NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019

Kamala Harris exits contest for 2020 Democratic presidential nomination

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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