On a crystalline fall day, Kamala Harris arrived at a split-level home in a leafy northern Virginia suburb for a canvassing event to support local Democrats ahead of the state’s legislative elections next week.
The front yard was full of volunteers, some wearing pink and green pins from the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority that Harris joined as an undergraduate at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington. A woman dressed in a sari wished Happy Diwali to Harris, whose mother was an immigrant from India and whose first name means “lotus flower” in Sanskrit.
As the Democratic presidential hopeful made her way toward the porch to address the crowd, a high school student clasped her hand and thanked her for supporting LGBTQ equality. A little girl bashfully approached her with a picture of an American flag that she had drawn.
Harris’s face softened as she knelt down to accept the gift. With a hand clasped to her heart in appreciation, the candidate smiled: “This is what it’s all about.”
But the glow from that afternoon didn’t last long.
On Wednesday, Harris was forced to take dramatic action to salvage her beleaguered presidential campaign, slashing staff at her Baltimore headquarters and pivoting to an “all-in on Iowa” strategy with less than 100 days before the official start of the Democratic primary contest.
It’s a stunning reversal of fortunes for a presidential campaign that began with dazzling promise. Early supporters believed Harris, the 55-year-old junior senator from California, was a candidate whose time had come. Who better to challenge a president accused by his detractors of lawlessness, racism and misogyny than a barrier-breaking prosecutor who would make history as the first black female president?
“Kamala represents the now and the future of our party,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina Democratic strategist who is unaligned with a campaign. “But we’re not living in normal times.”
In 2016, Democrats watched in horror as Donald Trump vanquished 16 Republicans rivals and their party’s first female nominee, Hillary Clinton. This year, Seawright said, Democrats aren’t trying to make history. They just want the president out of office.
Harris’s fate now hinges on her ability to convince voters that she is best suited to the task.And with three months left before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, the window for Harris to successfully turn around her campaign is closing.
“I’m fucking moving to Iowa,” Harris was recently overheard saying to a Senate colleague, as her poll numbers slipped and her fundraising stagnated. A USA Today/Suffolk poll released on Wednesday showed Harris at 3%, virtually tied with Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who she dismissed two months ago as a lower-tier candidate.
Squeezed between the party’s ideological poles in a historically diverse and crowded presidential field, Harris has struggled to turn breakout moments into sustainable momentum.
Supporters and critics alike point to early stumbles and missed opportunities that muddled her message and left Harris vulnerable to criticism from moderates and progressives.
She has waffled on policy, most notable on healthcare. After embracing Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All healthcare plan, she distanced herself from it then released her own version of it. Elizabeth Warren beat her to the punch calling for Trump’s impeachment and she only recently unveiled a criminal justice reform plan that might have blunted progressive attacks on her prosecutorial record – as San Francisco attorney general and California attorney general – had she released it sooner.
Is she a moderate? Is she a liberal? Is she a tough-on-crime prosecutor or is she a social justice warrior?Lanhee Chen
“Her campaign began with a great deal of promise,” said Lanhee Chen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, who advised Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “But the campaign has lacked definition and a coherent thesis for why she is running. Is she a moderate? Is she a liberal? Is she a tough-on-crime prosecutor or is she a social justice warrior?”
There are also challenges out of her control. Democrats’ deep-seated fear of losing to Trump has perhaps pushed some to perceive people of color and female candidates as less formidable opponents against the president.
Harris has started to address concern about her electability – what she calls the “elephant in the room” – on the campaign trail.
“There is a lack of ability or a difficulty in imagining that someone who we have never seen can do a job that has been done, you know, 45 times by someone who is not that person,” she told Axios in an interview last week.
In Virginia on Sunday, Nelfred Tilly Blanding, the host of the canvassing event, said the prospect of Harris’s historic candidacy fills her with pride – but also apprehension.
“She speaks truth to power,” said Blanding. “I love the way she presents herself.”
But Blanding, who intends to vote for Harris, fears the country isn’t ready for a black woman to be president.
“Is he going to be happy if we nominate a woman?” she said, referring to Trump. “That worries me.”
Harris entered the 2020 race in spectacular fashion with a rally in Oakland this January, against a backdrop of blue and red “For the People” signs, a homage to Shirley Chisholm, an African American congresswoman from New York who was the first woman to seek the Democratic party’s nomination. The event drew more than 20,000 people – the largest of any campaign launch – and was followed by a rush of donations that helped her emerge as a top fundraiser that cycle.
