Why Kamala Crashed

Patrick Reddy
Democratic political consultant in California and the co-author of “California After Arnold.” He is now working on 21st Century America, which will be published after the 2020 election.

“KAMALA HARRIS was expected to be a strong presidential candidate. She has a strong résumé as a prosecutor, district-attorney, state attorney-general and senator. She is telegenic, a good public speaker and even better interrogator, as displayed in her punchy questioning of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees. As the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father and the first African-American to become a state attorney-general, her biography could endear her to minority and progressive voters, too….A high-achieving daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, whose state has more Hispanics than any other, Ms. Harris encapsulates the changing Democratic Party. — From The Economist.

As the above quote implies, Senator Kamala Harris was expected to be a strong contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination.  She stood on solid ground: New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm in 1972 was the first black candidate to win a primary in 1972, Jesse Jackson won over a dozen contests in 1988 and Barack Obama went all the way to the White House.  Kamala was supposed to be the “female Obama.” Yet she didn’t even make it to the starting line in Iowa. She was only the second black woman US Senator in history and still failed to win over the black women’s vote. What went wrong?  How could a candidate with such obvious potential fail so badly?

I’ve voted for Sen. Harris before and respect her, but this campaign was a major misfire.  (Incidentally, I believe she should stayed in until at least New Hampshire.) This is not a personal attack, but a neutral analysis of what went wrong.  

Numerous articles in state and national media outlets have all described the staff infighting, indecisiveness, mixed messages and fundraising troubles that did so much damage.  They all certainly played a role, but are not the real story of why she lost. 

First, running for president is the most difficult task in American politics.  Democratic consultant Darry Sragow once compared it to climbing Mount Everest: “the odds of making it all the way up and down in one piece are against it.”  Every election cycle, only one person wins while dozens of aspirants are disappointed. (Though occasionally, also-rans are given the consolation prize of the Vice Presidency like the first George Bush).  Senator Harris has simply never faced such a tough task and such tough competition. We’ve often seen highly-touted candidates like Senator Ed Muskie, former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker or former Senator Bill Bradley bomb badly.  Hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans have run for or considered running for president, but only 40 have been elected in their own right. It’s not uncommon to lose, almost everyone who tries, does so. Obama was already a national figure when he ran with a 63-30% positive rating in a January 2008 ABC/Washington Post poll. 

By contrast, at the start of her campaign, over 60% of voters didn’t know enough about Ms. Harris to have an opinion. Jerry Brown has been the strongest California Democrat in the past generation.  In 2010, Kamala Harris ran nearly a million votes behind Gov. Brown when he re-claimed the Statehouse. And over the years, Jerry Brown ran for president three times – and lost all three times. If he couldn’t win the big one, she probably couldn’t either.

Second, in her successful California campaigns, Sen. Harris could always count on a solid base from black voters.  In 2019-20, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Deval Patrick, and Elizabeth Warren all asked for and received some support from the African-American community.  Black, Asian and Hispanic voters provided the margin of victory in her 1-point win in 2010 for California State Attorney General. In this cycle, Sen. Harris never got above 30% of the minority vote in surveys, a stunning fact.  Since black voters make up about 30% of the Democratic primary electorate, a bloc vote from African-Americans would have made her a second-place finisher (at the least) and given her a base to try to get to 51%. But Ms. Harris utterly failed to appeal to even black women.  As Mark Shields pointed out, Joe Biden being the Vice President to the nation’s first black President was “the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” among African-Americans. She simply failed to make a dent in Biden’s black support.

Third, the other secret of her previous Golden State success was strong support from progressive women of all races.  This year, Elizabeth Warren obviously was the favorite of progressive white women, especially on the East Coast. Being on Boston television for many years – which is beamed into much of New Hampshire – simply gave Liz Warren the New England “home-turf” advantage in the New Hampshire primary.  Not many people in the Northeast had ever had heard of Kamala Harris and she failed to make much of a positive impression, gaining very little support from white women. 

Fourth and probably most important, being a “San Francisco Democrat,” is simply a bad image for a national campaign.  I’ve lived and worked in the Bay Area: it’s a great place. I firmly believe that it is the best combination of opportunity, culture and environment in the country.  But most Bay Area politicians are fundamentally out of step with the rest of the country. Northern California – the Bay Area plus Sacramento/Davis, Monterey/Santa Cruz and, of course, Los Angeles – gave Hillary Clinton her margin in the national popular vote.  By contrast, the rest of the nation elected Donald Trump. Ballot measures supporting gay marriage, abortion rights, and abolishing the death penalty have all passed in the Bay Area, but not in many other locales. Liberal stances on social issues are sure winners in Nor-Cal, but a hard sell in the Heartland.  Over the past 15 years, I’ve probably seen Ms. Harris speak to a dozen State Democratic Conventions. And virtually every time, she has led off her speech with the “wedge issues” of gay rights and abortion, not exactly a winning message for say, Iowa or Ohio.

The damaging backtracking on health care by Sen. Harris has been much discussed.  One issue that Sen. Harris gambled on in 2019 clearly hurt her. In the June debate, she famously attacked Joe Biden for opposing school busing in the 1970s, while she was bused as a child in fact.  The theatre of her confrontation may have great – Maureen Dowd gushed, “Kamala shotguns Six-pack Joe” in The New York Times.  But then substance crowded out the seemingly great style. 

 Court-ordered school busing was one of the most hated policies in American history: at the height of the busing controversy in the early 1970s, roughly 90% of white voters opposed it.  And they backed it up with real world behavior (moving to the suburbs or putting their children in private schools) and voting – ballot measures to ban busing passed handily even in “progressive” West Coast California and Washington State.  In 1970, a majority of residents in working class South Boston still voted for Ted Kennedy, even after the Chappaquiddick scandal. But after he supported a school busing order in 1974, he lost “Southie” by nearly 20 points – the first time any Kennedy ever lost there.  John Judis, the co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority, attributed the 1980 Reagan landslide to anger over “inflation, the Iran Hostage Crisis, and a decade of unsuccessful busing programs.”

Sen. Harris saw a brief surge in the polls after her busing attack on Biden.  But then, she was heavily criticized by the press and voters and backed off, saying that busing should only be one “tool” among many for integration.  What is worse than being seen as an angry radical? Being seen as a flip-flopping, insincere angry radical.  After her brief summer surge, Sen. Harris consistently dropped in the polls when it was perceived that she had “played the race card” against Biden (the direct opposite of Obama’s approach).

So, the inherent difficulty of running nationally, her failure to consolidate the black and women’s votes, and her “Left Coast” image problems added up to a severe loss. 

The natural talent she displayed early in her career is still with her.  But Sen. Harris will likely get a challenge in the Democratic primary of 2022 when her Senate seat is up.  And she faces a massive rebuilding job if she wants to run for president again. 

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