Article after article keeps hailing the “diversity” of the 2020 Democratic presidential field. More female candidates, more minority candidates, and for the first time, an openly gay candidate running in a national campaign. However, for all the praise being heaped, there remains an undercurrent of resentment, from some within the party, that the polls and conversation continue to be dominated by two septuagenarian white men.
There have been stories here and there asking why Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden sit atop a diverse field and why, in the age of #MeToo and the need for Democrats to cobble together a coalition of minorities and younger voters, that these two men continue to get the most press and most attention from polls.
First, this article from Yahoo News, which dropped on Saturday, questions why Biden and Bernie seem to have sucked all the oxygen from the other candidates:
The presidential race itself is historically diverse: six female candidates, three African Americans, a Hispanic former cabinet member, an Asian-American, a Hindu congresswoman, and a gay military-veteran mayor. Nine contenders are under 50.
The 2020 campaign “calls for a new generation of leadership,” candidate Pete Buttigieg, the Indiana mayor who at 37 is less than half Biden’s age, said recently.
And yet it is the two septuagenarians who currently dominate the nominations landscape, with Biden at 29 percent and Sanders at 23 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics polling average. No one else is in double digits.
The White House has relished the irony.
“Old, white, male career politicians like Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden is not exactly what the Democratic Party had in mind for 2020 when they’re running all these different folks who are talking about identity politics and what makes them different,” counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway told Fox on Thursday.
Of course, the current White House is tickled to see Bernie and Biden floating to the top of the Democratic field. Donald Trump is a member of the septuagenarian white male club as well, if Democrats fail to nominate a younger, more vibrant candidate to the 2020 campaign, that issue is basically taken off the table. Democrats would be unable, in theory, to make the needed arguments to rekindle the Obama coalition of 2008 and 2012.
The Democratic candidates with the more traditional profiles, Biden and Sanders — each of whom has run for president before — have the strongest name recognition.
That has “significant influence on polling at this point,” Kelly Dittmar, an expert at the Center for American Women and Politics, told AFP.
Unlike recent congressional elections, “presidential politics has been the most dominated by men, and masculinity, for all of our history.” Dittmar said that is true not just in who inhabits the office, but in the norms of behavior and expectations voters place in presidential leaders.
A woman, of course, has made the case that it’s possible to shatter that presidential shield of masculinity, as Hillary Clinton did when she won more popular votes than Trump in 2016.
At this point, so early in the race, it could be a mixture of name recognition coupled with a strong desire on the part of Democrats to be victorious in 2020. With a name like Biden on the ticket, many Democratic voters see Donald Trump’s defeat as more likely than with a name like Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, or Elizabeth Warren.
As the article notes, however, Hillary Clinton proved that a female candidate can win the popular vote, and likely win the presidency with some campaign tweaking and a better, more well-liked candidate not named “Clinton.”
So if Bernie and Biden are building their polling leads on name recognition, what about the general coverage of the race by major media outlets? How does that coverage reflect the diversity of the field? The answer to that question depends on who you ask, but there are some female Democratic activists who are very displeased with the attention that Biden has received since announcing last week:
Why is Biden, 76, being lauded in the US media, they’re all wondering, while multiple female candidates with less baggage and better ideas struggle to get attention at all?
“Joe Biden twice failed to win a bid for the presidency and yet, here we are—third time’s a charm?,” Molly Wink, a Colorado voter I had interviewed earlier, emailed me the day Biden formally announced (April 25), noting she felt “compelled” to write. “Can you imagine what would happen if Hillary had decided to run again? She would have been lambasted,” she added.
Several news outlets immediately dubbed Biden the “grownup” in the race, insulting “the fabulous women and people of color who are also running,” feminist author Leta Hong Fincher said on Twitter.
Biden’s coverage may be explained in part by the poll lead he walked into. The broader Democratic electorate is hankering for a moderate candidate, some polls show, and that, apparently, means a white man who harkens back to a gentler pre-Trump era.
But as the US’s 2020 election plays out, it’s also worth examining who the journalists are who are covering it—and trying to figure out how much of the male candidates’ popularity is a self-fulfilling media prophecy.
The author of that piece, Heather Timmons, argues that it’s newsroom sexism that has created the situation where male candidates in the Democratic primary are receiving better coverage than their female counterparts:
According to an annual study by the Women’s Media Center published in January, men had the clear majority of bylines on US elections in 2018, in print and newswires, including the Associated Press and Reuters. In online election coverage, male bylines outnumbered women’s by three-to-one.
In fact, despite prominent American women journalists in the White House press room or on the front lines, the news on any subject that most Americans read is still crafted and delivered mostly by men, the study also found.
The journalists covering the 2020 race are also probably whiter than the voters they’re writing for—American newspapers are overwhelmingly more white than the population of the cities where they are based, the 2018 American Society of News Editors’ survey shows. No one has broken US election coverage down by race of the reporters or editors involved.
According to Timmons, female Democratic candidates, or perhaps even gay Democratic candidates, simply don’t stand a chance because the press is either ignoring them or focusing on their flaws rather than their strengths.
The formula, according to Timmons, is that candidates like Bernie and Biden are already well-recognized and well-known. As a result, newsrooms cover everything they do and say and write it up as being more meaningful than it may actually be.
In return, readers (who are also voters) consume this content and build up certain candidates in their minds over other candidates. In this case, the less-known minority candidates become less relevant and the male candidates in the race get all the coverage. In the end, the prophecy keeps repeating, according to Timmons.
Too Early To Complain?
It’s still early in the cycle, but things seem to crystalize in recent years earlier than they did some twenty or thirty years ago. Polling is released on a daily basis, viral clips make their way around social media, personality-driven campaigns make for less examining of the issues, and all of this contributes to voters making up their minds earlier and earlier without truly examining the field.
On the other hand, what if Democrats simply want to win in 2020 and feel that Bernie or Biden would give them the best shot. Many Democratic voters may be thinking that they could nominate a minority female candidate, such as Kamala Harris, and maybe they would even like to, but what if she loses? Would the virtue-signaling be enough to justify nominating a weaker candidate? What if the candidate is only perceived as weaker based on the things Timmons outlined in the article mentioned above? That’s a rabbit hole discussion to go down.
We’ve already discussed the battle lines drawn between socialism and capitalism within the 2020 Democratic field, but the other social battle lines include ageism and sexism.
The argument can be made that every time an author writes about sexism within the Democratic field by speaking ill of “older, white male” candidates, that the author then creates a new prejudice in the field against age and skin color.
From some accounts, you have to pick which prejudicial notion to accept and which to discard. Is it acceptable to be for or against a candidate based on their age? Gender? Ethnicity? Sexuality? Take your pick. Because in the politics of today, you can’t be for something without being against something else, according to some observers.