Democrats must weigh their choices to pick a candidate who will be able to bridge the US’s deep chasms on race and immigration to beat Donald Trump, writes the University of Auckland’s Dr Paul Michel Taillon

Watching the Democratic Party national debates is like following the early rounds of the US National Hockey League playoffs. More teams than you can keep track of, intense competition, and sometimes surprising results. For the Democratic hopefuls, depending on their regular-season record, the debates offered the chance to consolidate leads or break away from the pack. For the Party, the debates may determine the organisation’s direction, if not very soul.

The candidates are an unprecedentedly large and diverse group — more than 20 overall, forcing debate over two nights — reflecting the Party’s changing demographics. They condemned monopoly and wealth inequality, they uniformly supported women’s reproductive rights and they also called for immigration reform, varying forms of universal health care, policies to address climate change, and gun control measures. Matters of race figured too; dramatically on the second night. Although Wednesday night’s candidates proceeded more cautiously than those on Thursday, overall, the candidates’ policy proposals drew attention for what CNN described as the Democrats’ “left-ward” tilt.

Wednesday night and the showdown on Thursday night among the leading candidates signalled a remarkable generational moment, and perhaps a moment of choosing within the Democratic Party. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the two oldest candidates, have led in the polls. But the most dynamic candidates of the debate were a white woman (Elizabeth Warren), a Latino man (Julian Castro), a black woman (Kamala Harris), and a young, openly gay white man (Pete Buttigieg). The question is, which one will beat Donald Trump?

Political scientist Thomas Edsall, writing in the New York Times the other day, offers some perspective. As he sees it, the election may turn on the roughly 13 percent of swing voters, 46 percent of whom are white non-university-educated (that is, working-class), who do not strongly identify with either party. White non-university women especially figure importantly.

This 13 percent is looking for answers to basic economic challenges. Health care and education matter to these people. Rhetoric about economic opportunity, but not guaranteed government jobs, will play with these voters. So, too, will proposals around expanded Medicare (but not abolishing private insurance for a government-run single-payer system) and access to university education (but not fully-funded university education). Climate change ideas that do not take into account economic circumstances in the heartland will not move them. Progressive proposals on race and immigration will likely not shift these voters either, and may even push them away.

If Edsall is right, Democrats must weigh their choices. Elizabeth Warren played her cards carefully on Wednesday, especially on gun control, and appeared focused on holding the centre. She has been steadily gaining ground. Conventional wisdom, however, would put the ‘safe’ money on Joe Biden. But Biden took a real hit when Kamala Harris confronted him on Thursday over his record on race and bussing — court-ordered bussing was the practice of transporting students to schools in different neighbourhoods to address de-facto racial segregation) — and now all eyes are on her.

Can she bring together the Democratic Party’s diverse elements while reaching out to those pivotal undecided swing voters? Whichever candidate the Party nominates, she or he will have to bridge the deep chasms on matters of race and immigration that so thoroughly divide the United States today. At the same time, they will have to keep front and centre the ‘kitchen table’ politics that key Party leaders like Nancy Pelosi believe are of first concern to Americans.

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