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7 out of 10 people on last night’s GOP debate stage were white men. Here’s why

Republican Presidential Candidates Hold Third Debate In ColoradoRepublican Presidential Candidates Hold Third Debate In Colorado
Candidates stand on stage for third Republican debate.Photograph by Justin Sullivan — Getty Images

If you watched the Republican debate Wednesday night, you may have noticed that seven of the ten candidates on stage were white men. Then again, you might not have thought twice about it. After all, that’s pretty much the demographic split we’re used to: 71% of political candidates in the 2012 and 2014 national elections were white men, according to a new analysis by the Reflective Democracy Campaign of the Women Donors Network (WDN).

When looking across all levels of elections, the number that number shrinks slightly, to 66%. To put these stats into perspective, consider the broader make up of the U.S. White men account for 31% of the population, according to WDN, while white women make up 32%, men of color 18%, and women of color 19%.

So, if that’s what our country looks like, why weren’t there three white men, three white women, and two people of color representing each gender on the GOP stage?

WDN looked at more than 51,000 candidates by race and gender to try to answer to this question, and what they discovered was “very, very good news,” said Brenda Choresi Carter, the director of the WDN’s Reflective Democracy campaign, which ran the study. “What we found was that there is not significant drop-off between women and people of color who are on the ballot, and those who are winning elections,” she said on a call Thursday afternoon reviewing the results of the study.

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While it is indeed good news that women and minorities are winning elections at the same rates as white men, it’s not all sunshine. The researchers also found that people from these groups are running for office in much lower numbers. There are plenty of reasons for this, including one that Republican minority candidate Marco Rubio (R-FL) pointed out on Wednesday night: money. Campaigning is extremely expensive, and pay for most elected positions is not nearly enough to compensate for these expenditures, explained Carter.

The other more subtle barrier is the fact that most political “gatekeepers”—people who sit on boards of PACs, issue-based organizations, and other powerful stakeholders like labor unions—also tend to be white men. Before a person can even start campaigning, he or she needs to get buy-in from a number of gatekeepers, explained Gloria Totten, the president of the Public Leadership Institute and Progressive Majority, a candidate recruitment organization, on Thursday’s call. “It’s not that women and people of color don’t want to run,” she explained. “It’s that they know the system is stacked against them.”

The solution to diversifying the pool of political candidates includes—but is not limited to—encouraging minority individuals to run for office. There must also be pressure on gatekeepers to not only consider candidates of all backgrounds and to diversify the leadership within their own organizations, said Totten.