Post Kamala Harris post-mortem

I think the fact that Harris’ campaign had a brief moment and then she basically faded away will be one of the more interesting features of the 2020 campaign.  Until recently, like most, I saw her as very much a top-tier contender with among the best chances to win the nomination.  So, why didn’t she?  So many reasons, I think.

One thing I do hate is to boil this all down to one element, i.e., voters weren’t ready for a Black woman.  I’m more than ready to concede that this was likely a very real part of her ultimate failure, but it sure wasn’t everything.  And, boy, do I hate the “look at the white male billionaires still in the race.”  As if Steyer and Bloomberg have real chances of winning and have out-competed Harris in any meaningful way.

Anyway, lots of good takes out there.  Mike Pesca had a good discussion on the Gist where he basically argues that it was her political mis-steps when she actually had her post-debate moment in the sun.  I’m for Medicare for All– no wait, I’m actually not.  Is not great stuff.  Drum had a somewhat similar take:

Instead, she treated her mini-victory in the debate as a template. The fact checks came in and Harris was wobbly responding to them. But because it had worked, she seemingly started looking around for other trivial little things that she could toss out to get a bit of a media bounce. It made her seem unserious, the captive of a media strategy instead of a candidate with real policy chops. And that’s what she needed. She should have used her moment in the spotlight to get some attention for well-thought-out policy ideas that positioned her where she naturally belongs: clearly progressive, but not trying to out-left Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. That never really happened, and she eventually seemed like a one-hit wonder continually casting about for a second hit.

And, there’s the prosecutor stuff, that Drum also mentions:

This is not the conventional story about Harris, by the way. Jamilah King summarizes that for us today, saying that Harris “ultimately could not reconcile the nearly two decades she spent in law enforcement with a rapidly changing political landscape on criminal justice issues that’s driven by the progressive base’s desire for systemic change.” That may well be the case, and I don’t know how many people had reactions similar to mine. But I’ll bet at least a few did.

I really liked this discussion at and especially the nuanced takes from Zak Cheney-Rice and Sarah Jones.

Sarah: If you asked me to describe what Kamala Harris the candidate stood for in a sentence, I honestly don’t think I could do it. Sanders has a clear message; so does Warren. So does Biden, even if that message happens to be nostalgia. But I don’t think Harris was ever as clear about her values or her vision of reform. There seemed to be no center to who she was a candidate. And I think that was obvious to voters.

Zak: I think it was a mix of not having a real reason for running and doing so in an election where Democratic voters needed to be sure she could win. Biden is leading in the polls because a lot of voters think he’s a sure thing, or the closest thing to it. A black woman candidate and relative newcomer with a muddled vision and no compelling case for her own electability is a gamble they weren’t willing to take.

Ben: In the aftermath of her announcement, I’ve seen some reaction like this tweet from Joy Reid: “The reality is that no 2020 candidate is perfect, but the extent to which people — including the media but also would-be voters — punished and refused to even consider Kamala Harris for flaws she frankly shared with other candidates, was telling and depressing.” There is no denying that Harris’s campaign was disorganized and muddled, and that her message didn’t really break through. But did she get an unfair shake on top of that? Or is there not much truth to this talking point?

Sarah: There’s a grain of truth to it. Harris was hardly the only candidate in the race to suffer from muddled messaging. Nor was she the only candidate to means-test her policy proposals to the point of absolute absurdity. It may be true that compared to candidates like Pete Buttigieg, Harris did receive a disproportionately high level of negative coverage. But she also had flaws that did set her apart from the rest of the field. This was not the year for a candidate to run on their record as a prosecutor.

Zak: Yeah, I think both can be true. Harris almost certainly entered the race with less room for error than her white and male counterparts, for some of the reasons I alluded to above and others that Sarah pointed to. I also don’t think she got an especially unfair shake. She ran a bad campaign, couldn’t get her talking points straight, and has a bad record as a prosecutor.

