Primary Colors

There is at least one fundamental problem with the current nominating process – it is far too dominated by white voters.

This works out fine for the white party – a.k.a. the Republican Party, a party whose energy, leadership, and worldview comes from the white fundamentalist South, the very forces on the wrong side of the Civil Rights movement four decades ago. Since the GOP gets almost all of its votes from whites, it doesn't really mind that Iowa and New Hampshire have an early, outsized, dominating influence over the process.

The Democratic Party, however, has not carried the white vote since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton (twice), and Al Gore all received more votes than their opponents – but they all lost the white vote; it was African American and Latino votes that made the difference.

Not just for the sake of fairness, but also so we can win, Democrats cannot continue to have two almost-all-white states determine their nominees. We need a nomination process that rewards the ability to reach out to African Americans and Latinos as well as whites. This should be an opportunity. America is changing, and with each passing year the white share of the electorate gets smaller. Nominating a candidate who inspires a multi-racial, multi-cultural electorate would be a plus, and more of an asset all the time. (Even smart conservatives recognize this demography, which is why the Bushies spent so much time courting the Latino vote.)

What should we do? One thing we should do as part of the primary process is to keep the large set of candidate debates that were held in 2003. Terry McAuliffe, chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), was strongly criticized for holding so many debates, especially since he refused to follow the advice of many pundits to bar Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton, and Carol Moseley-Braun from the debates as "unserious" candidates.

But I believe the debates played a huge role in whittling down George W. Bush's popularity during 2003. For the better part of a year, nine articulate candidates were poking holes in the Bush mythology, and for the first time since 9-11, some of those criticisms were actually making it into the press. In addition, Kucinich & Sharpton & Moseley-Braun were actually more serious about fundamental issues like peace and poverty, which helped mobilize the party base by raising issues that the front-runners shied away from, and helped weaken George W. by pointing out the bigger flaws in his record that had somehow escaped the notice of the mainstream media (like the fact that he had lied about the war, cheated in Florida in 2000, and repeatedly violated the U.S. Constitution).

One thing we should not do is a set of rotating regional primaries (the South one election cycle, the Northeast the next, then the West, then the Midwest). This idea comes up every 4 years, but I think it's a terrible idea. It gives a huge advantage to a candidate from that first region, especially in those regions (the South & the Northeast) prone to favor their own, but does little to help defeat the Republicans in November.

I firmly believe the nomination process must incorporate more diverse states into the early part of the voting – and by early, I mean the very same days as Iowa and New Hampshire, if not before. There are several smaller states with large Latino populations that would be good choices – states like New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado. These states have the added bonus of being swing states, which connects with an interesting idea put forward by Steve Rosenthal of ACT, to hold our early primaries in states which were close in the previous election. The states with large African American constituencies that were fairly early in the process in 2004 include Washington, D.C., South Carolina, and Delaware. None of them are considered swing states, but Rosenthal's idea could still be incorporated into a multi-cultural primary process by choosing a couple of the bigger battleground states with large African American populations, like the key Midwest states of Ohio and Michigan, or the only remaining battleground Southern state, Florida (which also has a large and fast-growing Latino population), or perhaps even Virginia (where the growing suburbs will eventually make the state competitive nationally).

Or, we could just start in California, the most important state of all for electing a Democratic President, and a state which contains one of the most diverse populations on earth (including Asian-Americans, also a fast-growing constituency).

The point is, our next nominee needs to be able to activate and inspire a multi-racial, multi-cultural base. In 2008, we will not have the same strong hostility to George W. Bush that we had this year to drive turnout up. We need a candidate who can reach across cultural lines to mobilize a record vote, and a new set of diverse states at the front end of the primary process can help identify such a nominee.

The United States is becoming less white every day, a fact that has the nativists gnashing their teeth. The Democratic Party could be the beneficiary of a more diverse electorate, if it acts as if it really wants all the votes of all Americans. I think this argues for new policies to meet the needs of African Americans and Latinos for jobs, decent wages, health care, and better public schools.

It suggests that Democrats should propose new foreign policies to build stronger links to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. It means the next party leadership must give special attention to minority outreach – along with real funding and real organizers and real voting reform – and in particular outreach to the Latino community, where the Republicans are working hard to cut into the Democratic vote.

I suspect the new demography means we have seen the last all-white-male ticket for a while. And I hope it means that the Democratic Party will at long last diversify its nominating process, especially at the front end. To win, we need a diverse vote. Our next nominee should have to prove that she or he can reach out to that diverse vote, in order to win the nomination.

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