The early stages of the Democratic presidential-nomination contest were dominated by the brute fact of former vice president Joe Biden’s lead among the (partly overlapping) categories of economic and cultural moderates and African Americans. That made college-educated white liberals a crucial constituency for Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, and Kamala Harris. Warren’s candidacy has endured because she carefully and consistently went after these voters, while Beto and Harris misunderstood and offended them.
College-educated white liberals make up the majority of the most affluent, secular, and ideological segment of the Democratic electorate. White liberals have become more extreme over the past ten years. These voters also play an outsize role in Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s Democratic contests. Since those states don’t have a large share of nonwhite votes, and with Biden seeming to dominate among more-moderate and less-educated voters, any alternative to Biden must therefore include — indeed rely on — college-educated white liberals to advance in the early contests. Or at least that is how it looked in the summer of 2019.
California senator Kamala Harris tried to re-create the 2008 coalition of African Americans and educated white liberals. During the first debate, she tried to win over white liberal voters with left-wing policies, such as supporting the abolition of private health insurance, decriminalizing illegal border crossing, and providing government-subsidized health insurance to unauthorized immigrants. She tried to crack Biden’s support among African Americans by hitting him on his record of opposition to court-mandated busing.
For one night it worked, and Harris rocketed up the polls — but then she panicked. Harris’s progressive positions polled badly and looked like they would become general-election liabilities if she got the Democratic nomination. So in between debates, Harris and her staffers repeatedly weaseled on abolishing private health insurance.
What Harris didn’t understand was that for ideological white liberals, abolishing private health insurance is a character issue. It wasn’t about the candidate actually hunting down every last private health-insurance policy if she should become president. It was about not preemptively surrendering during the primary. It was about showing guts when you were attacked. It was about showing leftist voters that you would fight for them. Harris not only preemptively surrendered, she did so in a way that everyone on every side recognized as cynical.
Harris then faced a brutal attack from Tulsi Gabbard, but the effect of that attack on Harris’s campaign might best be understood as an opportunistic infection upon an already ailing patient. Partisans are willing to accept a lot of flaws in a candidate who they think is on their side: Over the past 25 years, each of our major parties has defended a president who had been credibly accused of rape.
But it is crucial for partisans to see the candidate as being actually on their side. By the time of the Gabbard hit, it was obvious that Kamala Harris was only on her own side. Gabbard’s criticism was an opportunistic infection; even granting that everything Gabbard said was true, partisans accept much worse from politicians. The underlying condition was that liberals had already decided Harris was an opportunist who would sell them out whenever it benefited her.
The Hollow Man
When Beto O’Rourke’s campaign collapsed, he was mocked for having gone too “woke” by adopting alienating, left-wing cultural stances. He deserved the mockery, but going to the extreme cultural left was not Beto’s original plan.
Beto’s initial appeal was that he could speak in such a way that liberals heard a courageous progressive and moderates heard a guy who wasn’t going to take their guns and health insurance. If Harris tried to re-create Obama’s nominating coalition, O’Rourke tried to re-create Obama’s rhetorical appeal in which each listener would project his own values onto O’Rourke’s words.
There were several problems with this strategy. First, Beto lacked Obama’s political skills. Second, and perhaps more important, Beto was in a very different political environment. White liberals are much more demanding in 2019 than they were in 2008. All-things-to-all-Democrats posturing was insufficient. They wanted policy commitments.
In the first debate, O’Rourke wilted under Julián Castro’s criticism for refusing to support decriminalization of illegal border crossing. Beto either wouldn’t or couldn’t make the case against the extremely unpopular decriminalization proposal with any passion. This not only damaged Beto’s (exaggerated) reputation for eloquence, it also showed that he couldn’t win over the votes of white liberals through style and carefully chosen words.
Beto then went woke in the worst possible way. In his defense, it was never going to be easy to move left after the first debate. There were already candidates who supported abolishing private health insurance, decriminalizing illegal border crossing, subsidizing health insurance for those same (and future) unauthorized border crossers, and even giving the vote to convicted terrorists on death row. O’Rourke wouldn’t get much credit for being a late arrival to these positions.
So O’Rourke decided to be the hate-click candidate. There is a certain genre of nominally progressive journalism that is less about making progressives happy than about making conservatives angry. Superficially, this kind of journalism is about bravely advancing some aspect of left-wing values, but really it is about getting engagement (and clicks and ad revenue) from outraged critics.
In journalism, this is the province of editors who are desperately trying to keep money-losing operations afloat and writers who are desperate to maintain a place in the creative economy. They get traffic, but more hate and contempt than respect. Still, the traffic can create the illusion of a constituency.
Beto thought he could get attention by taking provocative stands and then leverage the hostile reaction from conservatives into sympathy from liberals. He told rural gun owners that “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15” and threatened to take away the tax exemptions of churches that didn’t recognize same-sex marriage.
This got Beto a lot of news coverage, but it didn’t move his poll numbers. Increased engagement did not equal increased support. What was interesting was that even on the sewer that is social media, relatively few liberal Democrats supported using the tax code to specifically target socially conservative churches. A much larger number were in favor of removing the tax exemption from all churches, but few would defend Beto’s intentionally more inflammatory and bigoted proposal. In a late-October poll of Iowa, Beto got 1 percent. White liberals might want radical change, but they didn’t want to elect Salon.com circa 2015, and Beto was obviously a phony anyway.
Slow and Steady
Elizabeth Warren pursued a much more consistent strategy than Harris or O’Rourke. Like Harris, she staked out left-wing positions early, but unlike Harris, she stuck to them. When she was attacked as unrealistic or radical by lesser-known moderate candidates such as John Delaney, she struck back fiercely. She earned the support of her college-educated liberal base not only by agreeing with them, but by being seen as fighting for them.
The irony is that Harris could have had much of that support if she had stuck with her early left-wing positioning. After the first debate, Harris surged past Warren in the polls. That wasn’t because Warren had a bad first debate; her debate performances have been remarkably consistent. It was that Harris made such a strong impression with both her left-wing positioning and her attack on the front-running Joe Biden.
According to the polls, Harris even competed with Warren among liberals. It appears that there were quite a few liberals who — all other things being equal — preferred a younger African American woman to a rich old white lady who had spent her life pretending to be Native American.
Harris’s mistakes meant that all other things weren’t equal. Warren kept faith with white liberals; Harris didn’t, and that made all the difference.