There’s nothing terribly surprising about how Elizabeth Warren’s campaign is playing out.
She’s scoring big points for her seriousness, reflected in a raft of detailed policy proposals. But many Democratic leaders and voters experience her as too strident, and she scares big donors, especially those in the financial industries.
Bernie Sanders is trundling toward the primaries as expected – with intense devotion from many of the progressives who rallied around him in 2016 and with concerns about his appeal to minorities, whom he’s courting more aggressively than ever before.
But what to make of Kamala Harris?
As she announced her candidacy in late January, on the observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday, she was on fire. She drew a huge crowd for her first big campaign event, in Oakland, and an enormous television audience for a CNN town hall that showed her to be both fierce and funny.
But a second CNN town hall was an altogether different affair: She came across as timidly noncommittal, feeding a growing chorus of complaint from party strategists and political commentators that her footing was unsure and her momentum was gone. More important, she struggled then – and struggles still – with a question of transcendent importance in a field of contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination as bloated as this one: Why her and not one of her many rivals? What’s distinctive about her message and credentials?
She’s differentHere’s one answer: She can lay claim to blazing trails in a way that many of them can’t. Her ancestry is Jamaican on her father’s side, Indian on her mother’s, and she was the first black woman and the first Asian-American woman to be the district attorney of San Francisco and then the attorney general of California. She’s only the second black woman elected to the Senate.
That, coupled with the intelligence and poise on display whenever she grills one of the witnesses before the Senate Judiciary Committee, has created more excitement and interest than many of the other Democratic candidates can muster.
And yet she has not yet received the sort of gushing star treatment from the media that Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg, two handsome and clean-cut Ivy League grads, have: a discrepancy that, I think, says as much about us as it does about her.
O’Rourke, not Harris, got the cover of Vanity Fair. Buttigieg, not Harris, got the covers of New York magazine and Time.
To judge by that, you’d never know that she out-raised Buttigieg by $5 million in the first quarter of the year or that her second CNN town hall had the most viewership among a sequence of five consecutive CNN town halls – the other four showcased Buttigieg, Warren, Sanders and Amy Klobuchar – on the same night.
You wouldn’t know that in a Morning Consult poll, her support from 7% of Democratic voters nationwide put her 1 percentage point above Buttigieg and 2 above O’Rourke. (She trailed the third-place finisher, Warren, by 1 point; Joe Biden had the lead with 40 and Sanders was second with 19.) In a Harvard-Harris poll, Harris took third place, trailing only Biden and Sanders.
She tests usHer campaign, then, is a test not only of her mettle but of our biases and receptiveness. In terms of the latter, much of the “electability” chatter pivots explicitly or implicitly on the assumption that she and Warren would be at a disadvantage in the Rust Belt because white male voters would be less open to them than to Biden or Sanders. She addressed that head-on in a series of appearances in the Midwest over recent days, noting that there are plenty of minority voters in Midwestern cities.
One of her supporters, Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative, reminded Politico: “The only Democratic candidate to win the presidency in the last two decades was a black guy.”
Sellers also said that “we’ve allowed ‘working class’ to enter our lexicon and only mean white working class – and totally disregard a whole other swath of voters.” In the 2016 election, he added, “What we saw in Milwaukee, in Detroit and Philadelphia – we lost the presidency where we probably could have focused on those working-class voters of color just a little bit more.”
Be that as it may, Harris has important adjustments to make. She should take firmer positions, even at the risk of angering some voters. It signals character and strength, and sometimes the best way to win is to be willing to lose.
Let them inShe also needs to find better ways to draw on her life story and let voters in.
One of the keys to Buttigieg’s surprising emergence as a top-tier candidate is how lavishly he doles out so much of himself: his military service, his marriage to another man, his linguistic dexterity, his Christianity, his Midwestern roots and more. It allows voters many different points of connection and establishes him as more multi-dimensionally human than politicians usually seem to be.
But there’s little to no sign that Buttigieg has made a meaningful connection with black voters, who play a profoundly important part in the Democratic Party and whose turnout in a general election could be the difference between an end to Donald Trump’s presidency or four more years. That’s Buttigieg’s great challenge, one complicated by complaints that he was insufficiently sensitive to people of color as mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
Other top-tier candidates have other problems. Biden’s is his tendency toward ill-advised tangents, captured by a strange riff during his remarks at a campaign stop in Iowa.
He dismissed China as a serious economic rival of the United States. “China is going to eat our lunch?” he said. “Come on, man.” Referring to rampant corruption there, he concluded: “They’re not competition for us.”
He’s right that China wrestles with mighty internal tensions and growing pains that could severely diminish its velocity at any point. There’s room and cause for intelligent, nuanced observations about those and about the infinite reasons that the Chinese way – with its unbearable caps on individual liberty – isn’t to be envied by Americans. But he was flippant and misleading. China is competing with us, and it’s competing well, and if his strategy for the industrial Midwest is to tell displaced and anxious factory workers that their fears are hallucinatory, I doubt he’ll have the enormous traction in the region that his backers and many pundits project.
The other competitionSanders has to show voters something more and more varied than he did in 2016, lest his bid seem a tired, one-note rerun, and it’s unclear that he has that in him. He also lacks the warmth that commentators are so quick to insist on from female candidates, who are given demerits for the same perceived personality characteristics that are cast as quirks in Sanders.
It’s hard to figure out where O’Rourke stands right now: Ever since that Vanity Fair coronation, he has steered as clear of national media as Buttigieg has hurtled toward it, but he has been spending oodles of time and energy on the ground in early primary states, and that retail campaigning could pay off, especially given his undeniable skills on the stump.
As for Warren, my gut is that her worst patch – the DNA test – is behind her and that she’s on an upward swing. She has been very smart about tailoring her message and movements around who she is: a proud wonk. In that manner she is achieving the authenticity that so many voters crave.
But it’s my sense that Trump would have a harder time campaigning against Harris in a general election – that he would be more flummoxed by her – than against many of the other Democratic aspirants.
Certainly I agree with the opening language in a lengthy profile of Harris in The Atlantic this month: “No other match-up would be as riveting – or as revealing – as Harris versus Trump.”
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.