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The first round of Democratic debates courted female voters. The second is ignoring them.

Abortion rights, pay equity, and other issues that affect women got barely a mention on Tuesday night.

Democratic presidential candidates take the stage at the beginning of the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 30, 2019. 
Democratic presidential candidates take the stage at the beginning of the Democratic debate at the Fox Theatre in Detroit on July 30, 2019. 
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

At the first Democratic presidential debates in June, issues of reproductive rights and justice were front and center. The gender pay gap got a discussion as well.

The candidates didn’t always have well-thought-out answers, but they showed an awareness of some key questions that matter to female voters and anyone who can get pregnant. In the second round of debates this month, they had an opportunity to build on their successes.

On Tuesday night, they didn’t take it.

It wasn’t all the candidates’ fault; the moderators at the Detroit debate framed nearly the entire conversation around Republican Party talking points, as Vox’s Aaron Rupar has noted. There was little room for talk of progressive priorities like repealing the Hyde Amendment when candidates were repeatedly forced to answer questions about whether Medicare-for-all would raise taxes.

Still, it was dispiriting to watch more than two hours go by with almost no mention of abortion rights, maternal health, pay equity, paid leave, or child care, issues that affect families all over the country. It was almost as though the candidates and moderators thought that Midwestern voters, to whom the debate was decisively pitched, were all childless cisgender men.

Tuesday’s debate ignored issues like abortion and pay equity

At the first night of the June presidential debates, candidates tried to outdo each other when it came to defending abortion rights. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington even earned a rebuke from Sen. Amy Klobuchar when he said that he was the only one on the stage who had actually “passed a law protecting a woman’s reproductive rights in health insurance.”

Meanwhile, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro talked about the importance of reproductive justice, a term coined in 1994 to describe a focus on affordable access to a full range of reproductive health care, as well as the ability to parent children safely. Candidates also tackled a question on fair pay for female workers, and brought up maternal health and child care.

The evening was far from perfect — as Vox’s Alexia Fernández Campbell noted, the candidates’ answers on equal pay left a lot to be desired. And Castro’s discussion of abortion rights for “a trans female” led some to wonder whether he’d mixed up trans men (who can get pregnant) and trans women (who cannot).

But leading into the second round of debates on Tuesday night, the candidates had clear room for growth. Yet no growth was had. Instead, they steered almost completely clear of the issues of abortion, pay equity, and family-friendly policies.

An extensive discussion of the costs and benefits of Medicare-for-all failed to include any conversation about abortion rights, even though abortion coverage is a key part of the health care plans of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the two top Medicare-for-all supporters onstage Tuesday.

And though the evening seemed pitched at working-class voters, with repeated nods to farmers and miners, there was no discussion of the fact that the gender pay gap is especially high for many working-class people, like truck drivers and retail workers.

That’s why when Warren said that her wealth tax would pay for universal child care for children ages 0 to 5, as well as raising the wages of child care providers, it stuck out. Aside from Klobuchar also briefly mentioning the importance of affordable child care, issues of paid leave and care for family members had gotten very little airtime.

Advocates and experts in gender and politics also noticed the absence. Betsy Fischer Martin, the executive director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, tweeted that with 15 minutes left in the debate, candidates had not gotten a single question on reproductive rights, pay equity, or child care.

And in a statement to media on Tuesday, Planned Parenthood acting president Alexis McGill Johnson said, “In nearly three hours of a debate, there was not one question on abortion access or reproductive health care — despite the fact that the Trump administration is actively trying to dismantle our nation’s program for affordable birth control with a gag rule.”

As Martin and Johnson both noted, much of the problem lay with the questions candidates were asked. As Rupar writes, moderators often seemed to frame questions around Republican rhetoric, as when Jake Tapper said to Sanders, “You support Medicare-for-all, which would eventually take private health insurance away from more than 150 million Americans in exchange for government-sponsored health care for everyone.”

That put candidates in the position of responding to center or right-wing concerns, rather than laying out their own priorities. Moderators also moved on quickly from questions, holding candidates to strict limits of 60 seconds per response to a moderator and 30 seconds per rebuttal to an opponent. This made it more difficult for candidates to expand on their answers — they could have talked about the connections between immigrants’ rights and reproductive health during the discussion on immigration, for example, but the format made such connections hard to bring up.

But some fault lies with the candidates as well. Several on the Detroit stage seemed intent on appealing to a particular kind of Midwestern audience, one that included some Midwesterners but not others.

Asked about the prospect of giving health care to undocumented immigrants, which Sanders and others support, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said, “I think this is part of the discussion that shows how often these debates are detached from people’s lives. We’ve got 100,000 people showing up at the border right now. If we decriminalize entry, if we give health care to everyone, we’ll have multiples of that.”

It was a telling moment, when “people’s lives” seemed to refer not to the lives of immigrants but only to the lives of native-born Americans worried about too many people coming here.(A spokesperson for the Bullock campaign told Vox that the comment about “people’s lives” was meant as a broader point about the debate generally, not specifically focused on immigration.)

Tuesday’s debate was peppered with moments like this, when the candidates seemed to be speaking to just one kind of Michigan voter: a white, working-class person who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Judging by the lack of attention to reproductive justice and family issues, that voter was also a cisgender man with no family members requiring his care.

Of course, Detroit, the state of Michigan, and the Midwest aren’t just white and male. About 53 percent of Detroit residents are women. Almost 80 percent of residents are black, and the city has a growing immigrant population. In Michigan as a whole, female candidates made an impressive showing in the 2018 elections, capturing the offices of governor, secretary of state, and attorney general for the first time in history.

Meanwhile, polls have shown that voters around the country — and in the Midwest — increasingly care about issues like abortion and pay equity. The candidates onstage on Wednesday will have a chance to talk to voters about those issues; it remains to be seen whether they’ll take it.