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A Brief History of 2020 Democrats Rebooting Their Struggling Campaigns

Kamala Harris is the latest Democrat to attempt a campaign reboot. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Campaign flagging? Reboot it. Strategy not working? Reset it. Running for president in a crowded field of Democrats and desperate for attention? Flip your campaign upside down and tell the world you’re starting over.

With so many Democrats angling for a breakout moment in the party’s presidential primary, reboots, resets, and rethinks have become as much a part of the race as arguing over health-care policy. Here’s a look back at all of the 2020 Democratic candidates’ attempts to change course.

Kamala Harris

The latest candidate to shake things up is California senator Harris. Late Wednesday, Politico reported that Harris is “putting her stumbling campaign on the line with a new Iowa-or-bust strategy.” She’s turning her attention away from high-dollar fundraisers and toward the folks on the prairie who, in four short months, could decide her fate. That means doubling her 65-person staff in Iowa and making weekly visits to the state she hasn’t touched down in since August. As she joked to Hawaii senator Mazie Hirono on Wednesday, “I’m fucking moving to Iowa.”

This isn’t even the first reboot for Harris, who in May attempted to “reset her campaign after stagnating in Democratic-primary polls, using her strengths as a prosecutor … to mount a sharp indictment of Mr. Trump,” the Times reported.

Joe Biden

For a guy who has been atop the polls since the moment he entered the race, Biden has seen more than his fair share of reboots. Following the first debate, and in the face of mounting criticism of his record on issues including busing and working with segregationists, Biden sought a “reboot” that Axios called the “wrap the bow” strategy. The idea was to deflect any criticism on issues regarding race by saying something like “If I was good enough for Obama, then I can’t be all bad.”

Several weeks later, ahead of the second Democratic debate, Senator Jack Reed told the Washington Examiner that Biden was “reconfiguring” his campaign. The plan? Start attacking rivals head-on. Presumably, this is why Biden said of Elizabeth Warren in the third debate, “I know that the senator says she’s for Bernie. Well, I’m for Barack. I think Obamacare worked.”

Cory Booker

Any moment now, Booker is going to have his breakout moment in the Democratic primary. Any. Moment. Now. Frustrated with his standing as a second-tier candidate, Booker sought a shake-up back in April. That’s when he launched a two-week national tour. Politico described it as a “new phase designed to sharpen his message and distinguish himself from the pack.” The tour also served as an acknowledgement that his “message of love and unity” had fallen flat. So it was time to reboot.

Pete Buttigieg

The South Bend mayor’s out-of-nowhere success might suggest that he needs to change nothing. But even wunderkinds need resets. Buttigieg’s came in late August when it became clear that after raising gobs of money, he also needed to get to work on the ground. So his campaign entered what his senior adviser Lis Smith called “phase three:” “Blow them out of the water with our organization and our organizational abilities.” It seems that means working to catch up to other campaigns in early caucus and primary states, and hiring a black outreach director.

Beto O’Rourke

No candidate has rebooted more than O’Rourke, who been trying for months to recapture the acclaim he won when he launched. In May, he tried to “reinvigorate” his campaign, the Washington Post reported, with an appearance on The View and an acknowledgement of his privilege. Up until that point, he’d shunned national TV in favor of standing on bar tops and diner counters to talk to voters.

That new strategy lasted about two months. By late July, after his lackluster showing in the first debate, O’Rourke’s aides told Yahoo News he was planning to reintroduce himself at the second debate by “trying to achieve a delicate balance, coming across forcefully without seeming overly aggressive.”

Then, in early August, a gunman went on a rampage in El Paso, O’Rourke’s hometown. The candidate spent nearly two weeks off the campaign trail and emerged with yet another new strategy: a campaign focused on gun control. The late-August shooting spree in West Texas further solidified the strategy, which had come to include a new catchphrase: “This is fucked up.” He followed this with a declaration in the third debate, “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” drawing criticism from Republicans and some Democrats who think the line may make it harder to pass bipartisan gun legislation.

Bernie Sanders

With perhaps the most die-hard fan base of any of the Democrats, it stands to reason that Sanders would just need to keep on doing what he’s doing. But in late May, he unveiled what CNN called a “new strategy”: He started taking selfies after campaign events. Then in August, Politico reported that the “stalled Sanders campaign orchestrated [a] reboot” with “a renewed focus” on Medicare for All.

Elizabeth Warren

The Massachusetts senator caused trouble for herself several months before she even launched her campaign with an ill-considered DNA test meant to address the questions around her claims of Native American ancestry. By the time she launched her campaign, it was itself seen as a reboot of her image, or as the Post put it, a chance to “reset the conversation about her candidacy and refocus it on her message of bolstering the middle class.”

A Brief History of 2020 Democrats’ Campaign Reboots