Yes, there is a bias against Kamala Harris. No, it is not what sunk her campaign.
Kamala might be For The People, but in the end, the People are Against Kamala.
The pre-mortom obituaries of Senator Harris’ campaign were already being penned before Thanksgiving weekend, but yesterday, she finally pulled the plug and withdrew from the race. It has been a torrid week for the candidate, with scathing articles in Politico and the New York Times that hit her hard, exposing a decaying campaign. The now widely read pieces detailed a campaign that was poorly financed, poorly managed, lacked direction, and lacked a vision of not just of how to win, but of what a Harris win would look like for the country.
The Senator’s withdrawal has put the Democrat Party’s winnowing of the field in the spotlight. Once praised for its diversity it is now in danger of being whitewashed, just when it all begins to matter. Harris’ departure — so the argument goes — alludes to a systemic bias against women, firstly, but people of color as well. The California Senator, therefore, had a bar set so impossibly high that she was inevitably going to fail to reach it because of systemic conditions. No matter how strong a candidate she was.
And the truth is, she was a strong candidate. More than qualified to be competing at the top of the field, with ample experience and charisma that matched any other high profile politician. Her performance in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and latterly, when she grilled Jeff Sessions were brilliant, explicit demonstrations of her ability, and something her campaign sought to play on until the very end.
It is easy therefore to see the credence in that case. How can a woman so well qualified, with such a powerful skill set, flop so badly? There must be a systemic bias.
As compelling as that is, I don’t think it was the lethal blow in this case.
Not least because the Democrat party hasn’t nominated a white man for fifteen years. Since then, they’ve nominated both the first African American and the first female to lead a major party; the former winning two terms — beating two white men — the latter winning the nomination by beating a white man and going on to secure three million more votes than her rival, another white man.
I accept that in the course of history, two nominees not fitting a very specific mould is an insufficient evidence base. But it does speak to a trend, albeit only within one party, that isn’t inherently exclusionary to someone like Kamala Harris.
Even this year, as Joe Biden leads the pack, he does so, to a large degree, because of his support from black Democrat voters, a hugely influential constituency within the party that contributed heartily to the nomination of the last Democrat president.
In South Carolina, the third state to primary next year and the state with the sixth highest proportion of black voters, Biden holds a Real Clear Politics average of nearly 20 points on his closest rival, Elizabeth Warren. With a recent Quinnipiac University Poll putting the former Vice President’s lead amongst black voters even higher, at 44 points. All the while Harris’ support in South Carolina fell this month from 11% to just 3%.
But how have we gone from the most diverse field in history to a debate stage later this month that will exclusively be occupied by white only candidates. It might be possible to explain away Harris’ individual campaign faults, but a swing so drastic surely speaks to something more fundamental, right?
Well, perhaps not. It is worth remembering that had Harris decided to remain in the race, she had already qualified for December’s debate. Regardless, the debate will still feature two women, one openly gay man, an a technical Independent: Political, sexual, and gender diversity. It is also important to note that 70% of the candidate dropouts so far have been white males, with only Gillibrand, Messam, and now Harris not being. (Granted; that is a woman, a black man, and another woman of color).
Moreover, as we get closer to the actual primaries, the debates become harder to qualify for, but the criteria of 6% in an ‘early state’ poll applied to the more diverse South Carolina and Nevada as well as Iowa and New Hampshire. This is important because the focus on Iowa and New Hampshire has been criticised this cycle because it places too greater emphasis on white, moderate votes, unrepresentative of the party. Barack Obama’s somewhat surprising win there in 2008 remains an anomaly.
Therein lies a huge mistake of Harris’ campaign that cannot be attributed to system failure. Not so much that she didn’t focus enough on Iowa, but because she didn’t really focus on anything.
In theory, South Carolina — with its disproportionately high black voting population and a higher delegate count that other early states should have been fertile ground for Senator Harris. Indeed, rewind six months and she was ‘all in’ in South Carolina, only to change her mind and go ‘all in’ in Iowa, only to change her mind (again) and go ‘all in’ somewhere else; this time for women in South Carolina.
In addition to looking unfocused, impatient, and confused, this contributed to practical difficulties in holding down a staff and, perhaps most importantly, raising sufficient funds. Something Senator Harris recognised herself in her note to supporters informing them of yesterday’s decision.
This fluidity translated to her policy positions, too. Wanting to be seen as a pragmatic ‘do-er’, before a liberal or a moderate, Harris deliberately tried to position herself in a unique lane with the hope she would rise above the rest who would continue to argue amongst themselves.
Her aim — which was at times successful — was to be seen as someone who recognised the burning injustices that progressives spoke of, and has the fire in her belly to tackle them, but simultaneously as someone who knows how to win, how to do get things done, and how to beat Trump. There is an unfortunate irony perhaps that in response to voters prioritising a candidate who can beat Trump, Harris’ campaign put what they thought was her ability to do so front and centre, albeit to no avail.
Rightly or wrongly, she never struck a happy balance; peddling back on health care in the middle of a polling bounce. Voters recognised this as a candidate lacking something, rather than having everything.
Fundamentally, the aforementioned tactical and strategic mistakes cannot be attributed a system that destined her candidacy to fail. Harris’ decision to drop out can, ultimately, be boiled down to one sentence. She knew she wasn’t going to win.
The Senator playing to win, not just playing to play — unlike some colleagues who remain in the race. But part of the very reason why her fall has come under such scrutiny is precisely because there was once an aura of the winner about her. Candidates and commentators were falling over themselves to highlight how strong she was. In other words, the system, did at one time, favour her.
During an election where Democrats are paralysed with fear over Trump’s ability to smash their blue wall — the strategy that saw him win the White House — everyone is acutely aware of the sexism and racism that permeates through his base. But recognising that amongst others is different than being guilty of supporting it. Democrats are fearful of nominating a candidate who is vulnerable to Trump’s electoral strengths. That is a fair accusation; but not one that can levelled at the Harris campaign, especially not before a vote has even been cast.
In a way, Harris’ decision to drop out gets to the very heart of this election: To what extent has her failure come as a result of systemic unfairness which needs wide-ranging, radical reform to correct, or is it simply a case of individual error that could be corrected within the mechanisms of what already exists?
With or without Harris, this election will be haunted by the question of whether the system is simply so unfair it needs radically changing, because those who are evidently qualified cannot compete on merit. The question remains pertinent, but the answer does not lie within Kamala Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign.