Politics, recent, Spotlight

Why Has Kamala Harris’s Campaign Fizzled?

For Democrats, the current 2020 election cycle is perhaps the most important in modern history. For the party faithful, unseating Trump—a man Democrats consider to be the worst President in modern history—has become the overriding concern, even eclipsing the party’s lively policy debate. One rising star, and a politician many considered would give the President a run for his money, is the junior senator from California, Kamala Harris.

Superficially, Harris looks like the party’s dream candidate. She is a woman—an asset to a party animated by gender politics, concerns about diversity and still reeling from the #MeToo movement. She is also an ethnic minority (her mother is Indian, her father is Jamaican), another box ticked for a party which draws considerable support from non-whites. Her former life as a prosecutor, San Francisco district attorney and California state attorney would be a dangerous match-up for the unscrupulous Trump, who has spent more time than most avoiding a court room. Having been a senator since 2016, she is already a national political figure. She has also proved herself to be a fairly effective debater, being seen to best former Vice President Biden in previous encounters.

Despite these apparent pluses, Harris’ performance in the contest has so far been lacklustre. A tussle with the frontrunner Joe Biden in the second debate saw her reach 20 percent in one Quinnipiac poll, but the bump was short-lived. At the time of writing, Harris is once again languishing in single digits.

Things have only worsened for the Senator in recent days and weeks. Following the recent third round of primary debates, Harris emerged the most damaged of all of those on stage; decreasing her pool of potential voters more than any other of the candidates, particularly among voters who prize electability. Contrary to many post-debate takes, this is not necessarily down to nascent sexism among viewers, as Elizabeth Warren managed to improve her standing among those voters at the same time.

Some of these disappointments are to be expected. Harris is an ethnic-minority from a coastal city, so is almost lab-designed to perform poorly in the first two primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. As a candidate who polls well among the black community, her first opportunity to enter the top-tier of candidates rests on a stellar performance in South Carolina, a state with a sizeable African-American presence. But even there her polling is only marginally better than the national average. In her home state of California, it is no better. So what went so wrong? 

The logic of a Harris candidacy rests on her coalition-building skills. Primarily her ability to consolidate the African American vote, a feat that, so far, only Joe Biden has come close to achieving. A survey by the black Economic Alliance found that although black voters were relatively enthusiastic about Harris (53 percent) and the other leading African-American in the race, Cory Booker (43 percent), the same survey showed Biden was far ahead of the pack (76 percent). Like many politicians, Harris and her team appear to have learned the wrong lessons from the Obama years, believing black voters are more likely to support black candidates than they actually are. 

Harris’s previous life in California as a tough-talking hard-on-crime politician has won her few favours in the Democratic Party of 2019, which is increasingly radical on issues of immigration, crime and race—and more cognizant than ever of how those issues intersect. Earlier in the year, the Californian Senator faced accusations of rewriting history after she tried to characterise a 2008 San Francisco policy that reported undocumented youth to Immigration and Customs Enforcement when arrested by local police, regardless of whether or not a crime had been committed. Harris said handing over undocumented youth to federal authorities was “an unintended consequence” of the policy. Critics disagree.

Incidents like these have helped pigeonhole her as a relic of the “tough on crime” era of the 1990s and 2000s; a time that has been criticised, particularly by the insurgent progressive-left, as a regressive style of thinking that led to the unfair targeting of millions of African Americans.

During the campaign’s staged events, Harris has attempted to play to her strengths: utilising her time as a prosecutor to turn the to-and-fro of the debate stage into moments that cut through the morning after. However, voters this cycle appear less keen on intra-party warfare, punishing candidates—like former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Julian Castro—whose attacks look too aggressive. It is probably not a coincidence that the best-performing candidates (Biden, Warren) are those that have maintained a folksy, affable demeanour.

Harris has also been occasionally dishonest, sometimes egregiously so, in an attempt to burnish her progressive credentials. When talking about gender issues, Harris has continuously muddled equal pay with the gender pay gap. Whilst this may play well with less engaged voters who are concerned with gender inequity, it does no favours for her reputation among policy fanatics, a group of people who are almost certain to turn up on primary/caucus day.

Perhaps her biggest obstacle to the nomination is a nexus of problems that can be summarised as a lack of authenticity: supporting Bernie Sanders’s Medicare-For-All policy, until she didn’t; taking Biden to task for his position on busing during the second round of debates until she confirmed she took the same view only a few days later. Time and again, Harris tries to sound a radical note before retreating back to a moderate tune. These strategic blunders have meant that Harris is neither competing solely in the progressive lane (with Sanders and Warren) or the moderate one (with Biden and Klobuchar) but is attempting to have it both ways. As the saying goes: those who stand in the middle of the road tend to get run over.

