Elections

Is the Kamala Harris Campaign Dead?

Sen. Kamala Harris speaks during the Presidential Gun Sense Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, August 10, 2019. (Scott Morgan/Reuters)
Democratic debate rules might help her get a second look from voters, but she still lacks a compelling argument for her candidacy.

Things are looking bleak for the Kamala Harris campaign. On Wednesday, Politico reported that “Harris is dramatically restructuring her campaign by redeploying staffers to Iowa and laying off dozens of aides at her Baltimore headquarters, . . . as she struggles to resuscitate her beleaguered presidential bid.”

Harris announced she was “moving” to Iowa back in September, but the California senator is now in a dead heat for fifth place in the state, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. At 2.7 percent, she’s tied with Tom Steyer, Amy Klobuchar, and Andrew Yang, and just a hair ahead of Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who is sitting at 2.3 percent.

After Gabbard attacked Harris’s record on criminal justice at the July Democratic debate, Harris shot back in an interview: “This is going to sound immodest, but I’m obviously a top-tier candidate, and so I did expect that I would be on the stage and take hits tonight, because there are a lot of people that are trying to make the stage for the next debate. . . . Especially when some people are at 0 or 1 percent, whatever she [Gabbard] might be at.”

It would be easy to snicker that pride comes before the fall, leave Harris’s campaign for dead, and move on. But her bid may yet have a little life left in it. The Democratic debate rules could actually provide her an opportunity to get a second look from Democratic voters, as Geoffrey Skelley points out at FiveThirtyEight:

To make the stage in December, candidates must attract 4 percent support in four national or early-state polls or 6 percent in two early-state polls between Oct. 16 and Dec. 12 and collect contributions from 200,000 unique donors (including at least 800 donors in at least 20 states or territories). And at this point, eight candidates have met the donor mark by our count, but only former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have qualified. Of the four qualifying polls released so far, they’re the only candidates to have reached 4 percent in all four (or 6 percent in two early-state polls).

There are past examples of low-polling candidates surging in the closing days before Iowa to make an impressive showing — Rick Santorum, for instance, was polling below 5 percent nationally and in Iowa a month before caucus day, and went on to carry the state’s Republican contest. But the Democratic debate rules could effectively foreclose that opportunity for candidates such as Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar and New Jersey senator Cory Booker, neither of whom have yet hit the threshold for the December Democratic debate in a single poll. While Klobuchar has the requisite 200,000 donors, Booker does not. It will be hard for either to surge during the last month of the campaign if they don’t even make the pre-Christmas debate.

Harris and South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg are in slightly better shape. They have the necessary number of donors, and both are just one poll away from qualifying for the December debate. If Biden, Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg spend the next six weeks beating one other up, that could give Harris the opportunity to get a second look from Democratic voters at just the right time.

Even if Harris makes it onto the debate stage one more time, though, it remains to be seen whether she’ll have anything to say. Her last debate performance was particularly pathetic: She used her one shot at front-runner Elizabeth Warren to demand that Warren call on Twitter to delete Donald Trump’s account. The embarrassing gambit drew criticism from Democrats and the press, and a top Harris-campaign aide lashed out at Buzzfeed for a critical tweet sent by one of its reporters, calling it “whiteness manifest.”

“Do you seriously not have real problems? This text makes me think you are totally, totally unready for an actual presidential campaign,” Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith replied to the Harris aide.

This week, Harris has gone to bat for Representative Katie Hill, who resigned amid accusations that she had sexual relations with a congressional staffer, a violation of House rules. (Hill admitted to having a sexual relationship with a campaign employee, which is similarly problematic but not a violation of the rules.) Harris also blamed her poor polling on racism and sexism, which seems a hard argument to support given that the last Democratic president was African American, the last Democratic presidential nominee was a woman, and one of the two front-runners in the current Democratic race is a woman.

The problem for Harris to this point has been that she’s run a cautious, calculating campaign, as if she were the front-runner, when she really needed to run as if she were an insurgent, and her missteps — her failure to land on a clear, consistent message, her transparent efforts to appeal to all sides of burning policy questions such as Medicare for All, her gimmicky debate attacks — have led voters to see her as inauthentic. She may get another look from persuadable Democrats during the homestretch, but she’s going to need to give them the clear rationale for her candidacy that she has so far failed to deliver.

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