There is a toxic little narrative perking along among conservative media outlets, holding that Vice-President Kamala Harris is a deeply and increasingly unpopular politician whose “disastrous” tenure as vice-president is a millstone around the neck of Joe Biden and a calamity-in-waiting for the Democratic Party. It’s hardly surprising that writers who worship at the altar of Donald Trump would have a particular disdain for someone he smeared as “a monster and a communist.” And you don’t need a bloodhound to discern why conservatives frustrated with their inability to take down Uncle Joe Biden would prefer to go after a younger Black woman.
But because the Harris is so unpopular narrative could become self-fulfilling if not challenged now and then, it’s useful to take a look at her numbers and what may lie behind them.
It’s important to note from the get-go that only a handful of public-opinion outlets regularly test the popularity of the vice-president. So this or that assertion about her popularity is by necessity based on limited data. RealClearPolitics has just three pollsters with favorability numbers on Harris since January, and just two since mid-June. One of the most regular barometers of her popularity, the Economist/YouGov tracking poll, showed Harris’s favorability ratio at 48 percent favorable/46 percent unfavorable in early March and at 46 percent favorable/48 percent unfavorable in late July. If, as one Federalist article recently claimed, Harris’s popularity is “plummeting,” it’s not showing up there. But the more relevant issue is how Harris compares to other prominent pols and to her most recent predecessors.
The most recent Politico-Morning Consult tracking poll that shows Harris at an unimpressive 46 percent/47 percent favorability ratio places her predecessor Mike Pence at 43 percent/48 percent and her disparager-in-chief Donald Trump at 43 percent/54 percent. She’s not as popular as Joe Biden (whose approval ratio is 52 percent/45 percent), but is more popular than Nancy Pelosi (36 percent/55 percent), Chuck Schumer (31 percent/42 percent), Kevin McCarthy (25 percent/41 percent), or Mitch McConnell (25 percent/55 percent). Harris’s favorability ratio is actually identical to that of Democrats in Congress, which suggests that far from being a handicap for Democrats, she is herself perceived as a generic Democrat.
Comparisons of Harris to her vice-presidential predecessors are tricky, because in less polarized times they often started with high favorabiity before slumping later. Joe Biden’s favorability ratio per Gallup was 53 percent/29 percent in January of 2009; 48 percent/26 percent in July of 2009, and then down to 42 percent/40 percent — roughly where Harris is now — by that October. At that point his favorable rating was 13 points lower than Barack Obama’s, which makes the current seven-point gap between Biden and Harris looks less formidable.
Dick Cheney begin his vice-presidency with a relatively lofty 62 percent favorability rating (per Pew Research), which remained steady during the initially successful Iraq War, and then fell by one-half to end at 31 percent. More typical of the current environment is Pence, whose favorability ratio started out just above water and then was net negative more often than not. To date, his overall average favorability ratio as compiled by RealClearPolitics dating back five years is 44 percent/47 percent. Harris’s RCP average since September of 2018 is 45 percent/46 percent. The idea that she is somehow uniquely flawed is just not supported by the data.
As I have previously noted, Joe Biden hasn’t done Kamala Harris a lot of favors with the issues on which he has chosen to give her a visible role: a highly controversial and possibly intractable situation along the southern border, and a voting-rights drive that is being outrun by Republican voter-suppression laws in the states and halted by a Republican filibuster bloc in the Senate that no power seems able to get Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to break. Harris does not deserve poor personal publicity for the administration’s problems in either area, and the recent surge of anonymous charges of disarray on Harris’s staff (largely assigned to her by the president) smacks of Republicans and potential Democratic rivals being in off-the-record cahoots.
In any event, there’s no real evidence that Kamala Harris is a handicap for her president and her party, much less “Joe Biden’s biggest mistake,” as one conservative writer recently claimed. She should get credit for overcoming racist and sexist downgrading of her qualifications and performance, and is due a few breaks. She is certainly a savvy enough politicians to take advantage of them when they arrive.