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Bulletpoint: Does Kamala Harris Need A Win Before California? 

Hey folks, Silver Bulletpoints is back after a short hiatus because of vacation and the debate — and this week, we’re splitting up the format into three short articles rather than three items contained in a single article. We’ve done it once before, and might even do it again. I also might be over the word count this week … but when Micah is on vacation …

Sen. Kamala Harris holds the lead in two new polls of California, her home state, although in both cases by narrow margins. That’s the good news for her. The bad news is that it’s not clear which state she could win before California. Here’s how she has fared in polls of the four early-voting states since the first Democratic debate (June 26 and 27):


Yes, it’s early, she’s been on an upward trajectory, and she’s within the margin of error of the leader in some of these polls. Still, one problem with an approach like Harris’s of building a consensus path to victory is that the candidate isn’t necessarily the first choice of any one group of voters. And this can be a problem in states in which the demographics are idiosyncratic, as they are in all four early-voting states.

The electorates in Iowa and New Hampshire, for example, are probably a bit more liberal than Harris would like, helping candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren instead. And while South Carolina’s large black population could help Harris, it still looks like Joe Biden’s state to lose, provided he does well enough among African Americans while cleaning up among relatively conservative white Democrats who are also plentiful in the electorate there. Nevada? Well, I don’t know, Nevada is weird. (I love you, Nevada.) You probably want a candidate who does well among Hispanics, who has a good organization and who has the backing of organized labor. That could be Harris, but unions are mostly taking their time to make any endorsements.

It’s true that finishing first doesn’t actually matter in terms of the Democrats’ delegate math. Unlike in the Republican primary, there are no winner-take-all states; instead, delegates are divided proportionately among candidates who receive at least 15 percent of the vote in a given state or congressional district. And Harris was at 15 percent or higher in several of the early-state polls I mentioned above, even though she didn’t lead in any of them.

Winning can matter, though, in terms of momentum, which mostly takes the form of favorable media coverage. Although the post-Iowa bounce has faded in recent years — just ask Ted Cruz how much good winning Iowa did him in New Hampshire — a candidate who came from behind to win an early state or who is otherwise seen as expectations-defying could still get a pretty big boost. And if voters are still choosing among several candidates — say, Harris and Warren — they might jump on the bandwagon of whoever has performed well in these early states. No candidate since Bill Clinton in 1992 has won a nomination while losing both Iowa and New Hampshire.

All of which is to say: Harris probably needs to start plotting out a media and expectations-management strategy now that allows her to remain viable even if she strikes out in the first four states. California and some of the other Super Tuesday states should be good states for her, by contrast, but she needs to get there and to remain above the 15 percent threshold first.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.