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Why Is Kamala Harris Struggling With Black Voters So Much?

Why Is Kamala Harris Struggling With Black Voters So Much?

Can she figure it all out?
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ben: As Ed detailed in a post yesterday, Kamala Harris still isn’t gaining much traction among black voters in the Democratic primary, coming in at below 10 percent in two recent national polls. Joe Biden continues to dominate among this group, but Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have recently both polled ahead of Harris, too. Harris’s showing stands in contrast to Barack Obama, who by this this point in 2007 was already posting impressive numbers in South Carolina, among other places, on his way to a decisive victory. Why do you think Harris is having so much trouble?

Ed: I’d offer three quick reasons: (1) History has already been made with Obama, so there’s less perceived need for African-Americans to unite behind a black candidate; (2) Obama was a world-historical figure by the time he announced in 2007; Harris is mostly known as a cleverly tactical pol; and (3) the Electability Terror of 2020.

Zak: I think Ed’s No. 3 is my best guess. Black voters want to beat Trump, and Biden has this unifying credential, in Obama’s vice presidency, that is interpreted as the closest option we’ve got to a candidate with broad enough appeal.

Ed: 2008 was thought of as an auspicious Democratic year at the time. W. was heading for the exits as a very unpopular president.  Democrats had won by a landslide in 2006. The financial collapse just made things harder for Republicans. So while there were some electability fears early on about Obama, they faded pretty fast.

Zak: People know what they’re getting with Biden, and they seem to be convinced that what they’re getting works. To the extent that Harris is even comparably well known, the historic nature of her campaign seems less imperative with four more years of Trump looming. And to the extent that her being more moderate than Warren or Sanders is meant to broaden her appeal, Biden seems like the safest of the moderate options. Folks who want a dyed-in-the-wool progressive are going to gravitate toward Sanders or Warren.

Ed: Yeah, as I noted, Harris isn’t just losing black voters to Biden; Warren and Sanders are doing pretty well there as well.

Ben: Do you think voter fear that a woman can’t get elected — which of course has been magnified after 2016 — plays a big role in all this?

Ed: Hard to say. Doesn’t seem to be hurting Elizabeth Warren much.

Zak: My sense is that’s secondary to how firmly people seem convinced that Biden is their best bet for beating Trump. Hillary got the nomination and won the popular vote in 2016, and Warren is polling well. If Biden and his credentials were off the table, my guess is that Harris would be right up there. In other words, I don’t think the majority of black voters think there’s anything particularly wrong or unelectable about Harris. She’s just running against Biden in the Trump era. And as we’ve seen with the debates and subsequent polling, it’s hard to disabuse folks of the notion that Biden is a good bet, no matter how much he does to challenge that notion.

Ed: The fact that Harris’s maximum moment of fame in this campaign so far was a direct challenge to Biden on his commitment to racial justice is fascinating. For a moment, it looked like it might simultaneously hurt Biden among black voters and elevate Harris to a point close to where Obama was in 2007. But then it faded.

Ben: It’s true that black voters may not think there’s anything particularly unelectable about Harris. But surely she’s played some role in her own troubles. Besides that one viral debate moment, which, as Ed said, briefly sent her into the stratosphere, she has been quite shaky on policy (her answers on health care are all over the place) and vision (seems to be synthesis of everyone else’s). If she had been more consistent, isn’t it plausible that she’d be in more direction competition with Biden by now?

Ed: Maybe, though Cory Booker has been more consistent and has some authentic appeal to African-Americans, and he’s in much worse shape than Harris.

Ben: Yeah, though I never thought he had much of a shot in the first place.

Zak: I think voters’ understanding of electoral viability is fairly set here. Biden’s resilience is a testament to that. I’m becoming less convinced with time that there’s much any candidate in that area between the perceived “safeness” of Biden and the progressive vision and energy of Warren and Sanders can do to make dramatic and lasting inroads against either.

The best thing Harris had going for her was being inspiring and historic. This just doesn’t seem to be an election where majorities of voters, black voters included, are especially invested in being inspired or making history.

Ed: According to some sources, Harris is now committed to making a splash in Iowa, apparently in the belief that that’s how Obama achieved his breakthrough moment with black voters in South Carolina. As I explained in my own post, Obama was doing very well among black voters in South Carolina and elsewhere before winning Iowa (though it did give him a boost into the front-runner’s role). And I think Harris has a really tough row to hoe in Iowa. Not because of her race or ideology, but because she’s really behind the curve there.

Ben: In your view, what is the most plausible way out of the spot Harris finds herself in today?

Zak: It would help to stake out a consistent political identity. Your observation earlier about how she’s hurting herself by being shaky and derivative on policy and overall vision was fair, I think.

Ed: Three things: (1) She has to play error-free baseball, from now on; no more bad or meh debate performances; (2) she needs to begin to inspire people on some issue or set of issues — she’s just way too tactical; and (3) Biden has to really screw up.

Number three is obviously beyond her control.

Ben: Maybe gaffe number 743 will do it.

Ed: There does always seem to be one just over the next hill, doesn’t there?

Why Is Kamala Harris Struggling With Black Voters So Much?

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