It’s never been a secret that California senator Kamala Harris’s strategy for securing the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination is based on what Barack Obama was able to do in 2008, as I explained last year when Harris’s staff began publicly discussing her path to the nomination:
If this sounds familiar, that could be because it’s the strategy successfully pursued by another freshman senator with a multiracial background in 2008: establish your political chops by winning in nearly-all-white Iowa and then consolidate minority support in the South and in urban states with large African-American populations. Indeed, Harris has an advantage that Barack Obama did not enjoy: her own home state of California has moved its primary up until March 3, just after the initial quartet of events in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.
In the sports language often used (along with combat and gambling lingo) by political operatives, one of Harris’s people called this strategy: “the SEC primary meets the West Coast offense.” And it makes sense, on paper, particularly if Harris can go into South Carolina with a head of steam and win there.
A big part of the 2008 analogy involved Harris challenging Joe Biden’s early grip on African-American voters — particularly in South Carolina — much as Obama did to Hillary Clinton 12 years earlier. And when Harris managed to beat up on Biden in the first round of 2020 Democratic debates over his position on school desegregation back in the day, it looked like she might be well on her way to an Obama-style surge among black and white Democrats alike. It was particularly encouraging for her when a CNN national poll shortly after that debate showed her cutting Biden’s lead over her among nonwhite voters from 26 to 6 points.
But that poll now looks like an outlier, in part because Harris’s post-debate surge quickly dissipated, and in part because the second debate did not go her way at all. And when you compare her current progress to Obama’s at this point in the 2008 cycle, well, there’s no real comparison.
For one thing, Obama was solidly in second place in the Democratic field from practically the moment he announced his candidacy in February 2007. (Yes, the field was much smaller than today’s.) He never had to struggle like Harris to join the top tier of candidates. More often than not, she’s been closer to where 2008 candidates like Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and — ironically — Joe Biden were.
Just as importantly, Harris is nowhere close to matching Obama’s early strength among African-Americans. A late-July 2007 Pew survey of African-American Democrats showed Obama winning 34 percent — trailing Hillary Clinton’s 47 percent in that demographic but still within striking distance. By contrast, a late-July 2019 Quinnipiac poll had Harris at 7 percent among black voters, far behind Biden’s 55 percent. In an early-August YouGov survey, Harris was doing only marginally better among African-Americans with 7 percent, as opposed to Biden’s 33 percent. Perhaps even more ominously, Harris was running fourth (behind Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Biden) in the YouGov survey, and third (behind Sanders and Biden) in the Quinnipiac one. In the 2008 cycle, Clinton and Obama were the only candidates drawing serious attention from these voters.
In the pivotal state of South Carolina, where Harris has spent a lot of time and effort, her performance among that state’s African-Americans (who are traditionally a majority of the Democratic-primary electorate) is just not very impressive when compared to Obama’s in 2007. As was the case with African-American voters nationally, Obama was running very close to Clinton among black South Carolina Democrats in August 2007 (Clinton was at 44 percent, Obama at 41 percent, according to Insider Advantage). Meanwhile, a late-July 2019 Monmouth poll of black South Carolina Democrats showed Biden leading Harris by 51 percent to 12 percent.
There is a bit of conventional wisdom holding that Obama’s South Carolina breakthrough in 2008 was generated primarily by his victorious showing among white voters in the Iowa caucuses weeks earlier, the theory being that black voters didn’t commit to him until it was clear he was a viable national candidate with multiracial appeal. Team Harris appears to have decided it needs its own Iowa push as well; the candidate is suddenly spending more time and money there. There’s a bit of a hole in this argument, though: According to Insider Advantage, Obama had built a solid 54-21 lead over Clinton among South Carolina’s African-Americans by December 2007, before Iowa. Afterward, he did surge to his eventual 78-19 landslide among black voters in the Palmetto State, but he built that win over an extended period of time.
None of these numbers mean that Harris cannot catch up with Obama’s performance nationally and in South Carolina, or among black voters specifically. But she’s definitely behind schedule, and she has some other handicaps, including Biden’s relationship with Obama, a Democratic electorate (both black and white) obsessed with electability, and the simple fact that, for a variety of reasons (including Obama’s impossible-to-replicate historic breakthrough), Harris isn’t in some sort of zero-sum competition with one candidate for the core votes she needs. Indeed, she has problems with black Democrats (mostly because of her record as a prosecutor) that Obama never had to worry about.
So far, the silver lining for Kamala Harris is that one threat to her Obama-based strategy, the candidacy of fellow African-American Cory Booker (who also needs a South Carolina breakthrough), hasn’t taken off at all. But now that she’s taken one step forward and one step back during the first two rounds of debates, her margin for error is very small.