by Jennifer Medina
Julián Castro’s fund-raising appeal last month was blunt. “Tragic mistake,” the subject line read, emphatically written in all capital letters. “Only Latino candidate could be cut from debate stage.
The message was clear: How could Democrats forgo the symbolic significance of a Latino candidate onstage, especially when Latinos are expected to be the largest ethnic voting bloc come November 2020?
But symbolism is not carrying the weight it once did.
Mr. Castro, the former housing secretary, failed to meet the qualifications for next week’s debate by the Wednesday night deadline. He has had standout moments in the previous debates, criticizing former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and pushing other Democrats on immigration, so not making the stage is a blow for his candidacy, though aides said he has no immediate plans to exit the race.
More than a decade after President Barack Obama made history as the first African-American elected to the White House, the field of Democratic candidates is more diverse than ever. Mr. Castro would be the first Latino nominee, Senator Kamala Harris of California the first woman of color — facts they point out frequently while campaigning.
Yet among voters, there seems to be relatively tepid enthusiasm to elect another first, or at least to support a candidate who would be barrier-breaking, whether that is part of the appeal or not. Polls have consistently shown Mr. Biden leading among African-American voters, while Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is widely popular among Latinos, particularly younger voters.
For decades, conventional political wisdom has suggested that voters are eager to cast their ballot for someone who looks like them — something that has historically been difficult or impossible in presidential races filled with white men. Now, the struggles of Mr. Castro and Ms. Harris suggest that whatever power symbolism and the potential of being the first once had has all but evaporated this election season.
“Some of the luster has come off of firsts,” said Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was one of the first viable African-American presidential candidates. “When I was the black person on the stage, it was like a crusade. It was so new, so novel, it was almost like a global event. Then Barack had much of the same in 2008, but since then the rules have changed.”
Most Democrats say they would not be any more enthusiastic if the nominee were black or Hispanic, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center conducted earlier this year. Roughly a third of black Democrats said they would be more enthusiastic with a black nominee, and less than half of Hispanic Democrats said they would be more excited by a Hispanic candidate.
During a recent Las Vegas town hall sponsored by the Culinary Workers Union, Ms. Harris made her pitch for the support from a crowd filled almost entirely with Latina and black women, many of them immigrants who make a living cleaning the hotel rooms in this tourist-dependent city. Ms. Harris spoke plainly about what she has been referring to as the “donkey in the room.”
The conversation about electability — specifically, her electability — she said, often goes something like this: I’m willing to vote for you, but I don’t know if my neighbor is.
Ms. Harris was eager to say out loud the thought she believed others were keeping to themselves.
“I don’t know if America is ready for a woman of color, with an immigrant background to be president of the United States,” said Ms. Harris, who was briefly interrupted by shouts of “yes we are!” By turning the question of electability on its head, Ms. Harris was making the case that electing a woman of color was not only possible, but that doing so would be a powerful statement.
After she spoke for an hour, Morlaina Bruce sat back in a chair with her arms folded across her chest, taking in the scene. Ms. Bruce, a 50-year-old housekeeper at Circus Circus who planned to caucus for the first time this year, said she was unmoved by the argument.
“Am I more likely to choose an African-American woman because I’m an African-American woman? No, I don’t really care about that,” she said. “It’s definitely not enough. I think we hear a lot of talk and I want to know more what people have actually done and what they’re about.”
More than anything, Ms. Bruce said, she cared about getting Mr. Trump out of office. And while she is still undecided, Ms. Bruce said she believes Mr. Biden is best positioned to beat Mr. Trump, because “he’s been there, he knows what he’s doing.”
The pervasive focus of trying to defeat Mr. Trump has eclipsed all else in Democratic circles, making it difficult for would-be firsts to make an argument for a history making candidacy.
“The right-wing substance of Trump overrides the symbolism of everybody else,” Mr. Jackson said.
When Mr. Castro spoke at a forum sponsored by the League of United Latin American Citizens in Des Moines last month, the largely young and Latino crowd sat with rapt attention as he made the case to become the first Hispanic president. And in interviews after the event, several voters said they were interested in his candidacy, but not swayed to vote for him.
“It’s pretty amazing to see someone up there who looks like you, who comes from a similar background,” said Anthony Arroyo, a 20-year-old student at Drake University. “But it’s certainly not enough for me — it’s not the only thing by a long shot.”
Still, one candidate has benefited by his own demographic: Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., who would be the first openly gay nominee, has received significant financial support from wealthy gay donors, whose money helped propel him toward the top tier in polling.
And Indian Americans have enthusiastically contributed to Ms. Harris, whose mother immigrated to the United States from India to attend college. Mr. Castro has received the financial support from many Latino donors who are eager for him to stay in the race even if they have formally endorsed another candidate.
But for their part, Latinos and African-Americans have appeared split on their favorite — no poll has shown Ms. Harris or Mr. Castro receiving the majority of the support among those voters.
“Somebody who looks like me is important, but it is also important to have somebody who can understand me and shares my values, and most importantly, can get elected,” said Eliseo Medina, a former international executive vice president of Service Employees International Union and the first Mexican-American in that role.
“Symbolism and firsts are important, but they are not the sole judgments that people make. There was a very strong pitch about being the first woman for Hillary Clinton and I don’t think that went very far. If anything, people reacted to it in a negative manner.”
Both Mr. Castro and Ms. Harris have sharpened their pitch about being the first in recent months, as they have struggled in polls. But they also appear keenly aware of the pitfalls of being pigeonholed as primarily for black or Latino voters.
“Ethnic pride can help, but it has never won an election outright and there’s always the possibility of turning other voters off,” said Arturo Vargas, the president of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “It’s also about context and circumstance. I think it’s incredibly important to have that symbolism right now, when in essence the role of Latinos in America is one of the biggest aspects of this election.”
“But it’s about the candidate too — I think the only thing that’s lacking in the Castro campaign is a little more spark.”
Jennifer Medina is a national political correspondent for the New York times, covering the 2020 presidential campaign.