3 things we learned from Harris's short-lived presidential campaign

David Knowles

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 62 days until the Iowa caucuses and 336 days until the 2020 election.

Sen. Kamala Harris dropped out of the 2020 presidential race Tuesday, becoming the most high-profile Democrat to exit the contest to date.

After peaking in July, when, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls, she was in second place among the contenders for the nomination, Harris began a steady decline. By this week she had fallen to sixth place, behind former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Although Harris was initially regarded as a top-tier candidate, her swift exit from the race months before the first ballots were cast has invited speculation about what went wrong. Three factors stand out as contributing to her failed presidential bid.

Branding isn’t everything

When she kicked off her presidential campaign on Jan. 28, Harris was well aware that her background as a district attorney and California state attorney general would be a liability in a Democratic primary. Attempting to flip this issue on its head, she unveiled a campaign slogan with a clever play on the phrase with which prosecutors begin their presentations in court. “Kamala Harris for the People” placards were distributed throughout Oakland’s Ogawa Plaza, the same square in which Occupy Oakland protesters staged a rally against income inequality and police brutality in 2011.

“I knew that our criminal justice system was deeply flawed, but I also knew the profound impact law enforcement has on people’s lives and its responsibility to give them safety and dignity. I knew I wanted to protect people,” Harris told the crowd in her first campaign speech.

Harris’s record in law enforcement might have served her well in the general election, appealing to centrist Democrats, independents and even some law-and-order Republicans. For progressives, however, it was an uncomfortable fit. They claimed she hadn’t worked hard enough to reform the criminal justice system, and despite her slogan’s populist slant she was viewed by many as a cop.

Kamala Harris
Sen. Kamala Harris. (Photo: John Locher/AP)

Debate performances matter — for better or worse

Making waves at a presidential debate is one of the only ways to leave an impression with voters in a crowded field of candidates. But efforts to steal the spotlight can also cause long-term damage. That was illustrated by the response to Harris’s attack on Biden during the June 27 Democratic debate over his opposition to mandated school busing and his fond reminiscences of an era in which senators worked across the aisle, including with colleagues whose views would now be considered racist.

Harris, at that time one of only two African-Americans in the race, chastised Biden, saying it was “hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country.”

While adding that she didn’t believe Biden to be “a racist,” she relayed her personal experience of being bused to Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley, Calif.

“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public school, and she was bused to school every day,” Harris said. “And that little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.”

Stunned by the attack, Biden did his best to respond.

“I did not praise racists. That is not true, No. 1,” he said. “No. 2, if we want to have this campaign litigated on who supports civil rights and whether I did or not, I’m happy to do that.”

“I was a public defender, I didn’t become a prosecutor,” Biden added.

The emotional exchange was widely considered the highlight of the debate, and briefly vaulted Harris into serious contention with Biden. But she failed to capitalize on the moment, and over time a different narrative took hold: that Harris herself doesn’t actually favor mandatory busing now — and that the issue is wildly unpopular with voters.

Biden’s support among African-Americans, meanwhile, held firm, and Harris’s attack came to be widely seen as a miscalculation.

The need for a strategy

As the race progressed through the summer and into the fall, Harris continued to lean on her experience as a former prosecutor. She took to repeating her claim that she would “prosecute the case” against Donald Trump. While that may have been metaphoric, it was also confusing in the context of the release of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and the impeachment inquiry in the House.

While Harris has shown herself to be a deft questioner of witnesses testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, she never clarified whether her prosecution of Trump would come as a senator, during the campaign, or would wait until she was elected president.

Worse, as her poll numbers fell back to earth, Harris’s staff began complaining that they didn’t understand her strategy for victory. In a November letter obtained by the New York Times, her director of operations, Kelly Mehlenbacher, described her frustrations.

“This is my third presidential campaign and I have never seen an organization treat its staff so poorly,” Mehlenbacher wrote following a slew of staff layoffs. “With less than 90 days until Iowa, we still do not have a real plan to win.”

In the end, Harris’s vision for the country never fully emerged. She was running on her disdain for the current occupant in the White House and her own job experience, and this year, in this Democratic Party, that wasn't enough.

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