National Politics

Why Kamala Harris is stuck in neutral

She’s taken a nose-dive in polling, struggled to hit her stride on an overarching message — and now donors are beginning to wonder about her long-term viability.

Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign is suddenly confronting a crossroads.

Having slid back to fourth place in most presidential primary polls, Harris is facing a core question about her political identity that may prove crucial to resurrecting her uneven path toward the Democratic Party nomination.

With front-runner Joe Biden firmly occupying the centrist establishmentarian lane and ardent progressives Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders comfortably championing the liberal wing of the party, the California senator is battling a precarious perception that she’s a politician relying heavily on personal charisma but lacking a clear and compelling case for her candidacy.

“She’s trying to find ground between Biden in the center and those two on the left. She’s sandwiched in between those two places and it makes it look like, ‘What is that?,’” said Joe Trippi, the Democratic operative who steered Howard Dean’s 2004 insurgent campaign for the presidency.

Nothing has crystallized Harris’ conundrum more vividly than her reversal on Medicare for All, a policy she lumberingly defended for months before retreating from its most dramatic provision: the elimination of private insurance.

Her proposal, unveiled shortly before the second debate in late July, sought to carve out some middle ground, promising to move all Americans into the Medicare system while maintaining a role for private insurers. Senior Democratic operatives in California said that approach reflects the reputation she developed in the state for caution and pragmatism — attributes that could serve her well in the general election but have troubled her outreach to primary voters.

Still, the slow-rolling flip-flop on health care — long the top issue for Democratic voters — reminded some Republicans of another former White House hopeful who was hobbled by inconsistencies on issues.

“You could compare her to Mitt in the sense that Mitt Romney was the moderate governor of a liberal state who had to tack right in a Republican presidential primary. Kamala Harris was a tough prosecutor who has to tack left,” says Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant who advised Romney’s 2008 run.

Harris, a former attorney general and district attorney, has predicated her campaign on her ability to effectively “prosecute” the case against President Donald Trump. But the potency of that assertion has been undercut by a prosecutorial record that is an anathema to many of the progressives she’s now trying to court. It’s led to a range of blistering and hyperbolic claims — from Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s searing debate takedown to activists on the left who are fond of derisively calling her “a cop,” to Republicans eager to cast extreme assertions.

“When you’ve locked up more black Americans than George Wallace, it’s hard for you to be the greatest civil rights advocate in American history,” Castellanos quipped. “She is caught between who she was and who the Democratic primary electorate wants her to be.”

Ian Sams, a Harris campaign spokesman, called the Castellanos comparison “outrageous and gross.”

As a candidate for district attorney, Harris ran on a platform that promised to “restore relations with the police and run a professional law office,” former San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi told McClatchy in January. “She was known as a fair prosecutor,” Adachi added, but “she was definitely a law-and-order type of prosecutor.”

While she continues to plug a San Francisco program designed to keep youth from re-offending, she had backed away from other law enforcement policies she promoted there, such as a truancy initiative that penalized the parents of children missing school with fines and, potentially, jail time.

Harris said in a CNN interview in May that jailing parents “was an unintended consequence” of a state law she sponsored, a statement ruled was “misleading.”

During her 2010 run for attorney general, Harris bragged that San Francisco’s conviction rates were at their highest level in 15 years and opposed a statewide initiative to legalize recreational marijuana. In 2015, however, she came out in support of medical marijuana. And as a presidential candidate she has called for all marijuana to be legalized.

In recent months, she’s even shifted on whether she would urge the Department of Justice to pursue obstruction charges against Trump once he’s out of office. In June, she told NPR, “they would have no choice, and that they should, yes.” But during the second Democratic debate, she reversed herself saying she “would never direct the Department of Justice to do whatever it believes it should do.”

Even her memorable confrontation with Biden during June’s first debate over federally mandated busing for school children lost some of its sting after Harris later acknowledged she held the same position as the former vice president for it to be done voluntarily.

Then, when Biden and other Democratic candidates turned the arrows on Harris in the second debate, she looked less prepared to defend against the incoming.

