Written by Astead W. Herndon
Sen. Kamala Harris of California kicked off perhaps the most important month of her stalled presidential bid in the shadow of America’s casino capital, a fitting start to an October in which she and her campaign staff will put their chips on the table.
Gone is the hubris from the start of her candidacy, when some top advisers asserted privately that the early 2020 nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire were not crucial — a decision that baffled rival campaigns and even some Harris staff members on the ground who had suggested more early investment.
Now Harris is staking her campaign on a top-three finish in Iowa, and her own words point to a candidate trying to reset expectations: shedding the label of a once-feared top candidate (she has fallen to fifth place in national polling) and reasserting herself as a punchy upstart.
“I stand here as a United States senator, a former attorney general of a state of 40 million people and a top-tier candidate for president of the United States!” she told striking autoworkers this past week outside a General Motors plant in Reno, Nevada.
After support for Harris surged after her performance in the first Democratic debate in June, her downward trajectory the past three months has gained notice. Her third-quarter fundraising was flat, undergirded by a heavy schedule of high-dollar events that kept her away from the trail. She now polls closer to lesser known candidates like technology entrepreneur Andrew Yang than to Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Some challenges were thrust upon her: heightened expectations after a better-than-expected start; the burden of a historic candidacy that has no touchstone; and the rise of Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who has become a favorite of the donor circuit that once preferred Harris. At a recent dinner for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the reception for Warren dwarfed the one for Harris, igniting chatter across the community that Harris considers a home base.
Other blips were self-inflicted. Most notably, Harris entered the race as a sponsor of Sanders’ plan for single-payer health insurance, only to later denounce it and offer her own.
No Democrat questions her competence or political skill. She rattled Biden in the first debate, won plaudits for her tough questioning of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet members during Senate hearings and earned high favorability ratings from primary voters that could indicate room for growth.
But she has had trouble stringing together individual moments and converting them into sustained support, and interviews with voters at a series of campaign events in Nevada revealed that even some who planned to vote for her were yearning to see a clearer, more consistent expression of her political vision.
“I feel like, a couple times, she came out as a fighter and was aggressive — and then she backs off,” said Traci Decker, 42, who attended the Las Vegas event. “I want to see her keep pushing.”
Sofia Takhtadjian, 18, said she thought that each time she had seen Harris on the Democratic debate stage, her message had been different.
“I’ve heard rebuttals, and single opinions, but I think she needs her own personal image,” Takhtadjian said. “She needs to show her own beliefs.”
What’s left is a schism between those who think Harris’ summer struggles were a temporary dip caused by her relative absence on the trail, and those who believe something more fundamental is at play — that her catchall ideology is a mismatch for a political moment defined by clear progressives like Warren and Sanders and moderates like Biden.
At campaign events this past week, Harris debuted a fresh stump speech focused on the impeachment inquiry into Trump, an issue in which her campaign believes she is uniquely suited to lead as a former prosecutor.
She began each of the rallies, titled “Dude Gotta Go,” with a lengthy discussion of the president’s suspected crimes, and concluded by talking directly about the idea of “electability,” which she described as the “elephant” in the 2020 race, and the fear that the country was not ready to elect a black woman as president.
“Let’s have some real talk,” Harris said in Reno. “This is not a new conversation for me. This is a conversation that I’ve heard every time I’ve ran a campaign and — here’s the operative word — won.”
In strategic terms, her campaign’s choice to pivot to Iowa is a concession that its initial theory of the presidential race was at least partly incorrect. From the start, her longtime advisers mapped out a national strategy that highlighted primaries with more diverse electorates — such as South Carolina, Nevada and California, her home state — while conserving resources often used in early states for television advertisements in later ones.
It was a risky bet made with California confidence, one that would not only boost a candidate with the potential to make history but also do so without prioritizing Iowa and New Hampshire, a strategy that is unproven on the national stage and a break from Barack Obama’s successful playbook in 2008.
A turning point came in early August during a five-day bus tour throughout Iowa — the longest period of retail campaigning Harris had spent in the state to date.
Her poll numbers were descending and the afterglow of the first debate had faded, but the candidate found refuge in what she thought was a warm reception by state Democrats who had felt neglected by her campaign.
She returned to her team with an edict, calling senior staff together and requesting a memo with a singular focus: doubling down in Iowa — in resources and in time.
Lily Adams, Harris’ communications director, said the state was a “proven path that our campaign recognized early on.”
“In 2004 and 2008, the eventual Democratic nominees used Iowa to come from behind and slingshot into the other early states and Super Tuesday,” Adams said. “We’ll put in the resources and time to compete there and be successful.”
The change in electoral strategy also coincided with a staff reorganization, including a campaign role for Harris’ Senate chief of staff, Rohini Kosoglu. The campaign denied reports that the changes indicated discontent with the structure of Harris’ current senior staff.
However, people inside the campaign said that the overlapping roles of Harris’ political consultants from California; springtime hires such as Jim Margolis, the Democratic advertising guru who has worked with the party’s last three presidential nominees; and Maya Harris, the senator’s sister, campaign chair and close confidante, have at times contributed to organizational confusion.
For all the technical changes the campaign is making, which also include holding more intimate events in Iowa rather than large rallies, there remains the question of message. Harris has at times embraced large-scale solutions such as a mandatory gun buyback program and ending the Senate filibuster to pass the Green New Deal. But she has rarely advocated for them consistently or with conviction, frustrating the progressive activists such policies are meant to please.
She frequently cites the unfairness of funding public schools through property taxes — an issue she raised again at her event in Reno — but she has offered no solution. In September, she hinted at a plan for mass student debt forgiveness, but a full proposal is still being developed.
Such oscillation is why Heather Renner, a 19-year-old college student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, came to see Harris. She loved the idea of a woman being elected president, and she liked Harris personally, but she said she did not have a good idea of what her policy core was, including what she believed about student debt cancellation.
As the event ended, Renner said she felt no closer to an answer, though the personal affection persisted. “Everyone else has that one thing. What’s her one thing?” Renner asked. “It’s like nailing Jell-O to a wall. I can’t place it.”