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Candidates line up during the second night of Democratic debates in Miami.
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14 political experts on why the first Democratic debates were history-making

In partnership with Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, we spoke with political experts about just how much representation mattered.

Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

While there was a lot to process from the first wave of Democratic debates, at least one major theme shone through: Representation matters.

The Democratic field this cycle is the most diverse it’s ever been. It includes six women, six people of color, and an openly LGBTQ candidate — and the conversation onstage reflected many of the benefits that emerge when there’s a more representative pool of candidates.

Although white men still make up the majority of the field, the increased diversity was apparent in both nights of this week’s debates, which featured more candidates attempting to address policies through a lens that considered gender and race.

From a historic moment on Thursday when Sen. Kamala Harris confronted former Vice President Joe Biden about his opposition to busing to a robust discussion of immigration on Wednesday to Amy Klobuchar’s pointed call-out of Jay Inslee during a back-and-forth on abortion rights, candidates did not shy away from connecting their identities with the conversation.

“The gender, race, and sexual orientation diversity of the two Democratic debates had a huge impact on the content of the conversations because it normalized the diversity,” said Menlo College political science professor Melissa Michelson. “Instead of tokens, the women and people of color were simply candidates.”

As study after study has shown, teams that are more diverse are more effective because they encompass a wider range of perspectives. In partnership with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, Vox spoke with 14 experts about how the diverse pool of Democratic candidates in this year’s lineup changed the way issues were discussed — and the dynamics of the debate.

Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Kelly Dittmar, political science professor, Rutgers University, and scholar, Center for American Women and Politics

It’s unusual for white men to experience their race and gender identities as potential liabilities to winning the presidency, but this week’s Democratic debates suggested that the white men in the race will be forced to confront their privilege more directly than they have in past presidential campaigns.

In some cases, this confrontation was direct and came from fellow candidates, like when Sen. Kamala Harris asked Vice President Joe Biden to answer for both his willingness to uplift a segregationist senator and his previous votes on busing. Biden’s response revealed not only his frustration but also a lack of self-reflection. Instead of taking in Harris’s pain and challenging himself to think differently about the consequences — even if unintended — of his words and actions, Biden went on defense.

Candidates are not the only ones who can change the power dynamics on debate stages. Over the course of both debates, there were examples of the moderators pushing candidates in positions of privilege to address these issues. On night one, the moderators asked a male candidate, Secretary Julián Castro, for his plan to address the gender wage gap, and they asked a white woman, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, what she has done for black and Latino voters.

This is important because too often, candidates who represent marginalized groups are expected to come up with answers to address that marginalization.

Janelle Wong, American studies professor, University of Maryland College Park, and public fellow, PRRI

Rights for transgender people hit the national stage starting day one.

Forceful advocacy for transgender rights represents a first in this kind of national debate forum and indicates that the candidates are reading the pulse of the nation. Attitudes toward transgender rights have changed dramatically in the recent past.

A PRRI survey released earlier this month shows that more than 60 percent of all people in the US have become more supportive of transgender rights than they were five years ago. While more than one in three Democrats report that their views have become more supportive over time, almost half of all Republicans also say their views have become more supportive.

On Thursday, the strongest statements on transgender rights came from two male candidates of color, Cory Booker and Julián Castro. Their statements underscore a primary season strategy of focusing on issues that cut across racial groups, like transgender rights. This makes sense. When it comes to specific rights, like allowing transgender people to serve in the military, nonwhites (68 percent) are even more supportive than whites (61 percent), according to the PRRI study.

Keneshia Grant, political science professor, Howard University

It was heartening to see six approaches to womanhood in politics on display before the American people. We saw smart women, with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard correcting Rep. Tim Ryan on 9/11’s history and with Sens. [Elizabeth] Warren, Harris, and Klobuchar as seasoned policy experts.

We saw assertive women, with Sen. [Kirsten] Gillibrand’s interruption of her colleagues to assert herself in the conversation and defend the time allotted for her to speak. We also saw women doing the emotional work we have come to expect they will do, with Sen. Harris being the adult in the room in an attempt to prevent what she described as a food fight.

As these two nights come to a close, people are talking about Warren and Harris as having “won” their debates. Interestingly, many folks are talking about them as winners first and as women second. Although we still have a long way to go, we have made progress since Shirley Chisholm’s fight for her place on the Democratic Party debate stage in 1972.

Although the historic number of women candidates has been the big story of these debates, the other demographic differences are also noteworthy. The presence of two black candidates, Booker and Harris, changes the conversation. They were able to talk to a national audience, and to their Democratic colleagues, about how it feels to live in a predominantly black and brown neighborhood and what it is like to be hurt by a politician’s position on busing. “I would like to speak on the issue of race,” said Harris, holding VP Biden accountable for his previous actions in a way her identity uniquely qualifies her to do.

Erin Cassese, political science professor, University of Delaware

It’s important to recognize that optics matter. Research shows that the mere presence of candidates that share identities linked to gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation can engage and mobilize voters. This might explain why debate viewership has exceeded expectations this early in the primary race. The candidate field is large, and some analysts are concerned that too much choice is a bad thing; the base might become too fragmented when faced with too many options.

