What Kamala Harris Dropping Out Means for Democrats' Diversity in 2020

Abigail Abrams

When California Senator Kamala Harris announced she was suspending her campaign for president on Tuesday, she was quickly met with an outpouring of support and admiration. Many praised the historic nature of her candidacy; she was seeking to become the first black woman to win a major party’s presidential nomination. Others mourned the loss of her particular perspective in the Democratic primary field.

It was just the kind of enthusiasm Harris had been struggling to find the day before—when she was still running for president. Harris’s surprising early exit from the race reflects the complicated racial and gender dynamics of the 2020 campaign: in a year when the Democratic Party says it wants to prioritize building a multi-racial coalition of voters to defeat Donald Trump, critics say it has largely overlooked primary candidates that represent that diversity to focus on almost exclusively white politicians before voting has even started.

In a moment that seemed to embody this dynamic, former Vice President Joe Biden appeared to forget about Harris when he claimed during the November debate that he had the support of the only black woman ever elected to the Senate, referring to former Senator Carol Moseley Braun. “The other one is here,” Harris shot back from her podium, before laughing along with the audience.

When the remaining Democrats next take the debate stage in Los Angeles this month, there’s a real chance that no people of color will be on it. While candidates like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Sen. Cory Booker still have time to qualify, the situation is not where many Democrats hoped to find themselves, particularly in comparison to, say, the Republican debate at this time in 2015, which featured a woman, a black candidate and two Cuban-Americans.

Harris began her campaign in the top tier of candidates, with high expectations and a crowd of some 20,000 in Oakland. But she soon faced questions over many of her policies and the direction of her messaging. She reversed her stance on single-payer health care, and her campaign seemed like it could not decide between emphasizing her experience as a prosecutor to appeal to moderates and downplaying it as progressives raised concerns about her record.

Adding to voters’ uncertainty, the campaign faced significant layoffs, restructuring and accusations of mismanagement in recent weeks, and the California Senator ultimately said she did not have enough money to keep going. “My campaign for president simply does not have the financial resources to continue,” Harris told supporters in a video announcing her decision to drop out. “I’m not a billionaire. I can’t fund my own campaign, and as the campaign has gone on, it has become harder and harder to raise the money we need to compete.”

Harris’s comments came after several wealthy candidates jumped into the 2020 race in the last few weeks. The large amounts of money spent on presidential campaigns can pose an extra hurdle for candidates of color, who are often less well known and may have less access to institutional support than their white counterparts, said Niambi Carter, a political science professor at Howard University who studies race and politics.

“When you think about how much money it takes to sustain a campaign even before people have gotten to an actual election,” she said, “it is something for us to ponder as a nation when we think about the health of our democracy and how likely is it for candidates who are not rich to actually be viable.”

Harris may not have led the perfect campaign, but supporters noted that she often faced double standards and was likely thwarted by broad, undefined questions over “electability,” particularly as moderates like South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and more recently Mike Bloomberg appealed to white voters in the middle of the country.

“The implicit racism and sexism of ‘electability’ is deeply damaging to democracy,” Leah Greenberg, co-executive director of the progressive group Indivisible, put it bluntly on Twitter, after news of Harris’ departure broke.

Black female leaders also weighed in after Harris announced the end of her run.

“As a Black woman, I know from personal experience that Kamala has to work three times as hard as some of the other candidates in this race to get half as far,” Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a group that promotes women of color, said in a statement. “Kamala’s presence in the race helped blaze a trail for the next generation of women of color. She ran a competitive campaign that has forced us to re-think what it means to be electable.”

Part of the problem for Harris was that while she spoke about her own story as the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants on the campaign trail and emphasized policy ideas to address racial injustice, she had not fully won over black voters—a crucial voting bloc for any Democratic presidential hopeful. Younger black voters gravitated toward Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren while Biden remained popular among many others.

Harris did have black supporters, many of whom rallied around her using the term “KHive.” But that base wasn’t guaranteed, as black voters have supported white candidates for decades, Carter said. And in an election with such high stakes, she says voters of color may have been just as likely as white voters to go with a more well-known candidate who is perceived as ‘safe.’

“Donald Trump represents a real threat to the lives of these communities. And so people want to have a candidate that they think will win,” Carter said. “If the Democratic Party is sort of tepid on some of these candidates, then the public will be as well.”

One of the most prominent ways Democrats predicted they would feel Harris’ absence on Tuesday was in the topics she brought up on the debate stage and on the campaign trail. Harris often talked about reproductive rights, the gender and racial pay gap, racial health disparities and school integration. But the polling boost she got after the first debate, in which she successfully attacked Biden during over his history of opposing federally mandated busing in the 1970s, quickly petered out. The televised moment went viral, but then she was unable to maintain the surge in polls and she received some criticism for selling appearing to capitalize on the moment by selling T-shirts the next day that read “That little girl was me,” with a photo of Harris as a child when she participated in a busing program.

Democrats’ concern over including a diversity of perspectives on the debate stage is not new. Progressives vocally expressed that they missed former HUD Secretary Julián Castro when he failed to qualify for November’s debate. But despite this online support and what his campaign said was his best fundraising day of the quarter after Harris dropped out on Tuesday, he is unlikely to make the December debate either.

Harris made clear in her video statement that suspending her campaign did not mean she was going away. “I am still very much in this fight,” she said. And in a line reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s emotional concession speech the morning after the November election, Harris said she hoped her candidacy would inspire more barrier breakers to follow her.

“I believe our campaign showed every child in America, regardless of their color or gender, that there are no limits to who can lead and hold positions of power in our country. In that way this campaign has been so much bigger than me,” she said.

It may end up being one of her own “glass ceiling” moments, and there is still time for Harris to run again or hold other offices. But for now, it also underscored that America is still a country in which no black woman has ever been elected governor, and that, as Harris told Biden during November’s debate, she is just the second black woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate. At the next debate, there may not be someone to remind him.