But she faded from view as Sanders and Joe Biden joined and the field bulged with candidates who, like Harris, had been anointed rising stars in a party that is increasingly young, diverse and liberal, including Cory Booker, Julián Castro and Buttigieg.
A premeditated attack on Biden over his record on race and federally mandated school bussing during t
he first presidential debate this summer was the jolt her campaign needed. In the days that followed, her poll numbers soared and donations rolled in.
But soon she tumbled from the top tier. Biden rebounded on the strength of his enduring support among black voters. Warren continued to climb, surpassing Sanders and edging past Biden in several early state and national polls. Meanwhile, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, eclipsed Harris as a darling of the donor class.
“What we’ve seen over time is that Democratic voters are generally pretty happy with their top choices,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of the progressive analytics firm Data for Progress. “It’s not clear that the Democratic establishment is looking to find a fallback.”
He said the unexpectedly weak resistance to Warren’s candidacy by the party establishment has complicated Harris’s quest to emerge as an alternative to Biden.
It’s a frustrating position for a candidate like Harris, whose political career had been building toward this moment almost from the start.
For years, she was viewed within the party as a presumptive heir to the multiracial coalition that twice lifted the first black president to the White House. As early as 2009, she had drawn comparisons to the 44th president, earning the woefully unimaginative nickname the “female Barack Obama”.
From the Senate, Harris thrilled Democrats as she lashed into Trump appointees, viral face-offs that offered a preview of what a general election showdown with the president might have in store. In 2018, colleagues and candidates welcomed her support on the trail. And the Democratic National Committee said that fundraising emails sent with her name were particularly successful with party donors.
Now as her campaign languishes, Harris has started to draw comparisons to Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida who sought to make history as the nation’s first Latino presidential nominee in 2016. He was tipped as the fresh face of his party, an eloquent speaker with a stirring personal story and a prodigious fundraiser well liked by the party establishment in equal measure. He left the race after Florida Republicans chose a snowbird over its native son.
In a memo on Wednesday to staff and supporters, Harris’s campaign outlined its strategy to avoid a similar fate.
“Kamala & this team launched with 1 goal in mind: win the nomination & take on Trump,” Harris’s communication director, Lily Adams wrote on twitter. “It wasn’t to just participate. We’re going to make the hard choices necessary to put us in a place to achieve that goal.”
Her campaign is laying off dozens of staff members and pouring its resources into Iowa, where Harris hopes a strong finish will pave the way into more diverse states such as South Carolina, where she has struggled to match Biden’s appeal with black voters and in her home state of California, where she is trailing far behind the field’s frontrunners.
In the last month she tallied 15 days and 30 events in Iowa in what the campaign has optimistically dubbed the “October hustle”. She will continue to spend much of her time there in November, including the Thanksgiving holiday.
She is never better than she is on that committee grilling these rightwing Trump appointees. This could be her momentAimee Allison
“Plenty of winning primary campaigns, like John Kerry’s in 2004 and John McCain’s in 2008, have had to make tough choices on their way to the nomination,” Juan Rodriguez, Harris’s campaign manager, wrote in a memo to staff and supporters, “and this is no different.”
Another wild card looms on the horizon: impeachment. If the House votes to remove Trump from office, Harris could find herself – along with Warren, Sanders and other senators still in the race – stuck in Washington for the president’s impeachment trial during a crucial phase in the primary contest.
But it may also present an opportunity for Harris, who has repeatedly pledged to “prosecute the case against Donald Trump”. “Dude gotta go,” Harris said, after unloading on the president during the debate last month.
“She is never better than when she is on that committee grilling these rightwing Trump appointees,” said Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a progressive advocacy group that works to elect women of color. “This could be her moment.”
Allison, who has not endorsed a candidate, said there is still a desire to see Harris succeed, especially among black women who are the party’s most loyal constituency.
In a recent Essence survey of black women, more respondents chose “other/prefer not to answer” than any 2020 candidate – evidence, Allison said, that the race is still fluid.
Harris has faced daunting odds before, said Andrea Dew Steele, the co-founder of Emerge America, which trains women to run for office, and a longtime friend.
In the first race of Harris’s political life for district attorney of San Francisco she ran against a two-term incumbent – and her one-time boss. It was a bruising contest, Steele recalled, but it revealed her instinct for political combat.
When Harris launched her campaign in 2003, she had a Filofax full of potential donors and a polling average of 5%. By the end, she had raised more than $1m and ousted her opponent to become the state’s first African American district attorney.
“I’ve seen her win these races when nobody thought she would win,” Steele said. “My advice: don’t count her out.”