Is the press erasing black voters from Democratic primary coverage?

Iowa and New Hampshire don't represent the party

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Rushing in to a create a definitive campaign narrative for the Democratic primary after just two state-wide contests, the political press seems to be scrambling to announce the primary nearly over, at least for some candidates, even though the vast majority of Democrats across the country still have not voted. And specifically, the press seems overly anxious to draw sweeping conclusions about two state-wide contests that featured a nearly all-white electorate, declining to take into account the role black voters will soon play in the nominating process.

Even before New Hampshire voted on Tuesday, the New York Times stressed that that the race could soon become a "two-person" event, based on the results from Iowa and New Hampshire. The article included just one sentence about black voters.  The New Yorker recently published a feature on Bernie Sanders, looking at his support in Iowa and how it constituted the  "future base" of the party. Yet the article made no mention of black voters, who represent a crucial voting block.  

Fact: "85% of black voters say they’ll vote for whoever the Democratic nominee is," MoveOn's Karine Jean-Pierre recently noted. "In the 2018 midterm elections, 90% of black people voted for the Democratic candidate versus 9% who say they voted for the Republican candidate."

Note that my observation about black voters being erased by the media does not translate into a defense of Joe Biden. It's true that Biden currently enjoys the most support among black voters and he clearly seems to be banking on their support for the upcoming South Carolina primary. But those numbers are starting to change as black voters take a closer look during the primary season. "Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and billionaire activist Tom Steyer are challenging the former vice president's standing in South Carolina," the Associated Press recently reported.

Instead, the concern about black voices being erased is about the campaign press artificially trying to narrow the race down after only Iowa and New Hampshire have voted. Countering that media desire for a tidy campaign storyline, South Carolina Democratic operative Bakari Sellers tweeted this week, "Can y’all chill with the political obituaries until some black folk have voted? Thanks."


I understand that Iowa and New Hampshire are the first contests, so of course reporters aren't going to be scouring North Carolina and Florida, for instance, in search of voters, including black voters, getting their take on the campaign. But what is troubling is how so many journalists are trying to use the results of two very white states to make sweeping conclusions about the campaign race.

Unfortunately, this trend continues a media obsession with white voters in the age of Trump, and the running assumption that white voters are the most important in America, and that white voters determine all winners and losers.

This perspective comes from a campaign press corps that lacks diversity. There's no question that reporters, producers, and editors covering the election are overwhelmingly white. It seems too often they see a sea of whiteness in Iowa and New Hampshire and assume that that's what America looks like. Fact: America is 24 percent non-white today.

Here's what the New York Times' public editor, Liz Spayd, found in 2016 about that  paper's lack of diversity in terms of its political team:  

Only two of the 20-plus reporters who covered the presidential campaign for The New York Times were black. None were Latino or Asian. That’s less diversity than you’ll find in Donald Trump’s cabinet thus far. Of The Times’s newly named White House team, all six are white, as is most everyone in the Washington bureau.

Note that an NBC entrance poll from the botched Iowa caucus last week found that just three percent of the voters were black. And given the poll's margin of error, it's possible that black voter participation in Iowa was basically zero.  And New Hampshire's population, believe it or not, is even whiter than Iowa's — less than two percent of the state's population is black.

That's why there's a rising chorus to change the primary season calendar. Note that Bill Clinton didn't win either Iowa or New Hampshire and easily captured the nomination in 1992. In 2016, Hillary Clinton basically tied in Iowa, lost badly in New Hampshire, and then won the nomination. A key reason for those successes was that black voters fundamentally changed the trajectory of those election cycles.

Will they again in 2020? We simply won't know until the ballots are cast and counted. But it would be nice if the press held off declaring the primary season over before millions of black voters get a chance to weigh in.

P.S. I”ll be on “Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang” on SiriusXM Progress #127 tonight, discussing this column and other media topics. Tune in.


Leon Bridges, “Bad, Bad, News”