“She has revealed herself to be paper thin,” says Castellanos. “She can’t handle second or third level debate on an issue. She can give Joe Biden a good shot but she seems to have a glass jaw when somebody hits back … And when you float around like a butterfly on issues, people wonder if you have the strength necessary in challenging times.”

An aide to a rival Democratic campaign tracking Harris observed that she is at her best in longer-form conversations or when her lines are neatly prepared. She is weakest, this aide contended, in the quick spontaneous moment when an on-the-fly response is called for, raising a question of how effective she’d be against Trump’s unpredictable bombast.

“We know he is no-holds-barred. He could break out anything. She’s not going to be able to play offense for an hour and a half against him. She might really struggle,” the aide said.

This past week has been particularly harsh for Harris. A CNN poll of national Democrats had her cratering to just 5 percent, amounting to a 12-point drop from June, the largest decline of any candidate. “I have no concerns about a national poll of 400 people,” said Bakari Sellers, a Harris supporter and CNN contributor. “Every other poll has her fourth at 8 to 10 percent. She’s still the most talented person in the field.”

Yet the campaign didn’t quibble with CNN and other polls in early July, when they showed Harris enjoying a favorable bump after the first debate. In fact, they readily celebrated them. Now, a Harris aide dismisses the polling as “fickle.” “It’s not just Kamala - a lot of candidates have had upticks and downticks,” the aide said.

Harris’ potential still remains high among many Democratic donors, who poured $800,000 into her campaign account during recent events in Martha’s Vineyard and the Hamptons, according to a Democratic contributor in contact with her team. At the same time, this contributor, who asked for anonymity to avoid offending Harris, said, “When you talk with the donor establishment, there’s not confidence her campaign is getting it together.”

“People like her — genuinely like her — and respect her,” the donor said, but “her campaign seems plagued by indecision. (Donors are) worried about her viability … She can put this together, but she had a tough month.”

A second financial backer more bullish on Harris acknowledged that “she did not have a great second debate, she knows that, her team knows that.” But he added that there are advantages to being a fresh-face still earning her sea legs, rather than a front-runner.

“She needs to meet more people and give a deeper rationale for why her,” the fundraiser said.

In conversations with both Democrats and Republicans, she’s frequently mentioned as an optimal running mate for Biden — a suggestion that’s become a perpetual irritant to Harris and her aides, who continue to believe they’re positioned toward the top of “a wide open contest.”

The Harris campaign remains laser-focused on South Carolina, where a recent poll puts her in fourth place. Key to success there sits with African-Americans, whose long familiarity with Biden has anchored his lead. A recent Pew survey found Harris attracting just 10 percent of the black vote nationwide. On the upside: a plurality of those voters remain undecided, showing a potential opportunity for growth in the southern states she’ll need to win.

But her campaign now appears to realize that there’s no springboard into the south without a top-tier finish in Iowa, where she recently completed a five-day bus tour, her longest continual visit to any state yet. On Wednesday, Harris opened her seventh office in Iowa, which a campaign aide describes as a “a total jump ball.” But like Romney, who struggled with a commitment to the first-in-the-nation caucus state, Harris has had a hot-and-cold relationship with Iowa.

“She’s been kind of the in-limbo candidate, caught between the leading pack but consistently above the rest of the pack,” says John Norris, an Iowa Democrat who assisted Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign but is uncommitted this year. “I think there was some reluctance or uncertainty as to their strategy … but there are three tickets out of Iowa and Harris is still a strong competitor for that third slot.”

In addition to this week’s dour CNN survey, Harris was granted “three pinocchios” from The Washington Post for suggesting she had a way to pay for her proposed tax cut. And she drew heat for initially declining to participate in a CNN climate forum next month in order to raise campaign money in California.

After pressure from activists, her campaign announced she’d rearrange her schedule to participate.

It amounted to another reversal — but a necessary one to quell an August slump.

David Catanese is a national political correspondent for McClatchy in Washington. He’s covered campaigns for more than a decade, previously working at U.S. News & World Report and Politico. Prior to that he was a television reporter for NBC affiliates in Missouri and North Dakota. You can send tips, smart takes and critiques to
Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and writes the Impact2020 newsletter. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.