Nov 1, 2019 - Politics & Policy

The racial wealth gap among 2020 Democrats

Data: FEC; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios
Data: FEC; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

The leading white candidates in the Democratic presidential primary combined have nearly four times as much cash on hand as all five non-white candidates.

Why it matters: Some argue the country's racial wealth gap is underlying what we're seeing in the race for the White House — where a diverse field of Democratic candidates is trailing three white front-runners, and where Kamala Harris was forced to lay off dozens of her campaign staffers this week.

While the Democratic Party and the country are having real conversations about race and gender in politics, the numbers don't lie — it's still challenging for non-white candidates to raise the money they need to be viewed as viable contenders.

The big picture: This problem isn't unique to presidential elections. People of color at the federal, state, and local level have a harder time fundraising than their white colleagues.

  • On average, white candidates in the 2018 midterms raised more money that non-white candidates, according to an analysis from two researchers at the Center for Responsive Politics.
  • For black women, the numbers are particularly stark. Black female candidates in 2018 House races raised the least amount of money among any female candidates — less than half as much as the average white female candidate, per the analysis.
  • Looking back at the 2016 presidential race, the mega-donors who shaped that election were “overwhelmingly white, rich, older and male,” per a NYT analysis.

What they're saying: "It’s definitely a systemic challenge that we’re seeing these disparities at every level," said Quentin James, founder of Collective PAC, which helps recruit and train black Democratic candidates to run for office at the local level. "You can look to mayoral candidates, or folks running in state legislative races, and these same challenges persist."

  • Svante Myrick — who at 32 is the youngest mayor of Ithaca, New York — said the first campaign fundraising barrier is reaching out to friends, family, and neighbors who will max out their donations to you.
"For me, I was raised in a homeless shelter and spent the entirety of my life living in poverty, so when it was time to call your father and say 'Can you max out to my campaign?' Well, I haven’t spoken to him in 22 years. And my mother is changing beds at a hotel for just above minimum wage."
— Svante Myrick, mayor of Ithaca, New York

Without that close network of wealthy friends or family, it can be difficult to get your candidacy off the ground.

  • The Brookings Institution offers this snapshot of the racial wealth gap: "The median average white family in the U.S. has approximately $171,000 in net wealth, while the median African American family has approximately $17,000."
  • “One of the largest impediments for women running for office, particularly women of color is the ability to raise money,” Stacey Abrams told The Grio. “We don’t believe we can because we rarely see folks who do."

Between the lines: Several Democratic strategists I spoke with say there's a lack of institutional support for people of color running for office. That's why groups like MoveOn and People For the American Way (PFAW) stepped up after the 2016 election to help with fundraising efforts.

  • "We constantly hear from candidates in minority communities that they have a tough time fundraising and a big part of it is that they don’t have the affluent networks or generations of wealth that white candidates typically have," said Lizet Ocampo, political director at PFAW.

The other side: Competitive races always attract more money. Andrew Gillum's gubernatorial campaign is a great example of this. He raised more than $50 million — with the help of several white billionaires like Tom Steyer and George Soros — to nearly match his Republican challenger's haul. But he still lost his bid for Florida's governor.

The bottom line: "If the pathway to stopping Donald Trump is, 'Just back white candidates,' that’s not a compelling message for black voters or donors. We saw that in 2016," James said.

Go deeper: As we wrote in April, white (mostly male) candidates continue to lead the 2020 presidential primary, despite this being the most diverse Democratic field in history.

Go deeper