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How Kamala Harris Could Win The 2020 Democratic Nomination

Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who officially said she is running for president in an announcement on Good Morning America on Monday, has the potential to be among the strongest contenders in the 2020 Democratic field. There may be no other candidate who better embodies how the modern Democratic Party has changed over the last few decades in identity and ideology.

Harris, the daughter of an India-born woman and a Jamaica-born man, spent much of her childhood in Berkeley, California, before going to college at Howard University. She was the first woman, first person of South Asian descent and first black person to be elected district attorney in San Francisco. In that job, she irritated one of the Bay Area’s most influential Democrats, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, by refusing to push for a death sentence for a man accused of killing a police officer because of Harris’ personal opposition to capital punishment. In endorsing Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2007, she broke with much of the state’s political establishment, which was then behind Hillary Clinton. Harris, as a senator, has embraced the causes of the party’s liberal wing on issues of gender and racial equality. She gave a speech last year criticizing people who say Democrats spend too much time and energy on “identity politics.”

In short, post-Obama, the Democratic Party is increasingly the party of women and the “woke”, and Harris’ biography and politics align well with where the party has moved.

So Harris could have broad appeal across the Democratic primary electorate. You can see that in my colleague Nate Silver’s analysis of how each potential 2020 candidate might appeal to five key constituencies in the primary — Harris comes out looking stronger than any other potential candidate:

Her biography and record make it easy to imagine Harris doing well with African-Americans, who likely will represent about one-in-five primary voters in the Democratic primary electorate, as well as Asian-Americans. Harris narrowly lost the Latino vote in her 2016 election to a fellow Democrat1 who is Mexican-American (Loretta Sanchez), but there isn’t any particular reason to think she is disliked by Latino voters. The way Harris is likely to position herself on policy issues during the campaign — liberal as any candidate on noneconomic issues but not as liberal on economic issues as, say, Bernie Sanders — echoes Hillary Clinton’s platform in 2016 (Harris’ sister Maya was Clinton’s policy director.) So I’m sure party loyalists, particularly black voters and older women, who backed Clinton will give serious consideration to Harris. The California senator is not particularly young (54), but you could imagine millennials galvanizing around electing the first Asian and first female president in the same way they embraced Obama in 2008. (We’ll come back to The Left in a moment.)

Moreover, looking at the current primary calendar,2 I’m not sure about her prospects in Iowa and New Hampshire (more on that in a bit), but the order of the states is set up well for Harris after that. The third contest is in Nevada, a state that borders California, so voters there may be more familiar with Harris than other candidates. South Carolina is next, and African-Americans will likely constitute a majority of voters there.

After those four early contests, nine states are currently scheduled to vote on March 3, and that could be a great day for Harris. Those nine primaries and caucuses include California — Harris’ home state, which also has a large Asian-American population — as well as four states in which the Democratic electorate will likely be more than a quarter black:

The racial breakdown of the March 3 primaries

Percentage of Democratic voters by race according to 2016 exit polls

State Asian Black Latino White
Alabama 1% 54% 1% 40%
California* 11 9 26 56
Massachusetts 4 4 6 85
North Carolina 1 32 3 62
Oklahoma 1 14 4 74
Tennessee 1 32 2 63
Texas 3 19 32 43
Vermont 1 1 0 95
Virginia 2 26 7 63

*No exit poll was conducted for California in the 2016 Democratic primary; these figures come from a pre-election Field Poll that found top-line results well in line with the actual vote. The Field Poll also released results by race with “Asian” and “Other” respondents combined; that number is the one shown here.

Sources: Edison Research, Field Poll, Pew REsearch Center

Also in terms of her strengths, Harris has stood out among colleagues during Senate hearings, putting her prosecutorial skills on display with her sharp and quick questioning of witnesses. Debate performances can really matter in primaries, and the hearing performances suggest she might be strong in debates.

She’ll need to be. To be clear, all of Harris’ strengths outlined above are really potential strengths. In most national primary polls conducted so far, she’s been in the single digits. Those polls mostly reflect a lack of national name recognition, but Harris will have to build her support almost from scratch. And a lot could go wrong for her.

The biggest potential problem for Harris may be that her campaign simply never really catches on with voters. Despite seeming to reporters like me to be a strong candidate on paper, Harris could be the 2020 Democratic version of Marco Rubio or Scott Walker, who both struggled in the GOP’s 2016 primary despite being hyped for years as potential GOP nominees because of their potential to appeal to a broad swath of their party.

After all, Harris likely will be competing for attention with a lot of candidates. And if she doesn’t do well in one of the first two contests, in mostly white Iowa and mostly white New Hampshire, then I don’t think there is any guarantee African-American voters or even California voters will get behind her. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey or former Vice President Joe Biden (his close relationship with Obama will help) could become the top choice among black voters — or African-Americans could split their votes among several candidates. I think a candidate who won Iowa and another early state and had momentum could carry Harris’ home state of California.

Harris’ performances in Iowa and New Hampshire are also relevant in regard to a second challenge for the California senator: Overcoming doubts from some Democrats about her “electability.” As I have written before, research on elections does not support the idea that female candidates do worse than male ones. Black and Latino candidates seem to do slightly worse with white voters but boost turnout among their identity groups, so the story is complicated there too. But discussions of electability are often used as a cudgel against candidates who are not male, Christian and/or white, because such candidates are perceived as having less appeal to swing voters. Right now, some prominent Democrats are publicly fretting about nominating a woman in 2020, fearing the American electorate is too sexist to elect a female candidate and voters with sexist views will find Trump’s persona and politics appealing, as they did in 2016. And some Democrats privately say they are even more concerned that swing voters in the Midwest won’t embrace a black woman. Harris has to worry that Democrats might decide she is too “risky” and embrace one of the male candidates mainly for this reason.

To be clear, this is a surmountable problem. Some African-American voters were doubtful of Obama’s viability in a general election in 2008 — until he won the Iowa caucuses. This is both an unfair part of the process (why should a minority candidate have to do well in a state with basically no minorities to prove viability) and kind of an odd one (winning the Democratic caucuses in Iowa does not tell you that much about a candidate’s ability to win the general election.) But I tend to think Democratic voters will be much less focused on Harris’ perceived electability if she wins a lot of voters in Iowa or New Hampshire.

Third, I expect Harris to struggle with The Left. Some voters in this group are broadly wary of criminal prosecutors, arguing they have played a key role in America’s much-maligned criminal justice system. Harris’ professional life has been as a prosecutor and some on the left already are highlighting what they view as flaws in her record — being too hard on low-level offenders of crimes like truancy but not aggressive enough in taking on those accused of white-collar offenses, for example.

Harris can overcome The Left if she is strong among other blocs of the party. But if she wins a few primaries, I can see liberals casting her as too establishment and opposing her fiercely, similar to how this bloc unsuccessfully tried to stop Clinton in 2016.

Overall, I would not be surprised if Harris won the nomination. But I don’t see her as the favorite. She ranks No. 1 in some betting markets, but with so many candidates, “the field” is really favored against any individual contender.



Footnotes

  1. Remember that California has a system in which candidates of all parties are included in the same primary, and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election.

  2. The calendar could still shift around a bit.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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