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.

Democrats Still at Square One

With two debates down and too many more still to go, Democrats are pretty much where they were before the June debates in Miami and the July debates in Detroit.

That shouldn’t surprise you. The Iowa caucuses are still almost six months away, and voters are just starting to tune into the campaign. They know full well they don’t have to embrace one hopeful now.

Instead, they can continue to comparison shop, evaluating performances in debates, on television interviews, on the stump and in the heavy news coverage.

And those who care about electability can watch the polls. After a rather combative set of debates — courtesy of CNN, which was more interested in roughhousing by the candidates than in uncovering their priorities and management styles — where does the Democratic race now stand?

President Donald Trump is still the egotistical, abusive promoter of division that he has been, which is one reason why his job approval ratings are so poor given low unemployment rates, substantial wage growth and a generally vibrant economy.

Sure, there are things to complain about — e.g., growing deficits and debt, trade wars and the growing wealth gap — but if Trump acted like a normal president, he would be coasting to reelection.

Instead, the president, who drew 46 percent of the popular vote in 2016, sits generally in the 40 percent to 43 percent range in hypothetical ballot tests against a variety of top-tier Democratic hopefuls.

Former Vice President Joe Biden performs best against Trump, but he isn’t the only Democrat to lead in head-to-head ballot tests.

Democrats have a number of ways of increasing their vote share in 2020, including attracting more base voters (who either didn’t turn out or voted for a third party candidate in 2016) and/or improving their showing among suburban women and women with a college degree, swing groups that turned more Democratic in the 2018 midterms.

If they improve their showing among one or both of those groups, the president will have a difficult time winning a second term.

Of course, Trump still has a narrow path to 270 electoral votes, and Republicans will try to demonize and discredit the eventual Democratic nominee, making him or her unacceptable to enough voters to produce another Trump victory.

Obviously, Trump’s chances of discrediting his opponent varies with that challenger. He’d use different tactics against Biden than he would against Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

But no matter whom the Democrats nominate, Trump’s campaign will be built around destroying him or her.

The Democrats will be in much better position if they can make the 2020 about Trump.

Sure, their nominee will need a positive agenda and appealing vision, and the party will adopt a platform in Milwaukee at next summer’s nominating convention.

But the Democratic nominee needs to spend much more time making the 2020 election a referendum on Trump than a choice between two ideologies.

Electability will become a bigger concern in the months ahead. But right now, ideological positioning, candidate skills and past records are more important.

So how have the Democrats fared so far? Not particularly well.

Biden, the early national front-runner, continues to be the best-positioned Democrat in the race.

As Barack Obama’s former vice president, he starts off with considerable support in the black community. But he also has a long-developed reputation for appealing to working-class white voters, like the ones in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin who elected Trump.

A progressive with more than a mere touch of pragmatism, he has appeal to both his party’s base and swing voters.

But Biden received underwhelming reviews in Miami. He recovered somewhat in Detroit, but he didn’t appear agile during his second debate, stumbling more than a few times.

Yes, I know, we all stumble. But at 76, he (and Sanders, who is 77) are under a microscope.

Biden’s lengthy record continues to give plenty of ammunition to his opponents. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro all raised issues with him in Detroit that he either didn’t answer or was ineffective rebutting.

Fortunately for him, he will have more opportunities to put doubts about his campaign skills to rest. California Sen. Kamala Harris was the clear winner of her first debate with Biden, but she found out how quickly things can change.

Targeted by others onstage in Detroit, she was put on the defensive immediately about the latest version of her “Medicare for All” plan.

Quickly, Harris’ shoulders drooped, and her smile vanished. She looked at various moments deflated, bored and frustrated.

Yes, it is only one night. But it was a missed opportunity. With Biden and Harris having less than ideal nights, Sanders and Warren are, at least briefly, the short-term beneficiaries.

Both are passionate populists, with boundless energy and an unquenchable desire to bash corporations and the rich.

But Sanders embraced the “socialist” label years ago, and his agenda has not strayed fundamentally from that goal, leaving him open to Republican attacks that his election would destroy Trump’s greatest accomplishment — the economy.

Of course, Sanders leads Trump in most polls, and his supporters will argue that shows his electability, to say nothing of his appeal to progressives who never warmed to Hillary Clinton.

But the amount of opposition research on Sanders must be mind-numbing, considering that he is now 77 years old and his political activism goes back to the early 1960s. He first ran for office in 1971.

Warren doesn’t quite have Sanders’ baggage, but she is vulnerable to the same criticism.

Maybe more importantly, those hopefuls who embraced “Medicare for all” suddenly find themselves on the defensive against those defending Obamacare and those workers not eager to give up longtime union-negotiated health care coverage.

So, Democrats face an uncomfortable reality.

