When this year began, I expected California Sen. Kamala Harris to be in the middle of the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination. But now, after months of campaigning and three nationally televised debates, Harris finds herself sitting in the second tier as she reorganizes her campaign and revamps her strategy.
Harris’s failure to launch has caused me to think about what went wrong and whether she will have a second chance to make a first impression.
Did those of us who expected her to be a formidable contender merely exaggerate this potential appeal, or did she fail to capitalize on her assets?
The California Democrat’s advantages were (and are) many. She’s a woman of color in a party where women and people of color are large and powerful constituencies.
Attractive, personable and well-spoken, she smiles easily and seems hip enough to appeal to younger voters. Turning 55 years of age later this month, Harris looks and sounds mature but is in her prime, far better positioning than the party’s front-running septuagenarians, each of whom seems a relatively weak contrast to President Donald Trump, who will turn 74 next June.
The calendar also looked like an asset, with South Carolina — home to a large number of African-American Democrats — an early test in February and the California primary following in early March.
Finally, her background as a former state attorney general seemed to be a general election asset, since it inoculates her against the inevitable GOP attacks that Democrats are “soft” on crime and generally weak.
Of course, Harris did have a moment over the summer when she seemed to take off.
After she confronted then-front-runner Joe Biden in the first debate, Harris’s poll numbers shot up.
A June 28-July 1 Quinnipiac poll found her in second place, trailing the former vice president by just two points, 22 percent to 20 percent. A June 28-30 CNN survey also found her second, with 17 percent to Biden’s 22 percent.
Harris started losing steam about a week later, but a July 7-9 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll still found her in the double-digits, at 13 percent.
That put her tied for third with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, while Biden (26 percent) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (19 percent) led the field.
Since then, Harris has slipped in national polls, dropping her back to the single digits, generally drawing between 5 percent and 8 percent of the vote.
The RealClearPolitics average now has her under 5 percent and trailing former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Harris raised $11.6 million last quarter, a decent amount. But her haul was less than half of Sanders’s and Warren’s, and well below Buttigieg’s and Biden’s.
What happened? To find an answer (or answers), I turned to a number of veteran Democratic campaign consultants and strategists.
To be fair, as one strategist reminded me, Harris’s inability to show great movement in the national polls doesn’t make her unique.
Few hopefuls in the large field have moved much, which may tell us some things about the dynamics of a crowded contest. Still, Warren has shown movement — from the single digits in May to the 20s now — proving that movement, while difficult, was possible.
Many observers asserted that Harris’s message has been muddled. “What is Harris’s message? She doesn’t know why she is running,” argued one Democratic insider.
That view seemed to echo a comment from former Democratic pollster Diane Feldman on her website (viewfromthepearl.com) that Biden and Warren “are the two candidates who have presented the clearest rationales for their candidacy.”
Others argue that Harris, for all her smiling and “coolness,” isn’t very authentic.
Her attack on Biden in the first debate rubbed some the wrong way, and Maya Rudolph’s impression of the California Democrat on Saturday Night Live’s September 28th show suggested the senator was more Hollywood than Main Street.
Harris was clearly hurt by her performance in the second set of debates, at the end of July.
She took incoming fire early in the debate from Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who criticized Harris’ record as prosecutor, arguing “when you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in people’s lives, you did not and worse yet in the case of those who are on death row, innocent people, you actually blocked evidence from being revealed that would have freed them until you were forced to do so. There’s no excuse for that and the people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor — you owe them an apology.”
The attack seemed to catch Harris by surprise, and she never recovered. Polls quickly showed her sliding back to the single digits in national polls.
The California Democrat undoubtedly is suffering from her inability to attract black voters, who continue to support the former vice president (and didn’t like Harris’s attack on Biden in the first debate).
If she can’t attract blacks, wonder some Democratic strategists, how is she going to build momentum? And if she doesn’t show greater strength among whites, why would black voters see her as a viable alternative to Biden, the way they did Barack Obama after he proved his appeal in the 2008 Iowa caucuses?
Is Harris now toast, or will she get another look from Democratic voters?
It’s still “only” October, and the Iowa caucuses are almost four months away. Given that, and because of lingering questions about the top three in the Democratic contest — Biden, Warren and Sanders — I’m not ready to declare Harris’s quest over.
But it’s unclear whether she can compete in either the populist or the electability lane unless Warren or Biden stumble and offer an opening to her or someone else.
Most observers seem skeptical she can reboot her campaign. As one told me, “With so many options, you don’t get a whole lot of chances. If Biden were to falter, Mayor Pete would likely get a second look before Harris.”
Harris’s current standing in the race proves one thing: Checking the right demographic boxes may not be enough to make it into the Democratic presidential finals. The voters want more. We’ll see if Harris has more to give.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 8, 2019.