vision 2020

Kamala Harris’s Long Road to an Early Exit

Inside her promising rise and painful fall.

Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

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When Kamala Harris announced her presidential campaign in January, Rachel Maddow told her, “I think there is a good chance that you are going to win the nomination.” Soon after, Harris’s 20,000-plus-person kickoff rally in Oakland exceeded expectations set by party chiefs who saw in her an aspirational candidate who could represent the heart of the party both ideologically and demographically. Six months later, when the California senator challenged Joe Biden onstage at the first debate in Miami — surprising everyone, and delivering the most memorable lines of the campaign — her moment seemed to arrive.

But Harris was uneasy even as she vaulted toward the field’s top tier in the ensuing days. She cringed at how the coverage was painting her as the race’s anti-Biden attack artist, not as a nimble realist able to build consensus between the party’s warring factions, as she believed herself to be. She hesitated as some advisors encouraged her to re-embrace the strategy and single out Biden again in the next debate, in Detroit. She delivered no scripted strike, and instead took a pummeling from him and others now eager to take her down a peg. “That wasn’t great,” campaign donors told her at suddenly nervy private fundraising events over the next few days. “That’s an understatement,” she responded.

Harris, however, never reversed and went after Biden. That, she told her inner circle, wasn’t her. Instead, until late this fall — just weeks before she pulled the plug on her campaign on Tuesday afternoon, after reviewing its finances and chances over the Thanksgiving weekend — Harris routinely insisted that she was still introducing herself to Americans. But Harris’s campaign, dogged for months by questions about her health-care stance, her political ideology, and, ultimately, her staff’s infighting, never seemed to settle on a single consistent answer to a question voters kept asking: What was she about? At times on the trail, she presented herself as a matter-of-fact progressive, a comforter-in-chief, and an unapologetic prosecutor. Harris, and those who’ve known her for decades, insist all of these are accurate descriptors, but that at her core she’s a results-oriented pragmatist with a long-running disdain for ideological boxes. That, they often said, is precisely what the country could have used right about now. Yet as Harris tried appealing to as broad a swath of the Democratic electorate as possible, she found that in an overflowing field led by three far better-known characters, being a consensus-style candidate who can offer something to everyone meant it was especially difficult to offer everything to anyone.

When Harris sat down over the weekend to re-evaluate her plans and dig deep into her campaign’s financial state after a pair of brutal reports from the New York Times and Washington Post, she saw an operation quickly running out of cash and low on realistic paths to victory, even though she already qualified for the December debate. She spoke with family and close aides, and considered both her short-term options and her political future beyond the primary race. On Monday, she determined there was no politically acceptable way for her sputtering campaign to keep competing. She opted for an abrupt halt to a fall that would have been unfathomable back in Oakland in January, but which could have worsened in the unforgiving Iowa winter.

It would soon get harder, but at the time, the aftermath of the Detroit debate felt like a new low for Harris’s campaign. Looking back four months later, that stretch crystalized what went wrong. As she struggled to find a meeting of minds with the voters she needed between spring and fall — while Biden held onto his support and Elizabeth Warren gained steam — Harris and her team tried out a series of different messages. They didn’t stop trying until they ultimately settled on “Justice Is on the Ballot” late this year. Some political allies urged her to return to the “fearless” message she’d used while running for Senate in 2016. (“Fearless” was also the name of a TV ad she’d ran that was based around footage of Warren praising her.) Others grumbled that her early focus on “truths” meant little to voters, and that her subsequent “3 A.M. Agenda” wasn’t ambitious enough. “Sometimes her over-preparation comes across as a lack of preparation,” said one of her advisors. Still, most in Harris’s corner were convinced that she was close to hitting the right note. “The political consultant class gnashes their teeth over this — they have to market a product,” a Harris friend and longtime political ally told me this fall. “The problem that they have is: She is what she is. She’s complicated.” After the second debate, her team advised her to start telling more personal stories on the campaign trail, fearing the career prosecutor who was campaigning on her toughness was coming across as too lawyerly.