Trump is damaged goods, but most of their own top-tier hopefuls have their own liabilities — or at least have to worry about their ideological positioning, campaign skills and electability. Luckily, Iowa is still many months away.

Note: This column appeared initially on Roll Call on August 6, 2019.

The 2020 Race: Still Tilting Democratic

There has been plenty of attention recently on economic models that show President Donald Trump holding a huge advantage in the 2020 presidential contest. But it’s not that simple.

Like alchemists hunting for the secret recipe that transmutes lead into gold, media personalities, political junkies and veteran analysts seem bewitched by the idea that they can divine the political future. I’m always skeptical of such claims.

I still remember the silliness of an Indiana University sociologist, who knew nothing about politics, arguing in The Washington Post and on television that Twitter could predict elections.

The latest version of this search for prophesy is Steven Rattner’s May 27 New York Times column about “models” that give the president a “formidable 2020 tailwind.”

An earlier Politico piece by Ben White and Steve Shepard teased, “How Trump is on track for a 2020 landslide.”

No matter how many economists, political scientists or investment bankers are involved, predictive models based solely on economic data miss the point because they look at only one aspect of a presidency and only one facet of a presidential election. My column from Sept. 18 last year, “Why it’s NOT the Economy, Stupid,” sought to explain why the economy would not be decisive in the midterms and why it might well be less important than usual next year.

Models predicting a Trump wave strike me as more about clicks and being contrarian than about taking a dispassionate look at the 2020 election.

A second look

In my Jan. 3 column this year, I considered a number of factors — including the impact of the nominees, the economy, recent election results, issue salience, key voting groups and Trump’s performance in office — before calling the race a Toss-up that tilts toward the Democrats.

Now, I thought I’d take another look at where the 2020 race stands, acknowledging again that it’s still very early and the trajectory of the race is likely to change more than once before the Iowa caucuses, let alone Election Day.

In spite of all the Sturm und Drang about the Democratic contest and the media’s suffocating coverage of the 2020 race, not a lot has changed since the start of the year.

Democrats have a number of additions to their field, including the early front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, but the basic shape of their race is holding firm.

Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, and, surprisingly, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg seem to constitute the top tier, with many others hoping to break out during the first debates at the end of this month.

Trump, of course, remains unchanged. He is the same person he has been, and there is no reason to believe that he will change.

Key groups

Party coalition groups (on both sides) are essentially holding, and the recent controversy over abortion, which is almost certain to remain a significant national issue from now to next November, makes it difficult for Trump to expand his support or win back college-educated white women, the election’s crucial swing group.

Not all women favor abortion rights, but the legislative actions taken to restrict abortion in Missouri and Alabama surely elevate the issue and create greater risk for Republican candidates in many suburban areas.

The movement to the GOP of white men without a college degree and the realignment of college-educated voters to the Democrats remain significant stories for the next presidential contest.

Trump’s tough talk on tariffs and immigration resonates well with many of his most loyal supporters, but it clearly has caused some heartburn in rural America, where trade is so important.

Whether tariffs and trade cost Trump a state or two in next year’s elections is now unclear, but the risk surely is greater for the GOP than for Democrats.

From time to time, Trump talks about unemployment in the minority community or the need to improve the nation’s infrastructure, but his overall nationalist, populist message — and decisions taken by various government officials — invariably make it easy for Democrats to paint the administration as insensitive to the less fortunate, beholden to conservative evangelicals, overly protective of the wealthy, and generally uninterested in diversity and tolerance.

Polls generally show Trump’s job approval between 40 percent and 46 percent. At best, that puts him about where he was in 2016, and at worst it shows him at least a few points weaker than he was.

Equally troubling for Republicans, national polls and key state surveys have initially shown Trump trailing Biden and Sanders.

Another four years?

Questions about the Democratic field — and particularly about the party’s eventual nominee — remain unanswered.

Biden’s positioning as a pragmatic liberal is ideal. But it isn’t clear whether he will be his party’s nominee or whether the party will select a more progressive (and riskier) standard-bearer next year.

A strong economy surely gives Trump good talking points and a rationale for re-election, but a clear plurality of Americans (maybe even a majority) now believe the country cannot take another four years of him, no matter how low the employment rate falls.

They are concerned about his character, judgment, intelligence, integrity, churlishness and lack of empathy, as well as the chaos and controversy that follow him.

Dozens of important questions remain unanswered, but the 2020 contest still looks to be more of a referendum on the president than anything else. And because of that, and the polarization evident in the nation, a close race is likely.

Given Trump’s inability to broaden his appeal and the likelihood that Democrats will be more united and energized than they were in 2016, the Democratic ticket deserves to be given a narrow but clear advantage.

“Tilting Democratic” still seems a reasonable rating to me at this early stage of the race.

