Kamala Harris’ campaign failures resemble Rubio in 2016
Unless you’re perennial front-runners Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders or the ascendent Elizabeth Warren, it’s tough to be a Democratic candidate for president. With the troika of the former vice president, the left-wing folk hero and the plan-touting senator eating up almost all available political and media oxygen, the other 20-odd candidates looking in are shut out in the cold. No one has felt this deprivation quite like California Senator Kamala Harris, once pegged by many as the odds-on favorite of the race.
Harris assembled a strong record as District Attorney first of San Francisco and then the state of California before transitioning to national politics, quickly making herself known to a national audience with her tough questioning of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Her unique background as the daughter of Indian and Jamacian immigrants and focus on identity politics resonated with a Democratic electorate that increasingly puts a premium on issues of intersectionality and discrimination. Before the race had even truly begun, she had the backing of many of California’s top Democrats and influential party members across the nation.
After a victorious first debate in June where she pounced on Biden’s problematic history with school busing and longtime collaboration with segregationists to great effect, it seemed like Harris was due for her breakthrough moment, in the same fashion as the previously dormant Warren’s surge earlier in the year. For a brief moment, primary polling reflected the pundit and donor class’ longtime hopes in the California senator, with three major polls showing her in a confident second place behind Biden.
That momentum was not to last. After a series of underwhelming debate performances, public waffling on key proposals and campaign promises, and a more general failure to find an audience, Harris’ momentum faded fast. In a few short months, she went from hotshot to afterthought: a Sept. 17 Focus on Rural America poll finds Harris in a distant sixth place in Iowa behind struggling Minnesota Senator and serial binder thrower Amy Klobuchar, a 13-point drop from the organization’s post-debate July survey.
In even more foreboding news, a Sept. 16 Emerson poll shows her in a moribund fifth place in the all-important state of California behind Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur and Universal Basic Income enthusiast who has held no prior political office and has the corresponding deer-in-the-headlights look on policy questions to show for it. Anything less than first place in California would be perilous for Harris: finishing behind the likes of Yang and Beto O’Rourke would be disastrous. Well, what happened?
Harris is currently stuck in a sort of no-man’s land, seen as too ambitious and unproven for the moderate set and too draconian and easily bought for the party’s left. In other words, she’s too left-wing for the centrists and too centrist for the left-wingers. In some sense, Harris risks becoming a repeat of Marco Rubio’s failed 2016 presidential bid, wherein his supposedly strong credentials and ecumenical ability gave way to an unfocused and unmoored campaign that appealed to neither faction within the Republican party at large and landed with a thud.
Although Harris has made her background as district attorney a centerpiece of her campaign, her record on criminal justice is less of a strength than a millstone around her neck, as left-wing activists have taken her to task for policies seen as cruel and ineffective. One clip of Harris excitedly describing her policy of jailing parents for their children’s poor school attendance has come under particular scrutiny, with Harris laughing as she describes the lives of poor families she threw into chaos. In a moment where the “law and order” approach is less popular with Democrats than ever, it’s a bad look for the woman the left refers to as “Copmala.”
Furthermore, other attempts to gain inroads with the progressive set have continually failed, as Harris has failed to keep a consistent position on key progressive policies such as Medicare for All and college debt forgiveness, with her opinion seemingly changing from one event to the next. No one likes a flip-flopper, and Harris has sure been doing a whole lot of flopping. Even if she remained on-message, many activists point to her use of big-money events and PACs that Sanders and Warren have scorned as proof that she remains institutionally and morally tainted. Any attempt to win over the progressive and left-wing voters who propelled the campaigns of Senator Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has definitely failed.
That leaves Harris with the party’s center-left wing, but many older moderate and liberal Democrats are already committed to Biden, still loyal to his legacy under President Obama and promises of a return to normalcy. The largely moderate base of older Black voters the Harris campaign hopes will carry her to victory in South Carolina have shown little to no sign of abandoning Biden, who enjoys a 27-point lead in a recent Monmouth University poll of the state’s primary voters. Barring a spectacular Biden implosion before the end of the year, which is actually likely to help Sanders far more than it aids Harris, older rural and suburban voters in both Black heartlands and the Rust Belt aren’t going to be her savior.
Deprived of the consistent support from both the party’s activist youth and its older stalwarts, Harris’ current base is instead largely limited to the white, urban professional class that formed the base of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. While that highly engaged demographic exerts quite an influence on the primary process, Harris is only getting a sliver of that. Among highly educated Democratic voters, Elizabeth Warren remains the clear favorite, leaving Harris to quarrel with Pete Buttegieg for the remainder. For Buttegieg, a small-city mayor who has wildly exceeded expectations by even getting this far in the primary, that’s nothing to be ashamed of, but the Harris campaign clearly didn’t expect to be fighting for scraps with the mayor of South Bend, Indiana at this point in the race.
In another eerie parallel to Rubio, Harris is now counting on a difficult two-part strategy to salvage her flagging campaign: doing well enough in Iowa to hang on until her home state of California, then scoring a strong victory in the nation’s most populous state to pick up momentum coming out of Super Tuesday. As reported in a Sept. 18 Politico story, Harris is funneling all the cash and staff she still has on hand into Iowa in the hope of a comeback victory in the state’s caucus, going as far as to joke to a collegue in Washington that “I’m fucking moving to Iowa,” per the same Politico story. If Iowa is to be a must-win for Harris, being neck and neck in support with billionaire vanity candidate Tom Steyer isn’t going to cut it.
When Rubio tried the same exact trick with both Iowa and his home state of Florida, it went rather poorly. Any momentum Rubio had left after a series of humiliating debate performances — the infamous “Marcobot” thrashing he received at the hands of Chris Christie remains an all-time debate stinker — vanished after a third-place Iowa defeat behind Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Whatever hope Team Rubio had left completely evaporated after Florida, when Trump whalloped the hometown senator by nearly 20 points. The day after, Rubio resigned from the race and headed back to the Senate, keeping alive his proud legacy of forgetting to show up to most votes. Given Harris’ own public foibles and collapsing poll numbers, anything less than a second-place visit in Iowa could spell an early exit before the California primary even rolls around.
As her fundraising numbers continue to dry up and Warren continues to eat into her support, Harris is running out of time to win over a Democratic electorate hell-bent on getting Donald Trump out of the White House. In attempting to win over a broad swath of Democratic voters, Harris has created a confused and often contradictory message that has no natural base and no compelling case for why she deserves to be either the Democratic chance to unseat Trump nor the future President of the United States.
Before packing her bags and moving to Des Moines, perhaps the California senator should ring up her colleague from Florida and find out what the downswing of a presidential campaign can do to a person.