But then, and throughout the campaign, the advice wasn’t always consistent. “I don’t know who’s in charge,” one former Harris aide who remains close with her team told me repeatedly over the summer and fall. Harris has long been surrounded by a wide array of advisors — in addition to campaign chair Maya Harris (her sister), and campaign manager Juan Rodriguez, there were strategists Sean Clegg, Ace Smith, and Laphonza Butler, former chief of staff Rohini Kosoglu, adman Jim Margolis, and pollster David Binder, among others. “It’s a Kamala thing to have 9,000 people whispering in her ears, thinking they’re running the show,” said another of her ex-aides.

For nearly a year, her allies privately downplayed the importance of Iowa’s caucuses and New Hampshire’s primary to their ultimate strategy, insisting her strength would come in the more diverse Nevada and South Carolina, and then in the big March-voting states, beginning with California. But over the fall and early winter, Harris was forced to effectively shutter her campaign outside of Iowa and, to a lesser extent, South Carolina, in a dramatic but uncertain attempt to free up whatever resources were available for a last-ditch run at those states. (“I’m fucking moving to Iowa,” she was overheard telling Senator Mazie Hirono this fall.) As she slipped into fifth place or worse in national polling, and as she fell far behind in the first-to-caucus state where she bet it all, she cut her payroll and struggled to raise money, all while fighting off a widening stream of stories about disarray among remaining aides. Staff morale plummeted, and private finger-pointing burst into public, with her campaign manager and her sister mired in the middle.

Evidence existed that Harris was connecting with the voters who were still coming to see her and her latest message while she hosted intimate meet-ups and voter dinners — she often ended events hugging and consoling crying Iowans who’d just revealed stories of runaway health-care costs or job loss or gun violence. But her crowds were frequently dwarfed by most of her front-running rivals, as once-Kamala-curious Iowans who’d first seen her lighting up Jeff Sessions, Bill Barr, and Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill gravitated elsewhere in the intervening months. And positive November developments — a well-received speech at the same closely-watched pre-caucus fundraising dinner that breathed life into Barack Obama’s campaign in 2007, an endorsement from the influential United Farm Workers union, Thanksgiving in Iowa, and a debate performance widely seen as a much-needed rebound — did little for her polling, which was stuck in mid-single digits, or her fundraising, which flatlined, then bottomed out. Where she was once a widely-liked contender frequently named as voters’ second choice candidate, her net favorability rating dropped by about 25 points in Iowa between June and November, according to in-state polling.

On a gray afternoon late this fall, Harris sat across from me on the second floor of a t-shirt shop in Cedar Rapids, her final stop on a three-day, six-town swing in the eastern part of the state, and explained that she thought voters had a hard time grasping her candidacy because they’d never seen a presidential hopeful quite like her.

Throughout her campaign, Harris, 55, projected a “Can you believe this shit?” air in public when talking about Donald Trump or the day’s latest outrage. But in person, when she was comfortable, she was more analytical. She could be startlingly jocular at times — once, in August, when we were finishing an interview on her campaign bus, rolling up to a Muscatine senior center where she’d lead the residents in a game of bingo, she exuberantly burst out singing, “B-I-N-G-O!” and exhorted her heretofore quiet aides to join in. But she was more often deliberate. Still, as her campaign matured and fumbled, she grew more open to allowing glimpses of how the Trump age and the presidential race hit her personally, which occasionally meant barely masking her frustration.

At the t-shirt shop, she raised her eyebrows and, with a little smile that then turned serious, said she’d been thinking about something, and was going to try it out on me. She was going to say a phrase, and would ask what image I pictured in response. “The boy next door,” she said, then paused. That week, all the buzz on the ground in the state had been about Pete Buttigieg. “There is an image there. And you can think about certain people on the debate stage that could be attributed to.”

“Are there four words who would describe who I am? There’s no frame of reference,” she continued. Exactly a week later she’d announce a mass staff layoff and underscore the extent of her bet on Iowa, to try and catch up to Buttigieg, but also Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Warren. “Like, we have terms for that guy. He’s the boy next door. That’s your uncle, who’s at the Thanksgiving dinner, who does this thing and that. There are images. The girl next door, there’s an image for that, too.”

