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What Harris' Exit Means For Democrats


The 2020 Democratic presidential field was once hailed as the most diverse, but California Senator Kamala Harris shook up the primaries by ending her campaign. Remaining candidates of color haven't qualified for the next debate. Right now, the four Democrats you could call front-runners are all white. Three of them are men.

NPR's Juana Summers has been in Iowa this week to talk to voters and candidates about the race. Juana, thanks so much for being with us.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: How did the shake-up in the campaign change what a lot of people are talking about this week?

SUMMERS: So this is a conversation that has been going on for quite a while now. But in the last week, voters, activists and even some candidates are really saying the quiet part out loud. After Senator Harris announced that she was going to be leaving the presidential race, it really seemed to raise alarm bells among some Democrats. The party is now grappling with this uncomfortable reality that when Democrats gather for their next debate in a couple of weeks, the candidates, at least so far, who have qualified to be onstage - they're all white.


CORY BOOKER: What message is that sending - that we heralded the most diverse field in our history, and now we're seeing people like her dropping out of this campaign not because Iowa voters had the voice. Voters did not determine her destiny.

SUMMERS: Yeah. That was New Jersey Senator Cory Booker talking about Harris' decision to get out of the race. He and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro are among the most vocal candidates on this issue. They and some other prominent Democrats I've been talking with are making the point that this is not how a party that emphasizes diversity and fairness should represent itself.

SIMON: I will note, of course, this field also includes Mayor Buttigieg, who represents a milestone as a gay candidate. What would Senator Booker and Mr. Castro like to change about the debates of the primaries?

SUMMERS: So this is where it gets kind of interesting. None of the candidates, including Senator Booker and Mr. Castro, are calling on the DNC to change the standards for the debate in December. And the DNC has made clear that they don't plan to do that. Julian Castro, though - he says he wants bigger changes. And he talked about that on a call with reporters earlier this week.


JULIAN CASTRO: There's no reason that Iowa and New Hampshire, that hardly have any black people or people of color, should always go first in nominating a president.

SUMMERS: And on Friday night, he took that even a little further. He told reporters here in Iowa that the next chair of the Democratic Party has to commit to making the presidential primary process more reflective of the country's diversity. He says if they don't, they shouldn't be in charge of the party's nominating process.

SIMON: What are some of the other candidates saying?

SUMMERS: So former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently jumped into the race, was asked about Booker's comments by CBS News' Gayle King. He says he was not worried about the current makeup of the field.


MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: If you wanted to enter and run for president of the United States, you could have done that. But don't complain to me that you're not in the race. It was up to you.

SUMMERS: And he's not the only candidate who is getting this question. Joe Biden said on Friday that while it's obvious that the folks onstage are not representative of the party, you can't dictate who's going to be able to stay in the race. That's the job of the voters.

SIMON: Juana, you've spent some time talking with Iowans this week. And what do you hear from them about the field?

SUMMERS: So I talked to a lot of nonwhite voters about what they thought about the fact that the top tier of this field, at least right now, seems to be made up of white candidates. And frankly, a lot of them seem pretty frustrated.

But I like to ask voters when I talk to them what quality is most important to them in the candidate. And one of the big things I've heard them toss around this week is words like viability. They want someone who can win in November. And some of these voters of color, even explicitly, have made the point to me that they feel like a white candidate is the one that's best positioned to beat Donald Trump in November's election.

SIMON: Juana Summers covers demographics and culture for NPR Politics. Thanks so much.

SUMMERS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUGGE WESSELTOFT'S "LONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.