] a white state. It's not very diverse, that's true. But that didn't stop Barack Obama," Trippi says.

Obama edged out Edwards and Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, en route to winning the party's nomination and eventually the presidency.

Despite the criticism of the current structure, the format is unlikely to be changed. Iowa holds a unique place in American politics, and despite lobbying from other states for a bigger role, the Hawkeye State remains first in the nation.

"Right or wrong, these are the first four states we have to deal with," says Kelly Dietrich, CEO of the National Democratic Training Committee.

"You have to prove you can be successful in at least one of those four."