“Is there enough time?” one of Harris’s longest-standing political allies asked me as early as September. “I don’t know.” A few weeks later, most of the political world had decided, basically, that there was not. That didn’t stop Harris advisors from pointing out that in late 2003 — the last time a Republican president loathed by the left was up for re-election — John Kerry still trailed Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt in Iowa, which he then won. Perhaps thinking it unwise to compare herself to Kerry, Harris never talked much about that race. But late this fall, after months of pleas from her aides to tell more personal stories, she started speaking about her own time in Iowa 12 years ago, door-knocking for another candidate who was still far behind at that point. Obama’s campaign, too, was described as listless and overmatched before its own Iowa relaunch.

Often, she’d tell the story of meeting an elderly woman at an African-American senior center in Des Moines the night before the 2008 caucuses and convincing her to turn out for Obama even after the woman told her, “They not gonna let him win.” Harris would make the case that her challenge was simply convincing voters she could beat Trump. But by that point, the comeback she’d need just to stay in the game in Iowa — a state where voters and kingmakers pride themselves on their discernment and their patience in making up their minds — was far bigger than both Obama’s and Kerry’s were. In October, I spotted former Iowa Representative Dave Nagle hanging out in the back of a Harris town hall in Waterloo. Nagle, who left Congress 26 years ago and hasn’t endorsed any 2020 candidate, praised Harris’s ambitions in the state, but was far from convinced: He said she had dropped by his office building earlier in the year for a separate meeting, but had neglected to stop by and say hello to him. “As Charlie Brown said, there’s no greater burden than great potential,” he said.

At the time, Harris’s advisors were insisting she could still win if she finished in the top three in Iowa (some privately said top two), and they hoped Trump’s impeachment would return the former prosecutor to voters’ minds. Harris herself, though, hesitated to call the inquiry good for her campaign when Nancy Pelosi first announced it. When I asked her the next day, by phone, whether her history in law enforcement might give her an opening during months of impeachment talk, she replied, “Well, I mean, I suppose there is that.” Soon, though, she became convinced she could make up ground by focusing on Trump: She took to calling him a “walking indictment in a red tie.” Later in the fall, she told me: “He literally told us who he is when he said, ‘I could shoot somebody on 5th Avenue.’ He was saying, ‘I can commit a crime,’ meaning, ‘I’m willing to think that I might, and if I do, I would get away with it.”

Still, “I understand!,” she said of voters’ hesitation while addressing a local party fundraiser in a dark DoubleTree hotel ballroom in Cedar Rapids in October. “People are saying, ‘Maybe it’s not your turn, maybe it’s not your time,’” she continued, over the clink of silverware. “But I will tell you, Linn County, I’ve heard this conversation in every campaign I have — and now here’s the operative word — won.” She was trying to convince Iowans she was still worth considering as her campaign — running perilously low on cash — scrambled to raise enough money to put a new ad on air, or even online. She repeated the line until the campaign’s final days.

Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

The first time I heard a journalist straight-up ask Harris if she would run for president was less than two months after she joined the Senate in 2017. The first time one of her then-likely opponents described to me why she’d be a serious contender was that summer. The first time I heard someone in her orbit outline her possible path to the nomination was before the midterms. This autumn, when it was becoming clear that Harris was struggling to break through to the surprisingly solid top rank of candidates, I started hearing from a quiet cadre in her orbit that believed if she could find a way to last long enough in the race — deep into next year — she might be well positioned to compete in a contested convention next July. That view gained purchase among some of her most loyal supporters, who saw a drawn-out fight as a very long-shot best-case scenario.

But others, including many in her inner circle, wondered how much longer Harris would be willing to stay in a race where she was stuck responding to others and unable to gain attention on her own terms. One of their concerns: That Harris’s name would remain on the California ballot even if she was no longer a viable candidate by the state’s March primary, which could lead to an embarrassing result that further weakened her political standing at home. Even after what Harris’s team thought was a standout performance at November’s debate, it was Buttigieg who gained the most potential new supporters in its immediate aftermath, according to FiveThirtyEight’s overnight polling. Among some aides and allies, whispers about Harris’s future were common — whether she might have a future in someone else’s presidential cabinet; whether she might have to worry about a primary challenge to her Senate seat in 2022; or if there might be room for her to run for the presidency again in 2024 (if Trump is re-elected) or 2028. “I do think she has another shot at this,” said Randi Weingarten, the influential president of the American Federation of Teachers union, in late October.

