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Why Kamala Harris’s Campaign Failed

Kamala Harris dropped out of the presidential race on Tuesday, and she’s probably the most significant candidate to do so to date. The senator from California was polling about as well as any candidate outside of the four leading contenders (Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren). She was one of only seven candidates who have qualified for the December debate. And in a field that has become dominated by white and male candidates, she was one of the few female and nonwhite contenders.

What happened to Harris? I wrote an article in early October, after she had gradually dropped to mid single digits in most polls, trying to explain her decline. The most plausible theories, in my view, were:

  1. Democratic voters were not looking for an Obama-style candidate running more on charisma and personality than on policy.
  2. Biden, Sanders and Warren were just strong rivals. In particular, Biden’s strength among black voters and Warren’s support among college-educated whites boxed Harris out among two groups she really needed.
  3. Harris herself had not been an ideal candidate. At times, she struggled to explain her policy stances and her reasons for running for president.
  4. And finally, Harris, as a woman of color (she is the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants), faced extra high hurdles with a Democratic Party that’s focused on each candidate’s perceived ability to defeat President Trump. Many voters view nominating a woman as a risky bet in a general election.

Those explanations still ring largely true to me — but not fully.

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Harris Drops Out

Harris dropping out now surprised me. I expected she would stay in the race at least through Iowa and perhaps even New Hampshire, and drop out if she had poor showings in those contests. There has been a lot of reporting about infighting in her campaign and struggles to raise money, so I suspect those were the main factors driving her to drop out before any voting has taken place. Put simply, she may have run out of money, as Harris herself hinted in a post on Medium describing her decision to leave the race. Also, her poll numbers have been pretty steadily declining.

Maybe Harris just decided there was no path to victory, and that there was no reason to move forward.

So do I still subscribe to the theories of Harris’s struggle that I laid out in October? Mostly, yes. The former vice president, Biden, has remained at the top of the polls in part because of his strong support among black voters, and the senators from Vermont and Massachusetts, Sanders and Warren, respectively, are still formidable. Harris put in decent performances in the October and November debates, but other candidates’ performances got better reviews, and it’s still not totally clear why a voter would choose her over others in the field. Moreover, the questions raised about Warren’s electability by both journalists and more centrist Democrats over the last month reinforce my view that any female candidate in this campaign would and does face obstacles that the male candidates don’t face. I think Harris would have faced a similar electability panic if she were near the top of the polls at this stage of the race. (No black woman has ever been elected governor, and Illinois’s Carol Moseley Braun and Harris are the only two ever elected to U.S. Senate.)

The rise of Buttigieg, however, does make me question the idea that voters don’t want an Obama-style candidate. The South Bend, Indiana, mayor is running an Obama-style campaign in many ways. Maybe some Democrats do want an Obama-ish figure, just not Harris. That said, in recent months Buttigieg has leaned into running as a more moderate candidate, particularly in opposing the more liberal policy ideas of Sanders and Warren. That moderation on policy is one way to signal to voters that a candidate is trying to maximize his or her electability. I’m not sure a pivot to the center would have worked for Harris — a woman of color from California — as well as it has for a white man from the Midwest, since I’m not sure voters saw Harris as less electable because of her policy stances. (Voters perceive women and black candidates as more liberal than white candidates, even if their policy stances are similar.)

Here’s a final thought on Harris: I wonder if she and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke were both overhyped as candidates by the press, myself especially in the case of Harris. (I wrote a piece about her presidential prospects in June 2018.) As Joel Wertheimer, who served as associate staff secretary to Obama, wrote, “The story of Kamala Harris is one sports fans are familiar with: The scouts just got it wrong. That’s really it.”

Harris had been touted as the “female Obama” for years. A lot of the reporters and political staffers, including me, who now have a big role in America’s political conversation came of age professionally during Obama’s rise. We were (and probably still are) inclined to look for the next Obama. (I think looking for the next Obama also resulted in Sen. Marco Rubio being overhyped in the 2016 cycle, for example.)

But Harris is not Obama, and 2019 is not 2007. The rise of Trump and his brand of identity politics have probably made Democrats more wary of a female or minority presidential candidate. Obama is the defining figure of the party — multiple candidates, such as Biden and Buttigieg, are casting themselves as his logical heir, even if they aren’t black. And Harris, unlike Obama, was not the leading alternative to an establishment-backed candidate (Hillary Clinton) who had been wrong on the central issue of the day (the Iraq War). She was running in a primary with lots of viable candidates where one of the big questions is exactly what the primary is about (electability, restoring stability or big structural change).

Perhaps Harris, had the campaign unfolded a little differently, could have held onto the polling gains she made in the wake of the first debate. It’s possible that she got a bit unlucky and simply underperformed in a few crucial moments. But it’s also possible that pundits like me overestimated her chances from the start.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.