Harris Campaign in Trouble

Scott Lay
Publisher of The Nooner

Let’s not sugar-coat it. At 8% among likely Democratic primary voters in both the recent PPIC and IGS polls, junior U.S. Senator Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign is in deep trouble. It’s not that number itself, but rather that 66% of California likely voters have settled on Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren. Only 9% are undecided. 

Because of the earlier March 3 primary, PPIC is polling on the presidential earlier than in previous cycles. By the March 2016 statewide poll, PPIC found Hillary Clinton with 48%, Bernie Sanders with 41%, other candidates with 7%, and 4% didn’t know. So, we currently have 3% naming another candidate and 9% don’t know.

Basically, 89% of likely Democratic voters had picked a candidate three months before the primary. For 2020, 90% of likely voters have picked a candidate six months before the primary.

Some candidates will undoubtedly drop out. Julian Castro and Beto O’Rourke seem the most likely, although they combine for 3% of likely voters in the PPIC poll. Minnesota U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar also probably returns to doing whatever senators do in this political climate. I don’t see Andrew Yang dropping out as he seems to be having the time of his life, has personal wealth, and has built an adoring “Yang Gang” of youthful supporters. Last night, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a champion of labor, endorsed Warren at the San Diego rally. Gonzalez had been touting Julian Castro previously.

Yang obtained only 3% in the PPIC poll, while Asian-American voters account for 18% of California’s likely voters. These voters are also more often to be “no party preference.” Independent voters can vote in the Democratic Party presidential primary, but must request a Democratic ballot from their county clerk. 

Biden, Sanders, and Warren have the resources to be in through Super Tuesday. Mathematically, Harris needs to more than double her statewide support to exceed the 15% minimum viability requirement for statewide delegates, and then the same test is applied in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts. This is a particular challenge for Harris, as candidates like Pete Buttigieg and Yang (and to a lesser extent Marianne Williamson) can pick up delegates in congressional districts where they have significant support.

To amass a number of delegates in her home state that isn’t seen as a rebuke, I believe Senator Harris needs at least 30% in California. That would deliver 30 state-level delegates and perhaps 82 district-level delegates. It would still be disappointing and the question is whether to test it out.

I like Kamala and you may have seen me wearing one of her shirts (or one of Pete’s or Cory’s) around town. I think she would be a good President. However, she is an undefined candidate, a driver on the 405 who doesn’t know which late to get in, trying to get over to the left or right to get home a minute faster. She’s tried the left lane with “Medicare-for-All” and tangled with Biden over the Obama legacy. She’s promised student debt forgiveness and debt-free college. But, neither of those differentiate her from the other main change candidates, Sanders and Warren, and voters look to faces they have known longer as carrying the ball. 

Further, can she navigate her background as a prosecutor with the era of Black Lives Matter and use-of-force reforms? If San Francisco DA George Gascónis on the ballot in the district attorney’s race on March 3 in Los Angeles, what will be the impact on Kamala? He’ll be running as a criminal justice reformer against incumbent Jackie Lacey, who is African-American. Gascón’s premise of his candidacy will be reforms he has made to the DA’s office since his predecessor–Kamala Harris.

Kamala also has the challenge of where her geographic base is. Her highest polling among likely voters is in the SF Bay Area (9%), although she now lives in Los Angeles (7%). Further, there have been major demographic changes in the Bay Area since she was last on the ballot for DA in 2003. As Mayor Pete likes to say, people are first getting their driver’s licenses who were born that year, and she’s lived in Los Angeles for about five years.

How many of the 37 candidates for U.S. Senate in the 2016 primary do you recall? Of course, the general was Kamala and former congresswoman Loretta Sanchez in a top-two shutout for Democrats, which Kamala won with 61.6% of the vote.

The energy of Kamala’s campaign from that launch in Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland was fantastic and had the energy that would later surround Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign. Ignoring the front-loaded primary for 2020 and just considering where we were at the end of September 2007, Hillary Clinton had 53%, Barack Obama had 20%, and 13% for John Edwards. The ABC News/WaPo poll release had the headline “Clinton Advances, Strong in Base; Giuliani’s Lead has Less Oomph”: and first graf “Building on her dual image of leadership and electability, Hillary Clinton has advanced to her most powerful advantage of the Democratic nomination campaign, with resounding leads on key issues and personal attributes alike.”

That did no age well although at least the headline didn’t mention Edwards.

However, I don’t think the Kamala Harris campaign can expect the reversal of Clinton-Obama in 2008. In that year, it was largely two unknowns. Hillary was a known public figure but didn’t make the sort of waves that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have while in the Senate. Barack Obama really didn’t either in his first two years as Senator, but combined with a degree of Clinton fatigue, Democratic primary voters were willing to take a chance on him. 

At this point, Kamala is joking that she is “moving to Iowa.” She’s fighting for a share of the 41 pledged delegates elected in the February 3 caucuses. In the most recent Des Moines Register poll, she has 6%. The top three (Biden, Sanders, Warren) combine for 53% meaning getting up to even the 15% threshold will be near impossible. And that’s only for six delegates in Iowa at the district level. That’s equal to around receiving 50% in three congressional districts in California.

Being from a populous state does not assure a big advantage, as Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) knows all too well. The generous donors that filled up her Senate account quickly dissipated in her presidential bid. Similarly, the “easy money” for Harris has already been raised. In the first quarter, excluding a transfer from her Senate committee, she raised $12.04 million. In the period ending June 30, she raised $11.8 million. Her campaign reports $11.6 million haul for the third quarter.

While those are certainly not numbers to shake a stick at, $25.3 million in the third quarter, Warren reports $24.6 million, Buttigieg at $19.6 million, and Biden at $15.2 million. Money matters most for Harris who, aside from Buttigieg, is the least known major candidate. With such a front-loaded caucus, television is going to be very expensive in the month of February, when a majority of Californians will be voting by mail leading up to the March 3, 2020 primary.

Based on reports of the October quarterly results by the campaigns, Buttigieg has raised $42.6 million in the first nine months of 2019. Kamala has raised just over $35 million. He’s mayor of a city one-fourth the size of Sacramento, while she is a United States Senator from the 5th largest economy in the world. 

To stay in the race, Kamala needs to find a consistent lane and fast or risk a huge embarrassment in California come the spring. The challenge for her is to convince supporters of the big three to switch allegiances. While 53% of the poll respondents say that they would be willing to support a candidate other than their first choice, that usually doesn’t happen until a first choice drops out.

I don’t see Biden, Sanders, or Warren going anywhere and even if one did, there is no indication that supporters would get behind Harris, although a case could be made for Biden’s supporters to spread out. However, to get to minimum viability, Harris needs several folks to drop out and overwhelmingly win over their supporters. With Buttigieg and Yang likely in for the long haul and combined capturing more of the vote in California than Harris among likely voters, that just may be impossible.

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