Beto O’Rourke’s entry Thursday into a crowded field of Democrats running for president in 2020 brought up an awkward question for perhaps the first time ever in American politics: Is this the right time for a white guy to run?
It’s an inverted question in a country where 43 of 44 presidents have fit that precise demographic. The current field of 15 Democrats is the most diverse in history, featuring two African-Americans, five women, a Latino, an Asian-American, and a gay man. And the 2018 midterms delivered historic wins for women and people of color, sending a wave of diversity to Washington.
That makes the six white men in the Democratic race for president seem downright conspicuous — and prone to fielding questions about whether they truly represent the “face of the new Democratic Party.”
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was asked to defend his very identity immediately after he announced his second candidacy. Well, he said, he’s still a spry 77 years old. He urged voters not to discriminate and to judge candidates on their abilities, “not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender, and not by their age.”
“I would ask people to look at the totality of who I am – my energy level, my record in the United States Senate — and not just at one criteria,” he said.
When Vanity Fair asked O’Rourke to defend his whiteness, calling it “perhaps his biggest vulnerability,” he acknowledged he’d have to hire well to make his administration representative of America.
“I totally understand people who will make a decision based on the fact that almost every single one of our presidents has been a white man, and they want something different for this country,” O’Rourke said. “And I think that’s a very legitimate basis upon which to make a decision. Especially in the fact that there are some really great candidates out there right now.”
Does it seem unfair — even sexist or racist — for someone to be grilled about their heritage as a basis of evaluating a candidacy?
Well, welcome to the history of campaigning as a woman or a person of color, said Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers-Camden and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.
“It doesn’t make it right, but it’s certainly true that women and people of color always get asked questions on their demographics,” Dittmar said, noting that often they’re asked how they think they can win. “It is so very ingrained in our conversations when we’re talking about otherwise marginalized groups getting into a white male space.”
“White men have never been asked: Why should you as a white man be elected?” Dittmar added. “Men have never had to make a case for why they deserve to be there.”
It should be noted that there is no data to suggest that a white man has faced discrimination in seeking the Oval Office — or indeed any political office at all. But the notion that identity politics have so upended expectations this cycle is head-spinning.
Voters are far more accustomed to public debates over whether America is “ready” for a woman or a Jewish person (Sanders is Jewish) or a black person to be president — and for those individuals to be saddled with expectations for their demographic’s future success. Hillary Clinton’s bruising loss to Donald Trump in 2016 left some Democrats saying they’re not ready to “take another chance” on a female candidate in trying to unseat him.
But the midterms told another story, vaulting women and minorities to political positions from Capitol Hill to capitals across the country. In New England women won competitive Democratic primaries against men for governor in Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Elsewhere in the nation, African-Americans were Democratic nominees for governor in Florida, Georgia, and Maryland and for the Senate in Mississippi. New Mexico elected a Latina governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, and Arizona made Kyrsten Sinema the first openly bisexual person to win a Senate seat.
A national CNN exit poll of the midterm elections found that 79 percent of Democratic voters said it was “very important” to elect someone who was a racial minority and 82 percent said the same about electing a woman — roughly double Republicans’ answers.
A Rasmussen Reports survey released in February found that 63 percent of likely voters think it’s at least somewhat likely that the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020 will be a woman or a person of color. Just 24 percent thought it unlikely.
Still, as the 2020 race approaches, the polls are led by the few white men in the running -- former vice president Joe Biden, who hasn’t even declared, Sanders, and O’Rourke. (The other white men in the race are former Maryland representative John Delaney, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, and former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper.)
“Bernie or Beto or Biden could be the right thing for the Democrats,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who worked with Sanders in 2016 and is not aligned with a 2020 candidate. “I don’t think voters, beginning in Iowa or New Hampshire, are just going to vote for candidates on a singular basis like their gender or their race.”
He thinks the contest hinges on early-voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire — overwhelmingly white — and that a white contender won’t suffer unless he neglects the concerns of minority and women Democrats.
The University of Southern California’s Bob Shrum, who served as a strategist to several Democratic presidential candidates including John Kerry, said it would be a mistake for a candidate to run on identity politics.
“To win this nomination you have to show how you can beat Trump and that could be any number of candidates,” he said. “But I am sure that Biden will be hit with the ‘white-male charge’ just like Beto was.”
Dittmar said she finds it refreshing that questions are being asked about the ticket’s diversity — in part because Democrats should be drawing a clear contrast with the Republican Party, which has become more white and male over time.
But she is not counting out any of the white guys in 2020.
“Because history tells us otherwise. And 2018 tells us otherwise,” Dittmar said. “In the year of the woman, the majority of candidates and majority of winners were men.”