Note: This column appeared initially in the June 11, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

Age, Change and the Democrats’ Challenge

Is the Democratic race for president — and possibly even the 2020 general election — going to boil down to a choice of aged front-runners (or incumbent) versus a younger challenger who represents generational change? It’s certainly possible.

President Donald Trump, the oldest person ever to assume the presidency when he was inaugurated in 2017, turns 72 in June. It wouldn’t be without precedent if Democratic voters — and eventually the electorate as a whole — saw the 2020 election as an opportunity to make a statement about the future and generational change.

It has already happened a couple of times in recent memory.

President Dwight Eisenhower left office in 1961 at the age of 70 after serving eight years in the White House. His successor, Democrat John F. Kennedy, was just 43 when he was elected president the previous year.

The contrast between Eisenhower and Kennedy was obvious, as was the charisma gap between the Massachusetts Democrat and his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, who was only 47 but represented continuity.

Thirty-two years later, in 1992, another Democrat ran for the White House on a message of generational change. Bill Clinton was 46 when he was elected president, making him the first baby boomer in the White House.

The Republican incumbent Clinton defeated, President George H.W. Bush, was 68 when he sought re-election. He had also served two terms as vice president under Ronald Reagan, whose presidency ended when he was 77 years old.

Again, there was an obvious charisma gap between Clinton and Bush.

History repeats?

Now, 28 years after that 1992 election, Democrats face a quandary: Do they nominate a senior citizen or someone much younger who can portray the sitting president as part of the past?

The answer, to some extent, depends on the kind of campaign Democrats want to wage. Do they want a contest about ideology, issues and policy or about change, hope and character?

Four announced Democratic hopefuls are old enough to collect Social Security: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (age 77), Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren(69), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (68) and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (67). And that doesn’t count former Vice President Joe Biden(76), who is widely expected to enter the race.

On the other hand, two hopefuls are under 40 — South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (37) and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (37) — and three others are in their 40s: former HUD Secretary Julián Castro (44), former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke (46) and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (49).

Six announced candidates and potential hopefuls fall between the two extremes: New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (52), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (52), Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet (54), California Sen. Kamala Harris (54) and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (62).

Of that latter group, Harris offers the greatest contrast with Trump, a younger, female, multiracial Californian.

The Feb. 24-27 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked voters how comfortable and enthusiastic they would be with a potential nominee who had certain characteristics.

Only a third of those responding said they would be comfortable or enthusiastic with someone over 75 years of age. On the surface, that’s not great news for older hopefuls, especially Biden and Sanders.

But there is no way of knowing how many voters are so uncomfortable that they wouldn’t vote for a candidate in his or her mid-70s, especially since recent ballot tests have shown the two oldest names tested, Biden and Sanders, leading the pack.

Not the norm

But Trump is not Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan or George H.W. Bush.

He is relatively new to elective politics, and he has a certain kind of charisma — at least to about 40 percent of the public. And unlike Nixon in 1960 and Bush in 1992, Trump doesn’t yet represent the status quo, even though he is the incumbent.

His entire message is about disruption, destroying the “deep state” and sticking it to the elite and the establishment.

That means Trump might not be as vulnerable to some form of “change” message as Nixon and Bush 41 were.

There is another side to that coin, of course. Polls consistently show a plurality (often a majority) of voters won’t vote to re-elect Trump next year, and the enthusiastic response among Democrats to O’Rourke and Buttigieg can’t be ignored.

Neither man is a typical politician or presidential hopefuls, and they have different styles. The Texan asks a lot of questions but provides few answers (at this point), while Buttigieg has been more combative against Trump and explicit about his views and personal values.

Harris remains the most interesting case. The California senator (and former state attorney general) is relatively new to national politics, having been elected in 2016, and has plenty of charisma.

Half Tamil (Indian) and half Jamaican, she is a woman of color who projects a knowledgeable and substantive view of politics and policy.

She will certainly have great appeal among women and nonwhites, two demographic groups that are crucial to winning her party’s nomination next year and to turning out base voters next November.

But would she do better than Hillary Clinton did among white, working-class voters, particularly in the Great Lakes states?

Depending on the economy, the Democrats may be able to run a basic “change” message in 2020. But party strategists can’t count on that being enough.

They may well need a nominee, and a ticket, that can offer a much bigger message about the future and what kind of country most voters want this to be.

In theory, any of the candidates can offer that kind of message, since Trump’s America is so different from what we have come to expect over the last six decades, from both parties.

Democrats need to figure out who can best deliver that message and inspire voters — Democrats, independents and non-Trump Republicans — about the future and what form that “change” message takes.

Note: This column appeared initially in the April 2, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

What Do Democrats Want in a President? Part I

Democrats have a hoard of hopefuls aiming for their party’s 2020 nomination, so what qualities and characteristics are Democratic primary voters and caucus attendees likely to value?

