And we’re back. In Part 1, we talked about Elizabeth Warren’s challenges at home in Massachusetts, and by extension, New Hampshire. Of all candidates showing the vaguest of pulse, only Warren and Kamala Harris have a clear issue protecting their home state.
The others are either beyond safe (Biden & Bernie), likely safe as long as they’re otherwise viable (Beto), probably safe until proven otherwise (Buttigieg), or needing to worry about getting to the point where this is something to worry about (everyone else).
If you’ll permit me to make a cross-party comparison, Kamala is showing signs of being the Democrats’ version of Marco Rubio. Like Marco, she’s a first term senator, one who is widely acceptable to primary voters, without being the first choice of very many.
She was considered a top-tier candidate from the moment she made her announcement, in part because said announcement was predicted from the moment she won her seat.
Like Rubio, she has a completely legit campaign organization, and will be at least competitive on the funding side, if probably not the money leader. She’s similarly appealing due to youth and demographics. Marco was actually young, Kamala is young by comparison to Biden, Sanders & Warren.
Many Democrats figure a youngish woman of color is the perfect choice to turn out voters who stayed home on 11/8/16. Very similar to how Rubio was supposed to help the GOP break free of their reliance on older white voters.
As we know, things went in exactly the opposite direction. And the current polling leader, Biden, is effectively the inverse of Harris. Kamala’s mission is to avoid Marco’s fate.
There are two California polls from 2019. The first, from Quinnipiac in early April, had Harris a strong third (17%), barely trailing Sanders (18%), with Biden leading at 26%. That shows she has at least an adequate foundation.
Unfortunately, the two-point trend line is going the wrong way. By the early June LA Times/Berkeley edition, she dropped to 13%, trailing Warren (17%), Sanders (18%), and Biden (22%). In April, she had a 10 point lead on anyone trailing her. Now Mayor Pete is only 3 points back.
While Warren might be stuck in Massachusetts, she went from 10 behind Harris to 4 ahead in CA in two months. She’s the first or second choice of 35%, the highest number for any candidate.
Biden is the front-runner, Warren is surging, Bernie may have a base left over from 2016. Buttigieg is too close for comfort. Kamala is still very much in contention to win her home state, but this is a clear problem. Which brings up the same questions we had about Warren in Massachusetts:
Why did this happen?
Let’s start with a very clear Rubio parallel. Like California, Florida is big (this is the shocking insight you read this blog for). With multiple defined regions. Marco’s political base is in South Florida. Dade County (which includes Miami) being the epicenter. Though he’s now won two statewide elections for the Senate, Rubio isn’t equally popular throughout the state.
Trump destroyed him in the Panhandle, bested him along the I-4 corridor that goes through Orlando, finished ahead in Broward County, where numerous elderly New York expats reside, and Palm Beach County, where Mar-a-Lago sits. Everything beyond Rubio’s immediate neighborhood crumbled.
Kamala’s base is in Northern California. The Bay Area more specifically. Oakland where she was born, began her prosecutorial career, and held her kickoff rally, and San Francisco, where she served as a city attorney, then District Attorney most precisely. She is a protege of former SF Mayor Willie Brown.
As influential as the Bay Area is, most of the population is further south. Beyond fundraising attempts, she doesn’t have deep ties in Silicon Valley. That’s not her part of the Bay.
She’s won statewide twice. Attorney General in 2010, Senate in 2016. This isn’t the advantage you might think. California has a unique open primary system. The top two finishers, regardless of party, move on to the general election. Because the Golden State has a distinctly blue tint these days, this matchup is either two Democrats, or a Democrat who will definitely beat a Republican.
Unless an ex-CEO like Meg Whitman or Carly Fiorina spends the GDP of a good sized Micronesian island chain—that’s literally how much Whitman burned through running for governor in 2010—statewide elections have very little drama.
There’s another high-profile Californian of Kamala’s age. Governor Gavin Newsom. The two have studiously avoided competing. While Harris was SF DA, Newsom was Mayor. She moved to State Attorney General, he became Lieutenant Governor. No reason for either to risk losing when there was a path for both.
She’s never had to spend tons of time and money introducing herself to the voters of Southern and Central California. They know who she is, and the polls show they’re open to her. But she’s not theirs. They’re not hers.
Her nationwide issue of being widely acceptable, but not being as perfect a fit for a specific constituency is true in California too. Older, more moderate to conservative Democrats in the Central Valley and Inland Empire prefer Biden.
The youngest voters favor Bernie. The most liberal voters lean towards Warren or Sanders. The most educated prefer Buttigieg or Warren. Biden is polling well with African Americans. Latino voters skew younger, which goes back to Bernie again.
Though the last presidential nominee from California was Ronald Reagan in 1984, and nobody has won any nomination delegates since Jerry Brown in 1992, the state will wait until a candidate is doing well nationwide to get excited about a home grown choice. Swings in her local polling appear wider than her national polling. When she dropped by a couple points nationwide, it cost her more at home.
What can she do?
