In planning a presidential campaign launch, particularly when the field of candidates is as large and complicated as the one facing Democrats today, it makes sense to keep your expectations modest. For one thing, candidates can relaunch themselves whenever they want; campaign trail memories are short. You sure don’t want to create expectations that voters will swoon at the very first impression of candidate x, in the likely event that they don’t. And sometimes a campaign can be unsettled or even capsized by a bad launch, as illustrated by Jon Huntsman in 2012:
For his 2012 campaign announcement along the Hudson River, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. and his handsome family strolled across a lawn like modern-day Camelot before he gave his speech, with the Statue of Liberty as his backdrop. But the audience on that windy morning had more journalists than cheering supporters, while the noise of airplane engines and a boat horn provided awkward interruptions. The episode became a metaphor for Huntsman’s ill-fated campaign.
Few if any candidates pull off a launch like Barack Obama’s Illinois State Capitol event in 2007, which set the perfect tone for his ultimately victorious campaign. But a 2020 candidate who has chosen Obama’s nomination contest strategy as a template for her own, California senator Kamala Harris, is off to a good start, getting nice buzz in post-launch polling nationally and in Iowa.
Harris executed a three-stage launch in the course of a week, sharing the “news” of her candidacy on Good Morning America on Martin Luther King Jr. Day; formally announcing it at a large hometown rally in Oakland on January 27; and then conducting a televised town hall event in Des Moines the next day. She also worked in a South Carolina appearance at a fundraiser for Alpha Kappa Alpha, the large African-American sorority which she joined in college.
Polls taken during the last week show a good payoff for Harris’s investment of time and money in her launch. Two national polls, one from Politico and Morning Consult and another from Monmouth, show her moving into third place behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in the large 2020 field, with double-digit support. She’s ahead of Elizabeth Warren, who had her own effective series of launch events in December, and also ahead of early sensation Beto O’Rourke. And a new poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers from Emerson shows her at 18 percent, actually ahead of Sanders and everyone else other than Biden.
Such top-line support levels can be ephemeral, but there are other good signs for Harris. The Monmouth poll showed her drawing equally from white and minority voters, and thus potentially developing the kind of broad base that Obama enjoyed in 2008.
All this early good feeling could, of course, wind up being as meaningless as Jeb Bush’s 2016 GOP front-runner status. But at this point, a lot of other actual and potential candidates would be happy to swap places with Kamala Harris.