And then there were 10. Fox News, in all its political wisdom, finally managed to whittle a crowded circus tent of 17 Republican presidential candidates into 10 bona fide, top-polling, first-Republican-primary-debate contenders. All men and overwhelmingly white (save a retired black neurosurgeon and a onetime wunderkind Cuban American), these self-ascribed castigators of conservatism will descend upon Cleveland and engage in an epic sword-clashing fight of rhetorical barbs that may leave our throats dry once it settles.
With the gladiator straw-pick out of the way, now’s the time for black people to rearrange Thursday-night schedules, call up friends and family, and watch every minute of the most official kickoff of the 2016 presidential season we’re going to get before Labor Day.
For proud members of the active body politic, our popcorn is already picked out and debate watch parties penciled in. But for many, it will be a chore. And for others, it’s not even an option: Who wants to spend Thursday-night prime time watching mostly middle-aged white men squabble over primary turf?
Easy answer: You have no choice. If a recent Fox News poll is accurate, we have a problem if black folks are nearly 10 percentage points behind their white peers when asked about “interest” in the election. We can’t possibly make this much noise over police brutality and inequality, and yet not closely follow our national-leader selection process with the same passion with which we stalk a wack, open diss battle of questionably literate emcees. Here are five reasons you should watch the debate:
1. You need to know what they’re up to. To paraphrase Chris Rock: “Anyone who makes up their mind about an issue before they hear the issue is a fool.” Of course, we hear Republican background noise all day, even when we least expect to hear it, so we think we’ve got the GOP all summed up in one white-sheet-wrapped nutshell. Not. Because if we did, the collective black electorate would be a bit less shocked and a little more prepared when Republicans say and do things it doesn’t like. And, sure, we get it: The GOP primary will be lucky if 3 percent of Republican voters in it are black by Super Tuesday. Black people don’t vote red …
But, honestly, you don’t have to like red to vote for it, meaning: We really should start considering how to put some skin in both the GOP and Democratic nomination games. Don’t come crying if you didn’t have some say in who picked the government-cutting, war-hawk white guy calling global shots. Ultimately, one of these 10 dudes could be the next major-party nominee for leader of the free world—along with a 50-50 chance that he’ll end up in the White House. Don’t get left out.
2. It’s in Ohio: land of police violence and bellwethers. It doesn’t go unnoticed that the first debate of the season is in the Buckeye State, arguably viewed as the biggest battleground state of them all. We also know that lead debate moderator Chris Wallace has “some doozies” planned for the Big 10, and we know debate interrogators get to ask only 20 questions during 90 minutes of yelling suits. But what we don’t know is if moderators will ask the most important question to ask while in Cleveland: We’ve had four of the most high-profile killings of unarmed African Americans by police in Ohio, with two that happened right here in Cleveland, including that of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. No one has been convicted or sent to jail yet. What would you do as president to address this?
That is really the ultimate “doozie” to ask in a room full of mostly white Republicans, since they’ve successfully skirted the so-called #BlackLivesMatter issue, thanks to a summer full of Trump. We need to assess responses, sweat levels and the number of times they reach for water if it’s posed. Now, even though it’s Fox, there’s a chance that moderators will ask a very watered-down version of the question above—but don’t hold your breath if you think they’ll mention victim names.
3. We need to see why so many white people dig Donald. As a nation, we’ve been so infatuated with Donald Trump all summer that we haven’t pressed candidates’ stands on key issues. But now black viewers should see what Trump is really like when facing adversaries—those he relentlessly clowned on the campaign trail—and gather more clues about white Republican-primary voters driving his support.
According to recent polls, they dig him quite a bit—one reason he keeps defying gravity week after week as the present front-runner. The latest Marist College poll (pdf) shows him with 22 percent white support (along with, interestingly enough, 23 percent Latino support). Public Policy Polling shows (pdf) him with 31 percent white favorability, and YouGov gives (pdf) him 41 percent white support, while Fox News shows that 28 percent of white men, 24 percent of white women and 22 percent of white Bible-thumping evangelicals like him above everyone else. Which begs a critical question: What the hell is wrong with white people?
4. It’s pretty dead on the Dem side. Come on, admit it: Is there even a Democratic primary to watch?
This Cleveland debate helps with that, giving us the Red Bull rush of political excitement we need to stay awake. The most exciting the Democratic primary gets is watching Larry David look-alike Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) get grumpy when punked by #BlackLivesMatter protesters. Otherwise, we’re watching a pretty stale field that’s, at the moment, simply sparring for running mate. Looking less creative than their Republican rivals, Democrats are pretty much letting the field dissolve into a Hillary Clinton coronation without any kind of fight, which is why we should appreciate the GOP fireworks, even if they look silly.
5. Go ahead and give Dr. Ben some company. So, it’s not a secret: Black folks aren’t into Ben Carson like they once were. Gone are the glory days of Gifted Hands and Cuba Gooding Jr. role plays, since Carson, in his weird Dr. Ben way, keeps slicing into beloved President Barack Obama over the Affordable Care Act. The reaction from black voters has been pretty harsh: “Don’t talk about Barack.”
As a result, Carson barely gets 29 percent favorability (pdf) from African Americans, according to Public Policy Polling, and only 37 percent, according to YouGov (pdf). But the fact that he still gets the highest black “favorables” out of all the Republican candidates still says we’re thinking about him and privately wishing the soft-spoken Detroit brother the best. So let’s make sure the white guys don’t shout all over him.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.