Electability is certainly a factor, but what makes a potential nominee electable?

I’ll save the all-important ideology question — does the party need to move to the center to attract swing voters or move left to energize core constituencies? — until my next column, but there are plenty of other questions that Democratic voters must address over the next 12 to 15 months.

Here are a few:

Can a candidate be ‘new’ more than once?

When Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders entered the 2016 race on April 30, 2015, he wasn’t taken very seriously by political handicappers. He seemed too far left, couldn’t match Hillary Clinton’s fundraising machine, wasn’t even a Democrat and appeared too disheveled for this media age.

But Sanders caught on as an “authentic,” quirky, progressive alternative to the “establishment” Clinton. He was passionate and sincere, a fresh voice with principled ideas.

Is Sanders still the candidate of change, new ideas and authenticity, or did his magic potion have a 2016 expiration date?

Can he really compete with other, newer, younger candidates — like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former San Antonio Mayor/former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro — who will attempt to carry the mantle of change, energy, progressivism and authenticity?

Count me as skeptical that it’s now possible to be “new” more than once.

Of course, in the past, some unsuccessful presidential hopefuls proved resilient.

Adlai Stevenson was the Democratic nominee in 1956 after losing decisively in 1952. Republican Thomas E. Dewey lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 but was nominated again four years later — and lost to Harry Truman. And Richard Nixon lost in 1960 but won the GOP nomination and the presidency eight years later.

But those were different times. Barack Obama never could have been nominated back then. Nor could Donald Trump.

We live in impatient times. Candidates don’t want to wait their turn, and the party establishment has withered.

Fundraising has changed, as has media coverage. That’s made charisma and oratory more important than preparation for office, longevity and maturity.

I expect there will be a new “Bernie Sanders” this cycle, but it’s unlikely to be Bernie Sanders.

I’m even skeptical about Joe Biden’s chances, even though he starts at or near the top in most polls, and even though I believe he would have won the White House had he been the 2016 Democratic nominee.

Selecting Biden as the party’s nominee may seem too much like going backward instead of marching into the future to Democratic voters.

Must the ticket include a woman? An African-American?

The eventual Democratic nominee will need to roll up big margins among women and non-whites, two groups that make up the backbone of the party.

Clinton carried women 54 percent to 41 percent and non-whites 74 percent to 21 percent in 2016, but two years later, Democratic House candidates carried both groups by even wider margins — winning women 59 percent to 40 percent and non-whites 76 percent to 22 percent.

Given Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s successes battling Trump, the victories by female candidates in 2018 and the infusion of energy provided by progressives of late, I simply can’t imagine a Democratic ticket without a non-white or a woman.

Both groups are crucial in offsetting the GOP’s advantage with men and whites.

The more important question is whether the party needs both a person of color and a woman on the ticket. I start off thinking the answer is “probably.”

A party that stands for diversity and inclusiveness must prove its commitment when putting together a national ticket.

This certainly doesn’t mean that a white man can’t be nominated for president or vice president by the Democrats — or win the White House.

Biden, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, O’Rourke and others have obvious assets in a crowded contest. But female and minority voters will have such a large role in selecting a presidential nominee that they may well prefer to nominate someone who looks like them.

And a ticket with a woman and/or an African American could help turnout among those crucial groups. Sen. Kamala Harris, who is black, Indian-American and a woman, checks a number of boxes.

Gillibrand, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar must also be in the conversation as appealing to women, just as Booker will have appeal to black Democrats.

Is experience an asset or a liability?

Obama jumped into the 2008 presidential contest on Feb. 10, 2007, about two years after he became a senator.

Trump never held elective office (or even a significant appointed post) when he won the White House. He defeated a woman who had been first lady, senator and secretary of State, and who was making her second run for president.

Does experience matter at all to Democratic voters? Or do they care only about speaking ability, charisma, newness and enthusiasm?

Is having served three terms in the House and a few years on the El Paso City Council enough (O’Rourke)? How about serving as mayor of South Bend, Indiana (Pete Buttigieg)? Is a couple of years in the Senate enough if you were previously attorney general of California (Harris)?

Newer contenders have shorter voting records, or none at all. Some have had little or no connection with Washington or Congress.

Is that what Democrats are looking for, or after Trump do they want someone who knows the ins and outs of legislation and D.C.?

If experience is still an electoral asset, Biden, Brown, former two-term Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and even Sanders have an important credential.

But if it isn’t an asset, other hopefuls may be better positioned.

These three questions are only the tip of the iceberg as we try to answer the question “What matters to Democrats as they put together a national ticket?”

In my next column, I’ll look at some other considerations, including ideological positioning.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 29, 2019.