Also good stuff from Eric Levitz:

Multiple suspects are implicated in Kamala 2020’s premature death. The autopsies began while its heart was still beating: Over the weekend, the New York Times curated the mutual recriminations of her campaign’s warring factions. Whoever was truly at fault, there appears to be little disagreement that her operation was poorly managed. But the Harris team’s idiosyncratic failings can’t explain why Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and other conventionally qualified Democratic candidates have been polling behind her. A separate explanation for Harris’s woes is that, in the Trump era, Democratic voters have developed a more conservative conception of electability than the party’s elites. After the trauma of 2016, perhaps many primary goers feel that nominating an African-American or a woman — let alone an African-American woman — would be tempting fate. But while there is almost certainly some truth to this assessment, it also cannot explain why the two candidates who most violently defy the conventional wisdom about “electability” — the Jewish socialist Bernie Sanders, and female anti-corporate crusader Elizabeth Warren — remain poised to compete in Iowa and beyond. [emphasis mine]

Thus, Harris’s improbable collapse, along with the failure of Booker or Klobuchar to ever launch, seems indicative of something larger than their individual liabilities — namely, the weakness of modern American political parties as institutions. Booker has won more coveted endorsements than Bernie Sanders, and Klobuchar has claimed more than Pete Buttigieg. But each has mustered only a small fraction of the socialist senator’s or South Bend mayor’s support. Harris’s fundamental problem was that her campaign was rich in a depreciating currency. What looked like the potency of Establishment signaling in 2016 may have actually been the power of mere familiarity: Democratic base voters tend to admire the party’s most prominent leaders, and many are happy to default to a familiar face. For this reason, Biden has managed to coast on name recognition and goodwill. But Establishment support without national renown doesn’t seem to count for much…

All of which is to say, the main lesson of Harris’s failure may be this: If you enter a presidential race without celebrity status, unique credibility among your party’s most engaged and ideological activists, billions of dollars in personal wealth, or a preternatural gift for charming white journalists and Iowa grandparents, you are going to have a hard time keeping your campaign funded — no matter how warmly you’re celebrated on Capitol Hill or Martha’s Vineyard.

And, wrapping up on the Parties theme, Julia Azari:

Concern with a candidate’s potential to win an election has long been a concern for presidential nominations, even if the calls for “electability” have not always been as dire and clamorous as they are this year. What’s different about this nomination cycle is not only the state of party strength, but also the impact of strong and angry partisanship. The current state of partisanship has made Democrats both vehement and cautious. At the same time that the left wing of the party has grown in size and impact, demanding significant policy change, fear among Democrats of a second Trump term looms over all of the nomination discussions. A stronger party might be able to do more to reconcile these two clashing impulses. As it is, they have emerged as the major alternatives, leaving little middle ground for candidates who promise neither safety nor wholesale change.

Harris’s decision to leave the 2020 race before the December debates appears to have surprised and dismayed a number of commentators. It’s possible, as some have suggested, that there isn’t any systematic reason why her candidacy didn’t take off – the field is crowd and life is sometimes unpredictable. Nevertheless, it may also be that something didn’t quite add up as far as her potential as a candidate and the challenges she faced in the field. Not all of this was new, and none of these problems are easy to resolve. Collective action issues, questions about representation, and conflicting demands from staunch partisans are all problems that defy simple solutions. That’s why we have a nomination process. It should also be why we ask questions about whether the current process has the potential to fulfill those demanding tasks.

As for me, Harris was not as good a candidate as I had hoped she would be (you will not be surprised to learn that, personally, I had many of the same concerns as Drum and Pesca).  Of course, pretty much every Democrat but Obama ends up disappointing me in one way or another.  I actually think she would have been a very strong general election contender against Trump– stronger than most all the people who are polling ahead of her.  And, likely a good president, too.  Alas, we’ll never know.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

3 Responses to Post Kamala Harris post-mortem

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    I think Kamala Harris has a voice problem. She’s not shrill which is the most common complaint levied against women candidates. She doesn’t have a particular accent to my ear. She just isn’t commanding. Her voice background is usually very soft with soft endings on words and a slight placating note.
    I wish she should hire the best voice coach she can find and learn what she needs to become a strong candidate.

  2. itchy says:

    “leaving little middle ground for candidates who promise neither safety nor wholesale change”

    I think this is it — she was caught in the middle. She didn’t inspire voters who want big change, and she didn’t offer enough sureness to the voters who just want someone who will win.

  3. R. Jenrette says:

    I agree with Itchy. I do think she didn’t express enough belief in her own ideas. Also that hesitancy in her voice kept her from being convincing about her abilities and goals.
    I hope she finds that voice coach she needs.

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