In theory, the easiest way to win a presidential nomination is to bring the various wings and factions of your party together toward some type of consensus. Not every voter has to love you (although some of them probably should or you won’t have a base). But they should all at least like you.1 Usually, this is accomplished by adopting policy positions that represent a rough average of the voters in your party — and which are also fairly closely aligned with the views of party elites who can influence the nomination process.2
Kamala Harris is one example of a candidate who has rather explicitly been pursuing this strategy. She’s not the most moderate candidate in the field, nor is she the furthest to the left. Rather, she has tried to calibrate herself somewhere in between. As a black, Asian, 54-year-old woman, she’s also more reflective of the Democraric Party’s demographic mix than some of the septuagenarian white men she’s running against. It’s for these reasons that I’ve generally been optimistic about her chances.
Harris’s performance in last week’s debate gave me reason for pause, however. In particular, the long opening section on health care was a problem for her. It came just a couple days after Harris released her own health care plan, which might loosely be called “Medicare Advantage for All” — where private insurers offer a set of Medicare-regulated plans that Americans can choose to buy into instead of using government-run Medicare — and which represents something of a compromise between Joe Biden’s and Bernie Sanders’s respective approaches. But she’s had trouble defending her plan, which has taken incoming fire both from Sanders and from Biden. The debate helped to reveal several potential problems with Harris’s strategy:
- The fact that your policy positions closely resemble those of voters on average doesn’t necessarily mean they reflect a lot of voters’ first choice — and being voters’ first choice is how you win primaries. On health care, for instance, there might not be that many voters who prefer Harris’s compromise approach to both Biden’s public option and to Sanders’s purer form of “Medicare for All,” each of which are fairly easy to explain to voters.
- The media tends to frame policy arguments between the candidates in a way that maximizes conflict. If you don’t clearly stand on one side or another of that conflict, you won’t get as much media attention, which, other things held equal, is a valuable resource in the primary.
- If you get too cute in tailoring your positions — as Harris has done on some issues — you may develop a reputation as being too triangulating, or as flip-flopping, or even as being less “authentic”3 than candidates whose positions are easier to place into a neat ideological box.
- Finally, more nuanced policy positions may simply be harder to describe persuasively in short sound bites, which is all that candidates get most of the time, especially in debates where 10 candidates are on stage.
Some of these problems are going to get better for Harris as the number of candidates dwindles. And she has a lot of options: If she and Sanders or Elizabeth Warren are the final survivors after the early states vote, she could run to the center; if it’s Harris and Biden, she can run to his left.
But it’s worth remembering that the previous times parties have had very large fields, they produced eccentric nominees — George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1976, and Donald Trump in 2016 — who weren’t really pursuing any middle-ground or coalition-building or triangulation strategy. (The opposite, really, in the case of Trump and McGovern.) That isn’t a large sample, and Harris is still among the Democrats most likely to win the nomination. But she’s increasingly at risk of becoming the Marco Rubio in a field of candidates who have more distinctive pitches to voters.