Her dire performance in the horserace before a single vote has been cast could be fatal for Harris’s chances. She polls less well among the mainly white, mostly rural voters of Iowa, a state whose first-in-the-nation caucus is crucial for picking up much-needed momentum and acquiring the veneer of a viable candidate. YouGov had Harris at only 6 percent in Iowa at the end of August, a result that, if repeated next February across the state’s districts, could fail to land Harris a single delegate. A catastrophic result for a senior politician who was considered one of the most promising at the beginning of the year.

As the race consolidates into a top tier and everyone else, Harris has found herself on the wrong side of that line. Unless something dramatic happens, it is not a question of if Harris pulls out of the race, but when.


Josh Adams is a freelance writer from the UK whose work has recently appeared in UnherdAreo and Arc Digital. He is currently writing a book about rare diseases and their impact on patients, families, healthcare systems and societies. You can follow him on Twitter @joshadz


  1. Interesting article. I would have preferred to see something about Andrew Yang- he probably has the most detailed and innovative raft of policy proposals of any of the Democratic candidates. He was also prepared to come out against cancel culture (brave move, especially given the NYT’s predictable response) - which, regardless of his policy proposals, should illicit some sympathy with Quillette readers.

  2. Many African Americans loathe her because of her incredibly harsh and corrupt attitude toward the accused. She gleefully ruined a lot of lives and brags about it. And this was obvious going into the race before most of the issues raised here. A friend of mine, who also lives out of the country like the author, failed to pick up on this and thought Harris was the top contender. I told her I doubted shed win because right out of the gate she’s lost a ton of the black votes. She had no idea about this.The mainstream media was largely oblivious as well, as its comprised of upscale mostly white people who not only fail to understand most of middle america, but also much of the “minority” america they pretend to love. At any event, just because she has a vagina and melanin doesn’t mean she’s a slam dunk. Indeed, despite their words to the contrary, Dems are, I believe, more racist and sexist than Republicans (don’t believe me? Listen to what they say about any black or brown person or any woman who dares to step out of ideological line. Almost immediately they revert to racism, calling them “porch monkeys” and “uncle toms” and calling the women ugly, fat, and stupid (Sarah Palin, Sarah Huckabee, etc).

    She has too many enemies, and her sex and race won’t save her, is the short answer.

  3. This article may be representative of what is missing in “reporting” from the modern press. Do “reporters” actually talk to the rank and file anymore or just to each other? How many Democrat voters did Josh Adams speak to before speaking for them as to why Harris fizzled? From a small sampling in my locale the democrat candidates and Harris in particular have rowed strenuously away from the inclinations of typical voters, Democrat or otherwise.

    I don’t know who gets invited to sit in the Democrat debate audience but their responses betray an unquestioning zealotry that is far removed from the median. If the candidates think these activists and their cohort in the media represent anyone but themselves they are delusional. Likely the reason Biden has any support at all given his age and innumerable gaffes is because he is the one representing some level of sanity.

    As much as Republicans decry the increasingly partisan media, these partisans are not doing the Democrats any favors either.

  4. The left loves their identity politics, but the wrong opinions can mean your woman or black card get taken away. Here’s a woman who slept her way to the top, and an African-American who aligned herself with the police and justice system her whole career. This is sufficient to cancel her oppression points for most leftists.

  5. gender inequity

    Eric Blair is calling on the white courtesy phone: please pick up.

  6. The MSM creates these people and then spits them out if they don’t sell. Harris is just another example, regardless of how many progressive boxes she checks. The media may be left leaning, but it is a bastion of capitalism and requires profits, especially in the internet era. D. Trump is the proof in that pudding. The MSM gave birth to that Frankenstein and then found that they loved to hate him but were totally incapable of influencing him. But he sold and still sells more than any other president. He’s almost as much of a media treasure as global warming. So Kamala, if you want to stay in this thing, you had better do something outrageous and sell some papers.

  7. as chief prosecutor in California, she put away hundreds of people for drug offences. but then when asked if she smoked marijuana, an illegal drug, she laughed about it. clearly she doesnt believe in the law, if shes willing to step around it and then strictly enforce it when its to her benefit.

    “convictions of drug dealers increased from 56% in 2003 to 74% in 2006.”

    i didnt even know about THIS. wow. not a good look, to protect a possible child rapist.