If Kamala wins one of the first four contests; Iowa (2/3), New Hampshire (2/11), Nevada (2/22), or South Carolina (2/29), she’ll be in great shape when California votes on March 3, the fifth voting day of the primary season. Easy, right? But which one?
Much like Rubio, she’s not a perfect fit for Iowa or New Hampshire. GOP candidates with strong ties to Christian conservatives tend to win Iowa. On the Democratic side, it’s usually either the overall polling leader, or the candidate with the most passionate followers.
If Harris is the overall polling leader by then, she’ll do fine everywhere, since her state-to-state numbers are mostly consistent. It’s highly unlikely she’ll have the army of young followers Barack Obama did in 2008 to knock on doors and get voters to caucus for her. If she’s not #1 overall, she’s not winning Iowa.
New Hampshire is evenly split between Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. The non-affiliated voters tend to swing the results, particularly when only one of the primaries is competitive. Both Bernie and Trump benefited from independent votes in their 2016 victories.
This isn’t Kamala’s strength. She’s a pretty partisan Democrat. Bernie has an advantage with left-leaning independents. Candidates perceived as more moderate, like Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke, should they remain viable at that point, will have an easier time with other independents. Plus there’s Biden, who is making cooperation between parties a main focus.
Only one nominee since 1972 (Bill Clinton, 1992) has failed to win either of the first two contests. And his situation was unique. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa was in the race, so nobody else contested it. Clinton finished second in New Hampshire. He then swept several contests on the next major voting day and took the nomination.
Faced with similar challenges, and the sort of large candidate field that would make beating the historical rules possible, Rubio’s team had a 3-2-1 plan. Finish third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, win South Carolina.
He got closer than most remember. Marco did take a strong third place finish in Iowa. He was as high as second in the polling averages in New Hampshire. Then he short-circuited in the debate, as Chris Christie bullied him into repeating answers in a continuous loop.
This was particularly surprising/troubling, because Rubio was a well above average debater overall. Like Kamala, his poll numbers faded after a strong launch, and as the first GOP debates started, he found himself in the 5-8% range with several competitors ahead of him. A series of strong performances helped Marco in to the top tier. It look time, but he regularly saw his polls improve after a debate.
In order to move her way up, Harris will need to consistently deliver on the debate stage as he did, and then avoid a horribly timed disaster.
John Kasich took advantage of the New Hampshire opening, and finished second. Rubio’s momentum was shot. He recovered to finish second in South Carolina, doing well enough to make it very plausible he could have won, if he’d only done better in the debate.
Kasich’s continued existence hurt Rubio with upscale suburban voters by just enough to cost him a few Super Tuesday wins. Which left him weak heading in to Florida and knocked him out.
Beyond debate performance, the other lesson here is the importance of knocking out competitors who are decent alternatives for voters considering her.
For potential Harris voters looking for a female candidate, and thinking Warren is too far left, Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand need to be eliminated in Iowa. Cory Booker is her clear non-Biden competitor for African American votes. If he reaches South Carolina, her odds decrease noticeably.
Mayor Pete’s base is with educated upper income, more informed voters, who tend to turn out and vote in primaries. If there is a single candidate Harris needs to attempt to knock out, it’s him. While their constituencies aren’t a mirror, both candidates are far younger than the other top tier choices. Each would represent a first.
To have a chance at winning South Carolina, African American voters will need to think she has a shot, that it’s worth consolidating votes behind her, instead of Biden. In 2008, the fulcrum for a similar switch from Hillary to Obama, was Nevada. Prior to that contest, Clinton led Obama in most Palmetto State polls. After a narrow win in the desert, voters moved en masse, and she never caught up.
Kamala and her team are very aware of this. They also know Hillary saved her campaign with a Nevada win in 2016. Team Sanders didn’t realize early enough how competitive they would be and didn’t begin organizing until it was too late. That, combined with a shove from Harry Reid, Democratic Party King of Nevada, made the difference.
Rubio didn’t have the ability to compete in Nevada that Harris does. Trump was a runaway winner. He also didn’t have a large potential voting bloc with a historical precedent of moving quickly based on recent results, waiting for him in South Carolina.
Kamala can move up the ladder, from good debate performances, to a strong third or fourth in Iowa, to second or third in New Hampshire, as Rubio would have done without the glitch. But she can also make a push in Nevada, where it’s going to be almost impossible for the lower-tier candidates to do much.
It’s right next door to her home. Her team focuses on the sort of state and local endorsements that can make a huge difference in a caucus state. Reid has indicated he’s staying neutral until after the caucus. This doesn’t mean he won’t tilt the scales a bit. But in the 2008 cycle he endorsed Obama early. In 2016 he clearly opposed Sanders.
Nevada is fragmented enough, and caucuses are unpredictable enough, for her to get a win. This would likely tilt South Carolina in a favorable direction and set her up very well for the duration. If she finishes behind Biden, Warren, and Sanders in some order in Nevada, you can turn out the lights.
Like millions of other Californians, Kamala is placing her biggest bets in Nevada.