However, a large and varied candidate field provides a lot of avenues to draw voters into the race. It also symbolically affirms the Democratic Party’s commitment to inclusion — much like in 2018, when a diverse candidate field stood in stark contrast to growing homogeneity in the Republican Party, which put up a candidate pool that was overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, and male.

Paula Moya, humanities professor and director of the Research Institute of Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Stanford University

Signal moments from the Democratic 2020 debate: Amy Klobuchar interrupting Jay Inslee to remind him that the three women on the stage had fought at least as hard for women’s reproductive rights as he had. Elizabeth Warren declaring her readiness to fight for the structural changes that will give health care to all. Moderator José Díaz-Balart getting emotional when addressing the humanitarian crisis at our southern border.

These are just some of the concrete instances of the kind of difference that having a demographically diverse candidate pool can make. These candidates’ presence on that stage not only broadens our ideas of what leadership can look like but surfaces real issues faced by actual people whose lives and cares have been woefully marginalized over the past several years.

Christine Chen, executive director, APIAVote

It was inspiring to see such diverse candidates, especially to have three who are of Asian or Pacific Islander descent and six who are women.

It is important to see that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are able to compete on the presidential stage. At least six of the Democratic presidential campaigns have hired AAPIs as senior-level staff. Many of these campaigns also have made it a priority to meet with AAPI voters and community leaders in Nevada and Iowa. This is a major change from past presidential primaries where engaging and appealing to AAPI voters was more of an afterthought.

That being said, I am surprised at the lack of recognition and inclusion of our communities, especially given the active outreach from many of the Democratic presidential nominees. There were missed opportunities to directly appeal to the AAPI electorate especially during discussions around gun control — an issue where Asian American registered voters favor stricter gun laws by seven to one.

During both debates, there were fierce arguments around the issue of immigration, deportation, and family reunification, but no acknowledgment of how this issue impacts Asian Americans. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing population in the United States and are only continuing to grow not just in number but also as a voting bloc. It’s been proven in local and state-level elections that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are already becoming a necessary vote — especially in important caucus states such as Iowa and Nevada, and Super Tuesday states such as California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Texas, and Virginia.

Anna Sampaio, political science and ethnic studies professor, Santa Clara University

Over the course of the two nights, immigration politics clearly became a line of demarcation delineating candidates who possess a well-honed and complex understanding of the issues at hand, and by extension substantive legislative and policy solutions.

The failure of Democratic candidates to deliver on this issue — especially in this moment, when immigration dominates daily headlines and the Republican Party is staking their 2020 future on aggressive enforcement — is both a question of political competency and a reflection on how serious they take Latinx voters for whom immigration consistently ranks in the top tier of issues.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that immigration, and particularly the current humanitarian crisis, is really a prominent intersectional issue — weaving racialized targeting of vulnerable Latinx populations (particularly Mexican and Central American communities) with a practice of legalized gendered violence in which women and children pay the highest price for increasing border enforcement, asylum restrictions, interior raids, and the rollback of legislative and policy protections such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Temporary Protected Status, and Deferred Enforced Departure.

For example, in 2018, the city of Houston reported a 16 percent drop in domestic violence reports among the city’s large Latinx population — a decline directly linked to the passage of Texas’s restrictive new immigration enforcement law.

Glynda Carr, founder, Higher Heights

The strength and potential in our democracy has always been our diversity, and that was on full display in Miami. Each night, the candidates represented distinctly different threads in our country’s tapestry. Yes, there were 20 candidates fighting for the mic and for their time to speak, but they each, if only for a moment, shared with our nation their backgrounds, experiences, and visions.

Sen. Kamala Harris spoke her truth and framed the possibilities of her presidency when she proclaimed, “And I will ensure that this microphone that the president of the United States holds in HER hand is used in a way that is about reflecting the values of our country.” In that moment, she reminded us that pronouns matter, and she framed the narrative on the possibilities that exist for a woman to lead our country.

Melissa Michelson, political science professor, Menlo College

The gender, race, and sexual orientation diversity of the two Democratic debates had a huge impact on the content of the conversations, because it normalized the diversity.

Instead of tokens, the women and people of color were simply candidates. There wasn’t one person of color or one woman expected to represent the entirety of their community; there were multiple women, and multiple people of color, all presenting different platforms and styles, and able to be themselves, making their case for why they should be the party nominee. It normalized their presence and pushed identity politics into the background. Except when it didn’t.

Gender still did matter, as when Klobuchar reminded Inslee that she and the other two women onstage on Wednesday had been fighting pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose. Warren dropped the gender-inclusive term Latinx, Gillibrand included day care as a day-one priority, Castro and Harris endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment, and Booker and Castro spoke about transgender rights.

