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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

December 5: Kamala Harris’ Presidential Bid: What Went Wrong?

I don’t routinely post items here on the demise of presidential candidacies, but Kamala Harris’ involved strategic issues to an unusual degree, so I’m sharing what I wrote up for New York.

When Steve Bullock and Joe Sestak withdrew from the 2020 presidential race at the beginning of this week, it represented the inevitable, arguably overdue winnowing of a might-have-been and a never-was contender. Kamala Harris’ surprise withdrawal today was more significant, representing the demise of a candidacy that made a lot of strategic sense and that for a brief moment last summer looked very formidable.

It’s unclear at this early juncture whether the withdrawal was the product of the “disarray in the campaign” that has been written about abundantly in recent weeks, most pungently at Politico:

“Kamala Harris’ campaign is careening toward a crackup.

“As the California senator crisscrosses the country trying to revive her sputtering presidential bid, aides at her fast-shrinking headquarters are deep into the finger-pointing stages …

“[One] person described the current state of the campaign in blunt terms: ‘No discipline. No plan. No strategy.’”

Most accounts of Harris campaign troubles focused on overspending and on confusion at the top of the organization where campaign manager Juan Rodriguez and campaign chair (and the candidate’s sister) Maya Harris were twin authorities.

But beneath the day-to-day problems was a campaign whose plausible strategic objectives simply weren’t being met. The original Harris plan was modeled to a considerable extent on Barack Obama’s in 2008, as I observed last fall:

“[I]t’s the strategy successfully pursued by another freshman senator with a multiracial background in 2008: establish your political chops by winning in nearly-all-white Iowa and then consolidate minority support in the South and in urban states with large African-American populations. Indeed, Harris has an advantage that Barack Obama did not enjoy: her own home state of California has moved its primary up until March 3, just after the initial quartet of events in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.

“In the sports language often used (along with combat and gambling lingo) by political operatives, one of Harris’s people called this strategy: ‘the SEC primary meets the West Coast offense.’ And it makes sense, on paper, particularly if Harris can go into South Carolina with a head of steam and win there.”

Aside from the challenge of trying to get traction in a crowded field in Iowa, Harris had to do to Joe Biden what Obama did to Hillary Clinton in 2008: shake loose a strong attachment to a white front-runner among African-American voters, particularly in South Carolina. For a moment, after she seized the spotlight in the June candidate debate with a strong criticism of Joe Biden’s understanding of racial issues, it looked like she was well on her way to doing just that, as I noted at the time:

“Totally aside from the substantive impact of Harris’s challenge to Biden’s record on school busing and racial justice generally, it’s not good for the former veep that two of the strongest performers in the first round of debates have been Harris and Cory Booker, who represent a generational and a racial contrast to him. They are both gunning for Biden in South Carolina, and if one or both begins to carve into his African-American support, he’s in serious trouble.”

And in part because she was the clear star of this debate, it was Harris, not Booker, who caught fire. A Quinnipiac poll immediately afterwards showed her leaping into second place, just two points behind Biden, and well ahead of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Perhaps even more importantly, a CNN survey showed Harris cutting Biden’s advantage over her among nonwhite voters from 26 percent to six percent.

But even before her underwhelming performance in the second round of debates in July, there were signs Harris’ boom was subsiding. By August her national polling numbers were back down into the single digits, and it became obvious she was significantly trailing Obama’s trajectory at the same stage of the 2008 campaign, particularly in terms of African-American support and positioning in Iowa. The rise of Elizabeth Warren during this same period took a lot of the spotlight away from the Californian as well.

By September Harris recognized that without a better showing in Iowa she was unlikely to enjoy a South Carolina breakthrough. So she emulated another successful campaign of the past, John Kerry’s in 2004, in putting all her resources into the first-in-the-nation-caucus state, famously telling Senate colleagues she was “f___ing moving to Iowa.” But she never got traction there. In a September Iowa Poll from Ann Selzer, she was at six percent, and then in Selzer’s November poll, she had dropped to three percent. And that’s about the time when the “disarray” that got so much attention became impossible to ignore.

Contributing to Harris’ strategic failures were some messaging missteps. In the crucial July debate when she began to lose steam, she got mired in a confusing explanation of her differences with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on Medicare For All, and walked right into a savage attack on her criminal justice reform record by Tulsi Gabbard. And while she issued well-regarded proposals on teachers’ pay and tax reforms, she never really achieved a signature policy proposal, which enhanced the impression that she was mostly focused on her positioning in the field rather than making a compelling case for her nomination or her ability to beat Trump. And her debate stumbles quickly diminished thoughts of this ex-prosecutor dismantling Trump in a general election tilt.

Perhaps the coup de grace in terms of Harris’ trajectory in the race occurred earlier this week when two national polls showed her even or actually behind Michael Bloomberg, who very recently entered the race. She was continuing to go nowhere fast, and there was even talk in California that if she didn’t get out of the race and mend fences back home, she might court a 2022 Senate primary opponent.

It’s unclear exactly how Harris’ withdrawal will affect the race. The potential beneficiary who needs help the most is the one remaining African-American candidate, Cory Booker, who has been laboring in Harris’ shadow in both Iowa and South Carolina, the two key states for him as well. And it creates a real battle royal in California, where Harris retained some significant support despite slipping behind the leading national candidates there. Arguably Joe Biden, who was for a while vulnerable to Harris’ strategy, will be relieved to see the back of her. And to the extent that Harris at her best was a potential unity candidate for the party, her absence could create a fresh competition for that mantle.

All in all, Harris had a lot of potential but failed to capitalize on it, which has led some observers to compare her to 2016 Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio.

At 55, Harris isn’t quite as young as the 48-year-old Rubio, but like him, she is young enough to contemplate a national political comeback–perhaps even by becoming someone’s running-mate next year.

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