It’s probably unfair to peg the beginning of the end of the preprimary winnowing stage of the 2020 Democratic presidential nominating contest to the announcement by Kamala Harris’s campaign of a “restructuring” (management-consultant-speak for layoffs, cutbacks, and redeployment of staff to a smaller workplace). After all, eight candidates (Bill de Blasio, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Seth Moulton, Tim Ryan, and Eric Swalwell) have already withdrawn from the race, and there are plenty of candidates still in who have bigger problems than Harris does (I’m looking at you, Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Beto O’Rourke, Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock, and Marianne Williamson) and/or who are trailing her in the national polling averages (you, too, Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, and Andrew Yang).
Still, none of these worthies did as well in the early going as Harris, who in early July, after her impressive performance in the first candidates’ debate, had a clear path to the nomination via Iowa, South Carolina, and California; an enviable position in the field and in the party; and all the momentum in the world. I’m not going to go into the various factors (some being Harris’s mistakes, others being things beyond her control) that have led to her diminished standing, but there’s no mistaking the danger involved in this sort of development shortly before voters begin voting:
Kamala Harris is dramatically restructuring her campaign by redeploying staffers to Iowa and laying off dozens of aides at her Baltimore headquarters, according to campaign sources and a memo obtained by Politico Wednesday, as she struggles to resuscitate her beleaguered presidential bid.
The moves come as Harris is hemorrhaging cash and in danger of lacking the resources to mount a competitive bid against better-funded rivals in Iowa. The overhaul will touch nearly every facet of Harris’ operation, with layoffs or re-deployments coming at headquarters, as well as in New Hampshire, Nevada and her home state of California, a Super Tuesday prize that her advisers once viewed as a big asset.
You can call this sort of all-in-on-Iowa approach (first signaled last month when Harris famously said “I’m f*****g moving to Iowa!”) a change in strategy, or you can call it a final resort. We won’t know for sure until we see if it does her any good. An internal memo from campaign manager Juan Rodriguez put the best face on it available:
Plenty of winning primary campaigns, like John Kerry’s in 2004 and John McCain’s in 2008, have had to make tough choices on their way to the nomination, and this is no different.
Trouble is, it’s hard to think of what constitutes the “plenty” of candidates in that sentence, beyond Kerry and McCain, former front-runners who went through swoons in polling at about this same stage of the cycle. Still, it could work if Harris plays error-free baseball, repeats her boffo June debate performance a time or two, and gets lucky. Likely other candidates have simply managed better to hide their own “restructuring” cutbacks (you don’t read much about what appears to be a pretty serious pruning in Cory Booker’s once-formidable Iowa field operation). But in any event, you cannot blame Team Harris for spinning madly in this situation. It’s what every campaign does.
That’s not because of some uniquely dishonest characteristic of politics (that’s a separate discussion), but because signs of weakness are like chum in the water in the highly competitive shark tank of a presidential nominating contest. A campaign needs donors to keep giving, volunteers to keep volunteering, and most of all, for (usually) underpaid staff to keep working up to and beyond the point where paychecks vanish altogether. Many’s the campaign that can’t meet its payroll after looking beneath the sofa cushions for enough spare change to do that one big ad buy sure to turn everything around. The belief that “restructuring” is a temporary setback, or just a strategic retreat, is key to survival.
The spinning can go to absurd lengths, of course. In Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter Thompson offered a hilarious fable that’s not too far from reality:
The man who has been called The Lowest Underdog of Our Time today denied rumors that all but one of his financial backers have stopped payment on checks formerly earmarked for media time and staff salaries in what some observers have called “a hopeless campaign.” Sen. Otto “Slim” Mace, under indictment on twelve charges of Tax Fraud, told reporters at a special news conference at the Ace Hotel that in fact he has “more money than I know what to do with” and that his headquarters phone has been tied up for days with calls from “extremely important people” now working for his opponent who say they plan to quit and come to work for Sen. Mace.
“Needless to say, I am not free at this time to release any names,” the Senator explained. “But I expect we will hire quite a few of them and then roll on to victory.”
All campaigns are brilliantly successful until they end, one way or the other. We’re definitely at the point in this cycle where some campaigns will begin to fold and others probably should. But you can’t blame them for holding out hope for that full-court hook shot at the buzzer until voters make the final score official.