Harris herself never talked this way, of course — until the final days, she’d pepper her speeches with “I intend to win!” — but she thought, and spoke, more about representation, and what her candidacy meant, in recent weeks. “The feeling that I have, the sense of responsibility to be on that stage, and to do well on that stage because of that responsibility — I never want to disappoint anybody,” she told me in Cedar Rapids, reflecting on her status as the most prominent black woman candidate ever, and just the second since Shirley Chisholm nearly half a century earlier, and a child of immigrants. This was a conversation she’d had with her family when she first decided to run, she said. “Because I know what being on that stage means to a lot of people, and for a lot of people. And I carry that, as something that is heavy. Meaning it is very important.”

Harris’s struggle to get the right voters to truly understand her pitch began the day after her Oakland launch. Rarely has a campaign gone from such a high to damage control so immediately. Speaking with Jake Tapper in Des Moines for a televised town hall, Harris answered a question about private health-care coverage by unspooling a long answer about insurance company bureaucracy that included the line, “Let’s eliminate all of that, let’s move on.” Harris had been the first senator to sign onto Sanders’s famous Medicare for All bill a year-and-a-half earlier, but she’d also co-sponsored a more modest scheme that would permit private insurance in some cases, so it wasn’t yet clear how she’d position herself in the race. The next day, a Harris advisor told CNN she would be open to moderate proposals allowing for some private insurance coverage, and thus began a mind-numbing saga that turned into a media proxy for Harris’s ideological flexibility and unwillingness to be pinned down on policy. In April, she told Pod Save America: “I’m not saying we need to get rid of private insurance.”

By May, she was trying to get off the health-care topic as she leaned into her prosecutorial experience on the trail as a way of contrasting directly with Trump, a pivot that inflamed internal campaign tensions — and questions about decision flow — that were never resolved. On one side was Harris’s sister Maya, her campaign chair who is especially attuned to the activist left. On the other was a set of Harris’s strategists including Clegg and Smith, who saw more opportunity in a more moderate tack. Then, in June, she raised her hand on the debate stage when asked if candidates would “abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan,” only to, afterward, say she thought the question was if she’d give up her own coverage. Finally, in July, Harris released her own plan, with a longer transition period away from private insurance than Sanders’s, but a narrative was already set about her caution and perceived flip-flops. It was en vogue then to compare her to Marco Rubio — a GOP Establishment favorite “candidate of the future,” until he wasn’t, in 2016 — or, as Nate Silver did, to Mitt Romney: “Hits all her marks, positioned quite optimally toward the middle of the primary electorate and has the potential to unite different wings — but voters aren’t entirely clear what she stands for,” he tweeted late that month.

For left-wing activists already suspicious of Harris because of her prosecutorial record, it was all further evidence that she was no true progressive. For wary moderates and conservatives, it was reason enough to think she stood for radical change. All the while, Biden’s support was holding firm and Warren’s was only growing, contrary to the long-standing projections of Harris’s inner circle. Behind the scenes, aides agreed Harris needed a serious fix, and soon, but the lack of a clear chain of command bogged down their decision-making, and territorial tensions ruled out collaboration between some of the team’s most important players.

Yet Warren’s rise through the summer was also forcing Harris into a conversation she found counterproductive, especially during her first extended tour of Iowa, in August. “No false choices” had been something of a personal slogan of hers earlier in her career, and she now saw no contradiction in saying one day that she was not trying to restructure society and another standing for the Green New Deal and eliminating the Senate filibuster to achieve it. Harris refused to pinpoint herself on the Biden-to-Sanders political spectrum, even when asked point-blank. “I think it’s just a nice subject for a graduate class, but it’s not how people are living life,” she told Bloomberg. Later that day, while meeting with farmers in Lacona, Iowa, she said, unprompted, “You don’t have the luxury of engaging in some intellectual political conversation about what we need to grow and thrive.”

