Kamala Harris speaks to Iowa voters
Kamala Harris speaks to Iowa voters (Photo: Gage Skidmore, reproduced under Creative Commons license)

In an unex­pect­ed announce­ment on Tues­day, California’s Unit­ed States Sen­a­tor Kamala Har­ris dropped out of the con­test for the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion. The deci­sion comes after months of polls show­ing the Sen­a­tor in steady decline, and rum­blings of seri­ous dis­con­tent with­in her cam­paign team.

Unlike Mon­tana’s Steve Bul­lock and Penn­syl­va­ni­a’s Joe Ses­tak, who also bowed out this week, Sen­a­tor Har­ris was long con­sid­ered one of the top tier of con­tenders for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion. Her campaign’s open­ing ral­ly in Oak­land drew 20,000 atten­dees (more than Barack Obama’s 2007 announce­ment), and ear­ly polling put her in a strong third place, behind only Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden.

Har­ris’ cam­paign had a break­out moment after the first round of tele­vised debates in June. Har­ris mem­o­rably took Joe Biden to task over his prob­lem­at­ic record on race, focus­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly on com­ments sur­round­ing seg­re­ga­tion­ist sen­a­tors and bus­ing poli­cies. Har­ris best­ed an unpre­pared Biden, and was wide­ly regard­ed by swaths of pun­dits as the “win­ner” of the June debate.

Demo­c­ra­t­ic activists also showed enthu­si­asm for Har­ris after that debate. Dona­tions to the Har­ris cam­paign flood­ed in and her stand­ing in the polls got a boost, while Joe Biden’s sup­port amongst Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers saw a decline.

How­ev­er, Har­ris could not chan­nel that momen­tum into a long term advantage.

Over the next few weeks, Har­ris’ stand­ing in the polls dwin­dled, and Biden showed up for the sec­ond debate much more pre­pared to actu­al­ly debate.

As the media’s focus drift­ed from Har­ris towards oth­ers can­di­dates – par­tic­u­lar­ly Eliz­a­beth War­ren and Pete Buttigieg – her cam­paign lan­guished into listlessness.

In sub­se­quent debates, she came across as unre­mark­able and even bizarre (like when she crit­i­cized Eliz­a­beth War­ren for not join­ing her in call­ing on Twit­ter to sus­pend  Don­ald Trump’s Twit­ter account, a move that puz­zled many people.)

Slump­ing poll num­bers cor­re­spond­ed with slump­ing donations.

By the time autumn arrived, Har­ris’ cam­paign was “hem­or­rhag­ing” cash at an alarm­ing rate, with online dona­tions drop­ping off and big-mon­ey con­trib­u­tors turn­ing to oth­er can­di­dates. In the most recent quar­ter, Kamala Har­ris For The Peo­ple spent $1.41 for every dol­lar it raised.

With mon­ey dry­ing up, Har­ris’ cam­paign was forced to change its approach, and began slash­ing its adver­tis­ing bud­get and let­ting staff go in cru­cial areas, includ­ing New Hamp­shire. The cam­paign decid­ed to focus on Iowa (where Har­ris recent­ly spent the Thanks­giv­ing hol­i­day) out of necessity.

The strate­gic piv­ot did not yield results. A recent Iowa State Uni­ver­si­ty poll showed Har­ris in eighth place, with a mea­ger two percent.

Kamala Harris speaks to Iowa voters
Kamala Har­ris speaks to Iowa vot­ers (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

By the time Thanks­giv­ing arrived, it seems that Har­ris’ cam­paign had nowhere to go: her best efforts in Iowa had not made her a top tier can­di­date, and mon­ey was get­ting tighter. Har­ris’ team was informed of her deci­sion to drop out in an all-staff call, with the Sen­a­tor sound­ing “dis­traught” over the phone.

In her exit let­ter on Medi­um, Har­ris made it clear that her campaign’s finan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties were the rea­son she dropped out: “I’ve tak­en stock and looked at this from every angle, and over the last few days have come to one of the hard­est deci­sions of my life. My cam­paign for pres­i­dent sim­ply doesn’t have the finan­cial resources we need to con­tin­ue.” In that let­ter, she also took a thin­­ly-veiled swipe at Michael Bloomberg, who plans to per­son­al­ly finance a late bid for the nomination.

Mon­ey was­n’t Har­ris’ only prob­lem. Despite hav­ing great poten­tial, she strug­gled to build a base of sup­port with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic electorate.

At the out­set of her cam­paign, Har­ris was expect­ed to bring togeth­er a wide coali­tion of vot­ers. Her iden­ti­ty as a woman of African and Asian descent put her at the cen­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic party’s demo­graph­ic base, while her rel­a­tive­ly young age (fifty-five, com­pared to the sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­ans cur­rent­ly lead­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pack) was seen as endear­ing to younger vot­ers, anoth­er key group for the Democrats.

Har­ris added to this already-strong case by using her posi­tion on Sen­ate com­mit­tees to sub­ject Don­ald Trump’s nom­i­nees and appointees to exten­sive grillings, designed in part to win over the Democ­rats’ Trump-loathing activist base.

She then used those exchanges, along with her record as a pros­e­cu­tor and attor­ney gen­er­al, to argue for her elec­tabil­i­ty against Don­ald Trump, who she promised to “pros­e­cute the case” against in the gen­er­al election.

How­ev­er, Har­ris’ coali­tion nev­er came togeth­er. At least not in polling.

The black vot­ers who were sup­posed to form Har­ris’ base of sup­port large­ly stuck with Joe Biden, Barack Oba­ma’s run­ning mate and Vice President.

How­ev­er, per­haps more impor­tant than Biden him­self is the tra­di­tion­al cau­tion and cyn­i­cism of black vot­ers. His­tor­i­cal­ly, black vot­ers have gone for can­di­dates who they believe white vot­ers will be com­fort­able with, rather than those who stand for their val­ues and iden­ti­ty. Even Barack Oba­ma didn’t take the lead in black sup­port until he had proved his appeal to white vot­ers by win­ning Iowa in 2008.

Har­ris wasn’t helped by the fact that the 2020 con­test has turned out to be a skir­mish between the neolib­er­al wing of the par­ty (rep­re­sent­ed chiefly by Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg) and the pro­gres­sive wing of the par­ty (rep­re­sent­ed pri­mar­i­ly by Eliz­a­beth War­ren and Bernie Sanders).

Har­ris tried to find the mid­dle ground between the two wings, but often end­ed up pro­mot­ing pol­i­cy direc­tions that did not make much sense.

Her con­fus­ing attempts to explain her “Medicare-for-All-but-not-real­­ly” pol­i­cy frame­work are a par­tic­u­lar­ly fine exam­ple of this.

Har­ris may not be the par­ty’s nom­i­nee in 2020 for Pres­i­dent, but she remains a Unit­ed States Sen­a­tor from the coun­try’s most pop­u­lous state, and will be talked about as a poten­tial pick for Vice Pres­i­dent, depend­ing on who the nom­i­nee is.  This pres­i­den­tial cam­paign did not end well, but that does­n’t mean Kamala Har­ris does not have a bright future. Her polit­i­cal future will be what she makes of it.

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