What Happened to Kamala Harris?

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.

What We Can Learn from the 2004 Presidential Race

Beware of reading too much into presidential polls. Take, for example, the 2004 race.

An August 2003 CNN/USA Today/Gallup national survey found Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic nominee for vice president, leading the party’s presidential field with 23 percent. He was trailed by former House Majority (and Minority) Leader Richard A. Gephardt (13 percent), former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (12 percent) and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry(10 percent).

A month later, another CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found the newest entry into the race, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, topping the pack with 22 percent, while Dean (13 percent), Kerry (11 percent), Gephardt (11 percent) and Lieberman (10 percent) were bunched together.

There were others in the race, of course — North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, Florida Sen. Bob Graham, Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich and activist Al Sharpton — but they barely registered in the polls.

By December, Dean had pulled ahead in the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, opening up a considerable lead over Lieberman, 31 percent to 13 percent. Clark and Kerry drew 10 percent, and Gephardt received 8 percent.

(Multiple other polls, including those for CBS News, Newsweek, ABC News/Washington Post and NBC News/Wall Street Journal showed the same movement to Dean.)

A little more than a month later, on Jan. 19, Kerry won the Iowa caucuses with 38 percent, while Edwards surged into second place with 32 percent. Dean and Gephardt finished much further behind.

Clark and Lieberman did not really compete in the caucuses, preferring to devote their time to New Hampshire.

The first CNN/USA Today/Gallup national survey after the caucuses, conducted Jan. 29 to Feb. 1, 2004, showed Kerry leading nationally with 49 percent to Dean’s 14 percent, Edwards’ 13 percent and Clark’s 9 percent. The race for the Democratic nomination was effectively over.

In a matter of weeks, Kerry went from a political basket case to the de facto Democratic nominee.

Edwards become his major opponent and eventually his running mate.

The early polls weren’t “wrong.” They just weren’t predictive of how things would develop.

16 years later

But 2020 is very different from 2004, isn’t it? In 2004, neither party had ever nominated a person of color or a woman to be president. The Democratic field then was large but nothing like the almost two dozen hopefuls this year.

The Democratic Party of 2004 was very different from the one we see today. And the political environment was very different then, given its proximity to 9/11.

One thing that is similar is the timing of the first debate. In 2003, Democrats held a debate on May 3, about six weeks earlier than this year’s June debates.

Nine Democrats — including one woman, Moseley-Braun, and two candidates of color, Moseley-Braun and Sharpton — participated in the debate, which was held at the University of South Carolina and broadcast on C-SPAN and 59 ABC affiliates. George Stephanopoulos of ABC News was the moderator.

The more things change …

So, what might 2004 teach us about 2020?

First, as Gallup’s Frank Newport noted shortly before the 2004 Iowa caucuses, an early lead in national polling doesn’t guarantee anything.

Sure, some hopefuls (including George W. Bush and Al Gore in 1999-2000, and Donald Trump in 2015-16) have gone wire-to-wire, but most contests show surges and lead changes.

Throughout 2003, voters were doing just what they are doing this year: learning about the candidates, sampling them and sorting them into those they might support and those they won’t.

Polls from before the 2004 Iowa caucuses showed Kerry virtually eliminated from the race — until he wasn’t.

As Democratic pollster Diane Feldman told me more than a decade ago, it’s only weeks before the Iowa caucuses that caucus attendees start asking themselves which of the hopefuls could handle the office of president. That’s a different test from “Who do I like?’ or “Who do I agree with the most?”

Second, every day is “crucial” for cable TV hosts and political spinners, but not for campaigns and candidates.

Fundraising numbers are worth noting, as are news reports about controversies and polling. But all the hoopla — countdown clocks, Super Bowl-like pre-debate introductions, massive panels of experts dissecting every new public opinion survey — is mostly about drawing eyeballs, not educating viewers.

Third, Iowa can change everything.

The winner of the Iowa caucuses doesn’t automatically win the nomination, but the results invariably change perceptions about the front-runner and the entire field, creating new expectations and weeding out the also-rans.

“The [nomination] process is not a simultaneous process but a sequential one,” noted Feldman, whose clients have included the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Fourth, the Hawkeye State will be more uncertain than ever with the addition of a “virtual caucus” that allows Iowa Democrats to caucus up to six days before the Feb. 3 traditional in-person caucuses.

People undoubtedly are paying more attention to the current race than they did at this point in 2003-04, in part because Democrats are so focused on defeating Trump next year.

And Trump’s nomination and election may well have altered the way people look at the political process and campaigns.

But the coverage of the Democratic contest — including contradictory polling results and multiple media narratives — tells us less than you may think about the party’s eventual nominee.

Voters have plenty of time to evaluate the crowded field before Iowa and Nevada caucus-goers and New Hampshire and South Carolina primary voters make their choices and remake the field.

Note: This column appeared initially in the July 9, 2019 issue of Roll Call.