How Democrats Are Keeping Black People Out of Primaries

Despite the massive presence of Black voters, the lack of leading Black players is no surprise

Contributing Editor | Dr. G.S. Potter

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It should come as no surprise that there likely won’t be a Black candidate at the next Democratic debate.  No surprise that despite being in a Black-owned movie studio in a majority Black town, the last Democratic debate - or any Democratic debate to date, for that matter - did not feature a Black moderator from a Black newspaper or Black-owned media outlet.

What might come as a surprise, though, is why that is.

Of course the mainstream media is White media.  White people own the major cable networks and news outlets.  And these White networks and news outlets talk about White issues in White ways with White actors and pundits. 

So when the worlds of cable television and national news come together to decide who gets to be the Democratic candidate for President, not one person in all of the United States should expect anything less than a bunch of mostly not-Black moderators asking a bunch of not-Black candidates a bunch of not-Black questions about a bunch of not-Black issues. 

The problem is how people explain this phenomenon.

Far too often folks chalk up the omission of Black people from the Democratic debates to some nebulous and general form of racism.  And then cite the lack of representation on TV and in the media.  And then say things about how Black folks need to fight for a seat at the table.  And that’s about as far as things go. 

That needs to change. 

There are very specific reasons that Black candidates won’t be answering questions asked by Black moderators about Black issues.  More accurately, there are very specific policies that the Democratic party have strategically put in place to prevent Black people – especially Black people carrying Black issues – from coming anywhere near the debates. 

And if they can’t make it to the debates, they can’t make it to (or through) the primaries. 

So if we want to see Black issues and Black candidates on the debates and in the White House, we need to stop attributing everything to the fog of racism and start attacking the policies the Democratic Party has put in place to keep Black folks out - or, at the very least, contained. 

So, this is how it really works. 

The people do not choose the Democratic candidate.  They are chosen by a combination of news outlets, think tanks, universities under the direction of the Democratic Party. 

Here’s how.

The Democratic Party designates the rules for the two core processes that guide the Democratic debates.  The first is the rules for qualification to participate on the debate stage.  The second is the calendar for the primaries.  These two processes ensure that the Party leadership decides what issues are discussed and by whom. 

Let’s start with the rules for qualifying for the debate stage.

As dictated by the Democratic Party

To qualify for the December debate, candidates must meet one of two polling requirements (“Polling Threshold”) and the unique donor requirement (“Grassroots Fundraising Threshold”) as detailed below.

Let’s toss the Fundraising Threshold aside and focus on the Polling Threshold.

According to Party rules ….

To meet the Polling Threshold for the December  Debate, candidates must meet either the “Four-Poll Threshold” or the “Early State Polling Threshold …

To meet the Four-Poll Threshold, a candidate “must receive 4% or more support in at least four polls (which may be national polls, or single-state polls in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and/or Nevada) meeting the Qualifying Poll Criteria…

To meet the Early State Polling Threshold a candidate must “receive 6% or more support in two single-state polls in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and/or Nevada.

Right off the bat, Party leadership prioritizes candidates that will appeal to White voters by placing White States like Iowa and New Hampshire in a position to choose what issues and individuals should move through to the next round. 

The Democratic Party can’t say that they are prioritizing White states, so they say they are giving deference to the states that vote earliest in the primaries.  What they are also failing to reveal to the public is that while there is some wiggle room for states to move their primary dates, Party leadership on the whole dictates the order that states vote in.

And they can change that order at their discretion.

For example, in 2008, the Nevada caucus was added to the list of early voting states as an effort to include “Western” representation in the candidate selection process. And numerous proposals have been put forward in efforts to re-designate which states and populations will get to have the early voting advantage.   

A “Black Plan” Primary States Calendar

The California Plan, also known as the American plan, reorders the primary calendar in a way that starts with smaller states and moves towards larger ones based on tiers.  Within each tier, states are chosen at random. The Delaware Plan, which was proposed by Republicans, also reorders the primary according to the size of the state, but does not include a random selection component. The National Association of Secretaries of State supports a rotating regional primary system.  This separates the primaries into the West, the Midwest, the South and the Northeast. 

There is no plan, though, that protects the primaries from over-weighting the White vote in the Primary process.  And there is definitely no plan to prioritize the needs of the Black community.

If the Black community and Black voters want to see Black candidates, Black agenda items, and a Black president, it is going to have to propose a Black plan.  This plan would articulate a method by which states like Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia become early voting states, and part of the early state voting list.  In this way, candidates would have to poll well in Black communities if they want to make it to the debate stage or the White House. 

Black leaders will not only have to propose such a plan, they will have to launch a relentless campaign against White leadership in the Democratic Party to see it enacted. And they should. Immediately. 

But even if the Black community succeeds in placing states with large numbers of Black voters on the primary calendar, Democratic polling requirements still stand as a deterrent to both Black candidates and Black agenda items. 

According to the rules put forward by the Democratic Party …

For a poll to be counted towards the Four-Poll Threshold or Early State Polling Threshold, it must meet each of the four requirements described below (“Qualifying Poll Criteria”):

  1. Each poll must be sponsored by one of the following 16 entities or pairs of entities (“Qualifying Poll Sponsors”): Associated Press; ABC News/Washington Post; CBS News/YouGov; CNN; Des Moines Register; Fox News; Monmouth University; National Public Radio; NBC News/Wall Street Journal; NBC News/Marist; New York Times; Quinnipiac University; University of New Hampshire; USA Today/Suffolk University; Winthrop University. For individual entities that are included only in Qualifying Poll Sponsor pairs but are not listed individually, independent polling by such individual entities or polling conducted in new partnerships with such individual entities shall not meet the Qualifying Poll Criteria. The DNC reserves the right to add a Nevada-specific poll sponsor to this list in the near future.

Even if Black-heavy states replace Iowa and New Hampshire on the list of early voting states during the primaries, White polling entities and their White media counterparts stand ready to prevent Black issues from making it to the platform.  If you didn’t notice, there are now Black-owned polling entities on this list.

Without the inclusion, or more accurately the prioritization, of Black media and Black scholarship in the Qualifying Poll Criteria – Presidential agenda items will always be chosen by White media outlets and Presidential candidates will always be chosen by White academics and pollsters. 

All of the polling entities that can be used to qualify a Presidential candidate for a debate stage are White owned, White operated, and White populated.  And until this changes, it will be difficult to push Black agenda items to the front of the Democratic platform.

If the Black community wants to see Black agenda items on the debate stage with its Black candidate, it needs to apply overwhelming pressure on Democratic leadership to formally place Black owned and operated media outlets, Black universities, and Black polling entities on the Qualifying Poll Criteria list.  In fact, it would be a mistake if HBCU’s did not take up this cause and begin using the current debates to launch an attack on White polling requirements during this current primary season.  Black media outlets and Black polling entities should follow suit because it would also be a mistake to do nothing.

We can’t continue to allow our frustrations to diffuse into a nebulous trap of generalized racism.  There are very specific policies and strategies that are being used to keep Black candidates and Black agenda items off of the debate stage and out of the White House.  If we organized to counter them and replace them with policies that protect and amplify the Black agenda and the leaders that support it, we can begin to break down the structural racism within the Democratic Party. 

If we do nothing, we get a lot more White Presidents.