“It is frustrating,” she said to me the next day on her shiny black campaign bus (with “KAMALA” written on its side in yellow, blue, and red). “And it’s frustrating because — I mean, this sounds so cliche — but it’s the labels, right? And it tends to oversimplify issues, and it tends to reward or induce a requirement to have really discrete — and not many — categories. And so, ‘Which of these few categories do you fit in?’ Those categories that have been pre-designated, by the way, by other people. And I just refuse to do that.” She leaned forward with her arms crossed, sitting across from a map of the state stuck up on the wall with pins marking her stops in the state. A handful of aides sat around, listening quietly and nodding knowingly. Some pretended not to be listening in. They’d all heard this from her before, and would again. This question “never comes up with voters,” she said. “It never comes up with voters Never! Voters don’t have time for that.”

Harris then decided to play strategist. Upon leaving the state, she called each member of her senior staff. The political territory in Iowa felt more fertile than expected, she told them, and, recalling her time campaigning for Obama in 2007, she said she saw an opportunity to compete seriously there if she could spend enough time on the ground to prove she could win. She directed Rodriguez to draw up an entirely new plan: To make sure she’d now have enough resources to compete in Iowa and increase her in-state staffing, and to fill the fall with stops in the state. In September, she announced her first surprise pivot to Iowa. Soon after, she redrew her campaign’s organization to give Kosoglu a formal role and hand Butler direct reports, aiming to establish order.

That discipline never arrived, and she also spent nearly all of late August and September off the trail, raising money — which was supposed to come easier to her given her history running high-dollar campaigns in California, but which was both an increasingly difficult task amid Buttigieg’s rise and her plateauing polls, and doubly important to fund her Iowa push. For over a month, she didn’t visit Iowa. When she started returning, her crowds were smaller, the focus elsewhere. With the media’s eyes on other candidates, Harris resumed talking about health-care — promoting her proposal’s protection of union workers’ plans, and calling it “Medicare for All.”

A few weeks later, she tried putting a more positive spin on the lingering questions about her political identity. Harris was in Los Angeles, taking a quick break from a West Coast fundraising swing, and when I asked about her struggles explaining her health-care position to a national audience, she grew reflective. “It can often just be the inability to see something they’ve never seen before, so they want to put it in a box that they have seen before. So it’s maybe an oversimplification. That’s the challenge, really,” she said, sounding far less exasperated than on the bus, slightly more at peace with this existential challenge. She was “asking people to see something they’ve never seen before. And I know it is asking a lot, and I say, based on experience: I know people are up for it.”

In September, a Los Angeles Times survey revealed that Democratic voters identified Harris as their closest ideological fit, after all. A week later, a poll conducted by Binder, working for another client, showed her slipping into sixth place in Iowa, down 13 points from mid-summer.

Since the day Harris launched her campaign in January, some Democrats in her orbit wondered aloud whether it’d be worth starting a super PAC to support her. The notion was always knocked down as other candidates rejected help from such outside groups, but the idea never quite died.

Late Tuesday morning, operatives monitoring TV ad spending noticed that a brand-new super PAC had started placing buys to run a pro-Harris spot in Iowa. It was a last-ditch, million dollar effort created by long-time aides to prop her up as her own campaign effectively ran out of cash as she criss-crossed the state. The cavalry wasn’t quite arriving to save her, but here, at least, was a much-needed last-second boost. The plan was to air a minute-long video that featured Harris grilling Barr, Kavanaugh, and Sessions, and closed by calling her “the Democrat for president that Donald Trump fears most.”

Early Tuesday afternoon, Harris got on a conference call with what remained of her campaign staff. She thanked them for their work, but told them this was the end of the road.

“I’ve taken stock and looked at this from every angle, and over the last few days have come to one of the hardest decisions of my life. My campaign for president simply doesn’t have the financial resources we need to continue,” she wrote in a final email to supporters. “I’m not a billionaire. I can’t fund my own campaign. And as the campaign has gone on, it’s become harder and harder to raise the money we need to compete. In good faith, I can’t tell you, my supporters and volunteers, that I have a path forward if I don’t believe I do.”

Within an hour, the super PAC canceled its ad buy.

Kamala Harris’s Long Road to an Early Exit