The attention to gender issues was more palpable on the first night, but Gillibrand repeatedly raised them on the second, including referencing the power of the women who marched after Trump won in 2016 and who will be a powerful force in 2020. Overall, though, the role of gender was that it wasn’t an issue. Warren cemented her status as a frontrunner on Wednesday and that Harris was one of two winners on Thursday. Hillary Clinton may not have won the presidency, but she certainly broke the glass ceiling of Americans taking seriously the idea of a woman president.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, political science professor, University of California Riverside, and founder, AAPI Data

The diversity of candidates’ lived experiences and professional backgrounds came through in important ways, especially when used to contrast themselves to other candidates.

Julián Castro brought personal and policy credibility to the immigration conversation in ways that no one else onstage could match, and Kamala Harris did the same — not only when she challenged Joe Biden on his remarks praising the segregationist Sen. James Eastland but also when she spoke of the reasons why she opposed the Obama administration’s Secure Communities policy because it made domestic violence victims less likely to report their abuse.

Andrew Yang could have brought more of his personal background into the conversation when introducing himself to a national audience, but he mostly stuck to his talking points, which might have hurt his chances of breaking through. Castro, by contrast, came in with little name recognition and low expectations and performed really well.

Finally, age was also an interesting dynamic to see onstage. The younger candidates did not have as much political baggage to carry, especially with respect to statements and votes from a decade or two ago. They also seemed quicker on the draw in answering questions. But some of that lack of national experience could hurt the younger candidates, particularly someone like Pete Buttigieg, who spoke eloquently on many occasions but still needs to convey how his experiences from governing a relatively small city in Indiana apply to governing the country.

Christine Jahnke, president, Positive Communications

As a speech coach, I tell candidates there are only two Olympic-level speaking platforms for presidential aspirants: the debates and party convention acceptance speeches. History was made this week when for the first time, multiple women qualified for the Olympics of political debating. Better still, the six women did more than just show up.

It’s inspiring to see heartwarming social media images of young girls meeting these women on the campaign trail. But when Elizabeth Warren commands center stage, it’s possible for any girl or woman to “be what you see.” When Kamala Harris displays her prosecutorial prowess and Amy Klobuchar defends her centrist positions as proof of general election viability, the optics have a deeper impact.

More women are running for office, and more people see the value of women vying to get America back on track. These candidates personify progress, at least on the Democratic side. No longer is there one exceptional woman ready to occupy the Oval Office. Voters can now consider a field of candidates that more fully represent America’s rich diversity.

Wendy Smooth, political science professor, Ohio State University

Across the two nights of the debate, the candidates engaged substantively with reproductive justice, racism in public policies and policing, immigration, free health care for all, and climate change as an existential crisis.

While these topics are familiar to Democrats, the nuances brought forth on the debate stage on these issues reflect the realities a more complex Democratic Party. For example, it is not enough to talk about women’s reproductive rights or rights to an abortion. More inclusive approaches speak to the economic realities for many women who experience abortion as not only inaccessible according to geography but economically inaccessible. Uplifting the complexities of these issues is far more likely to appeal to those voters who experience these nuances firsthand.

Demographically diverse candidates were able to bring these nuances to life through their personal narratives, life experiences, and firsthand experiences with the vulnerabilities these issues present in the lives of so many.

Cory Booker referenced the effects of gun violence and hostile policing he sees in his own neighborhood. Elizabeth Warren brought forth her own struggles with insufficient child care as a working mother. Julián Castro delivered a sincere, passionate, and compassionate take on immigration that began by calling the names of those lost in our failed immigration approaches. Kamala Harris willingly offered a personal narrative of how racist anti-busing policies impacted her life some 10 years after Brown v. Board.

Josh Putnam, lecturer, University of North Carolina Wilmington, and founder, Frontloading HQ

The difference that was made over the course of two nights was that it not only brought a diversity of voices into the proceedings but a diversity of experiences as well. No moment better captured that than the showdown between Biden and Harris during night two. Harris raising her personal experience with busing in reaction to Biden’s recent comments brought a different dimension — generational and racial — to the discussion that the process has often not seen. That exchange in and of itself was historic.

What stands out going forward is that the debate process would likely benefit from a more condensed field at some point. There were fireworks Wednesday and Thursday nights, but both nights offered an at times chaotic cacophony that does not exactly serve the process, the candidates, or voters well. But as introductions go, each of the 20 candidates had a platform. Now we await what impact the debates may have had.

Aimee Allison, founder, She the People

Demographics really stood out to me in the second debate night for two reasons: One is it was a historic and breakout moment for Kamala Harris, who used the stage to distinguish herself and challenge Joe Biden’s long history in the Senate, and used her personal experience as a girl who was part of the busing and integration to challenge Biden’s assertion that he was a civil rights activist, and in fact, she called him on it. He turned defensive and wasn’t really able to answer the challenge.

I couldn’t imagine any other candidate up there that would have been able to effectively do that. Who she was in her identity made her more authoritative, and many people looked around and thought, you know, race has been for many Democrats an Achilles’ heel. They’re not able to talk credibly about racial justice and to challenge the language that Donald Trump has used to rally his base. And [in the debate,] a lot of us saw Kamala Harris rising to that challenge as someone who could face Donald Trump effectively.


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