CNN reporter: Why are three white men leading the Democratic primary polls?

A leftover from this weekend’s official Beto O’Rourke launch rally. Watch the clip below and you’ll see that the question in the headline isn’t presented as a complaint. It’s not “What’s wrong with Democratic voters that the three best-polling candidates in the field right now are white dudes?” It’s a straightforward curiosity: Post-Obama, post-Hillary, when multiple black candidates *and* multiple women are running and the Democratic Party is leaning more heavily than ever on women and minorities for votes, what explains the fact that Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Beto O’Rourke tend to be the top three in most polls — and meanwhile the biggest breakout star from the lower tiers thus far is Pete Buttigieg, another white guy?

Did Michael Avenatti have it right after all?

A run for President would thrust Avenatti into the middle of the party’s identity crisis. The Democrats have not been this powerless since the 1920s, and their members have responded by nominating a historic number of women and people of color for office. But when it comes to the party’s presidential nominee in 2020, Avenatti thinks in different terms. “I think it better be a white male,” he says. He hastens to add that he wishes it weren’t so, but it’s undeniable that people listen to white men more than they do others; it’s why he’s been successful representing Daniels and immigrant mothers, he says. “When you have a white male making the arguments, they carry more weight,” he says. “Should they carry more weight? Absolutely not. But do they? Yes.”

Nia-Malika Henderson says in the clip that she’s heard that point from voters practically verbatim. Can Democrats siphon off votes from Trump’s white working-class base if it’s not a white man making the pitch to them? Experience would suggest the answer is, er, yes: Many of those MAGA voters in the midwest were Obama voters four years earlier, remember. But it wasn’t Trump whom Obama ran against, it was the upper-crust traditional Republican Mitt Romney. Clearly a nonwhite Democratic candidate can win white working-class votes — but can they do it when a populist like Donald Trump is the other option on the ballot?

I think the fact that three white men are leading at the moment is way overblown, actually. Right, granted, Biden and Bernie are perennially 1-2 in early primary polls, but that’s not because they’re white guys. Or rather, it’s not primarily because they’re white guys. It’s because they’re each universally known, Biden from his time as VP and Sanders from his 2016 run. If there’s a racial angle there, it’s the fact that until recently it was much harder for a nonwhite and/or woman candidate to run credibly for president, let alone get elected vice president. Biden and Sanders have each been viable as national politicians for years in a way that minority politicians weren’t able to be and their name recognition has benefited.

As for Beto, I’m not so sure he really is the third-place guy. Eyeball the latest primary polls and you’ll find him neck-and-neck with Harris in most, sometimes tied with Warren, sometimes behind Buttigieg(!). By no means has he moved away from the pack the way Biden and Sanders have. Beto too is a creature mostly of name recognition, I think, recipient of oodles of fawning magazine profiles and the biggest fundraising haul for a Senate candidate in U.S. history. He got a ton of good press from his near-miss in Texas against Cruz. And he’s a recent entrant into the race, don’t forget; candidates who’ve joined the fray lately tend to do better in polling as they enjoy a honeymoon bounce.

All of which is to say, I don’t think there’s any “white guy effect” happening. I think there’s a “famous person effect” happening, with Harris still largely unknown to much of the country. She’s certainly the frontrunner in California and is a strong bet to finish well in South Carolina given the strength of black voters there. If I had to put next month’s rent on any candidate in the race, I’d skip the white dudes and bet it all on the black woman.