    " In the 1970s, Joey Piscitelli, was repeatedly raped by the principal of his Catholic High School, Father Stephen Whelan.[70] In 2004, he was pursuing a civil case against the church that oversaw his high school and seeking help to strengthen his case."

    Piscitelli says Harris’ office did not respond to his letters or calls, and would not allow him to access the files. In response, Piscitelli and his family and friends began mounting posters across the city to force Harris to respond. He sought help from the media, which requested access to the files under California’s Public Records Act, but Harris’ deputy, Paul Henderson, denied the request, stating that Harris’ investigative files “were not subject to California’s government transparency laws.”[69] In 2005, when San Francisco Weekly writer, Ron Russell, attempted the request again, a Harris spokesperson told him:

    “If we did it [granted access to files] for you, we would have to do it for everybody. Where do you stop, and where do you start?”[69]

  8. How is this a bad thing?

  9. throwing dumbasses in jail for smoking a joint does not reduce criminality. those people will become worse from the experience. or are American jails some kind of paradise that Im unaware of? can you imagine being prison-raped because you got busted with a joint while walking around at night? because i guarantee that has happened to someone, somewhere in America. and guess what - its funny, because he’s a criminal. not even a human being; we can laugh at him being sexually abused by a rapist, because he broke his promise to society not to smoke a stupid fucking plant. all Kamala wanted was some good numbers to show people, without thinking for even a second of what those numbers really mean.

  10. Drug dealers, not potsmokers.

    Try another false narrative please.

  11. So when someone asks to support my points but then preemptively says they doubt I can, I’m not exactly inclined to help out, because their mind is already closed.

    At any event, two seconds of googling brings up a New York Times article that is a good start. You’re more than welcome to find out more. Also, I work in an all-Black school and informally heard her unpopularity all the time. That is unscientific but anecdotally solid.

  12. The black community, sadly, is swimming in false narrratives.

  13. An infinitesimally small proportion of US prisoners are people in for possession of marijuana. Those that are plead down from a much more serious offense, or rarely under a “three strikes” policy.

    The narrative about people in jail for possession is unsupported by the evidence, and as @DavidtheOptimist points out, nearly irrelevant to drug dealing, a much greater offense. I can’t speak to what it’s like in the US, but before legalisation in Canada it was common to smoke weed in public places. It was even culturally enforced in places like Mount Royal in Montreal on Sunday mornings. Everyone knew about it, police were sometimes present, it was no problem unless you created a major disturbance. Same with people smoking up outside of dive bars. These laws are seldom enforced because it’s not worth police or justice time.

    Drug dealers are different. If they are careful and don’t involve themselves in anything other than weed, they tend to be fine even with large distribution networks. But if they involve themselves with smugglers, cartels, selling to children, ect, that’s when they end up on police radar.

    That being said, selective enforcement is dangerous and I’d prefer weed be decriminalised or legalised. I left before Canada legalised it, but from what I hear the government has gotten far too involved in the trade. They tried to corner the market for themselves, including increasing penalties for private organisations. They should have let those organisations come into the light (there were some amazing companies), not socialised weed.

  14. The first report is fallacious as the goal of police officers is to arrest drug dealers in high crime areas. This is because around 80% of urban violent crime is gang related, and proven-to-work pro-active policing approaches can reduce violent crime, by drilling down on lesser offences. You only have to look at the difference in homicide figures for areas like New York versus Chicago, Baltimore or Oakland to see the results. Any evidence of racial discrepancies in treatment, should be measured against the racial demographics of the local gang populations.

    The police could probably do a better job at differentiating between gang, gang affiliated and largely innocent African American drug users who are not gang affiliated, and a reform-focused approach that doesn’t involve putting lesser offenders in prison would both be good ideas. But there will always be a minority of instances where those with substantial criminal records will need to be incarcerated for short periods for drug possession. It’s called a disruption strategy, and is also commonly used in counter terrorism.

  15. Often lost in the discussion about people going to prison for possession of small amounts of drugs is this very common story:

    Get convicted of a major felony, get released with credit for time-served, do the rest of your sentence on probation, and, while on probation, get busted for misdemeanor possession of drugs.

    Go (back) to prison for violating your probation on the major felony, and your mother appears on CNN to say you’re in prison for just a little bit of pot. The CNN reporter might mumble something about you being on probation, but the real message the TV audience is meant to take away is: “Prison for just a little bit of pot! Mother cries for justice!”

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