The Democratic presidential campaigns this cycle are led by a historically diverse group at the senior level.
Among the Democratic presidential contenders that have managers in place, the Booker, Harris, Sanders, Warren, Williamson, Gabbard and Castro campaigns have hired people of color. The O'Rourke, Bullock, Inslee, Hickenlooper and Steyer campaigns have hired female managers. In fact, a recent analysis by the Wall Street Journal found that on the campaigns of nine of the top Democratic contenders, the majority of senior staff and advisors are women – and about a quarter women of color. Overall, the Journal found that 42 percent of the senior staff on these campaigns identified as nonwhite.
It’s a development that was helped along by pressure from groups including the Congressional Black Caucus and Inclusv, which last cycle audited the rosters of Democratic campaigns. In addition, the National Association of Diverse Consultants (NADC) maintains a roster of minority-owned firms in the industry.
But the consulting firms working on most Democratic races this cycle are another story. In fact, top practitioners are sounding the alarm over what they see as a lack of responsiveness to the growing expectation on the left that hiring from campaign and committee staff to consultants should reflect the party’s diversity.
The presidential campaigns “wanted to be on the right side of the conversation this cycle,” said Quentin James, co-founder of Inclusv. “The campaigns have been doing a great job.”
The consulting industry? Less so.
“In an environment where the president has weaponized race to divide the country, to have those voices at the table to lead our advertising efforts is critical to our success,” said James. “It’s really not the value of diversity, it’s about winning. We’re still not utilizing it to our benefit.”
He added: “As a party if we’re going to spend $2-$3 billion this cycle, how much of that is going to go to women-owned firms, people of color owned firms, LGBTQ owned firms?”
That’s a question that practitioners on the left have been asking for years. It’s being framed in more urgent terms now because some consultants of color are getting themselves into the proverbial room and seeing firsthand what that looks like.
Doug Thornell, who was appointed along with Oren Shur and Emily Campbell to head SKDKnickerbocker’s political consulting department in June, said he’s noticed how rare it was for large Democratic firms to have a person of color as a principal.
"It does distinguish us from other political consulting firms out there — you don’t see at the senior level, other people of color. There’s a dearth in the polling world, too. It’s something that the party needs to address,” said Thornell, who worked at the DNC, DSCC, and DCCC before joining SKDK in 2011.
“It’s not lost on me that there are virtually no African American political ad makers on the Democratic side. I think we, as Democrats, need to change that and make the consulting world look more like the Democratic Party.”
This cycle nonwhites are expected to account for one-third of eligible voters, “their largest share ever,” according to Pew.
Hiring a diverse staff has to be a priority for firms, said Thornell. “It’s not just paying lip service to it.”
Underlying the challenge is the fact that many in the industry already think their firms are doing enough on the diversity front. In C&E’s inaugural State of the Campaign Industry Survey, conducted by PSB Research earlier this year, 84 percent of respondents that their companies were doing enough to promote diversity.
Meanwhile, roughly half admitted said they have “witnessed or encountered racism” in the campaign industry, and a third of professionals agreed that perceptions of the political industry prevent more minorities from entering the field.
Thornell’s remedy: hiring managers must demand diverse resumes.
“From VPs on up, we’ve got diverse people of color in key positions [at SKDK]. I think, in part, that starts at the top of the firm – the partners and other senior leaders demanding that that be a critical part of how we go about our hiring,” he said, adding that three out of the five SKDK partners are women.
Thornell was optimistic that the diversity reflected in the presidential campaigns would soon be reflected at Democratic media, digital and polling firms.
“I’ve been encouraged by the diversity that we’re seeing on a lot of these [presidential] campaigns and at several of the committees,” he said. “These staffers, hopefully, get picked up and hired by firms.”
Another part of the solution to the industry’s diversity problem needs to come from individual practitioners. At C&E’s Reed Award Conference earlier this year, Tennesee-based consultant Kara Turrentine encouraged those at the staff level to help introduce talented minority operatives to the firm world.
“As you see those folks on your campaigns, bring those folks up and we’ll see this room diversify,” said Turrentine.