Reports of the Harris Campaign’s Demise Are Premature Because Pundits Have Failed to Read the Democratic Primary Crowd
The Reasons Why Harris Won Our November Subscribers’ Straw Poll Show Why She Is Still in the Game
By Al Giordano
“The essential task of the guerrilla fighter is to keep himself from being destroyed.”
Ernesto Che Guevara
There are still ten Democratic presidential candidates that met the tall polling and number-of-donor thresholds to qualify for last week’s debate and most of them will also make it to the sixth stage on December 21. Every time that one of them has appeared to take command of the contest each has been quickly knocked down a peg. It’s a wide-open primary, still. Most of the primary voters, whomever their current preference, tell pollsters they might well change their minds. It’s Black Friday but when it comes to the 2020 election everybody’s still window shopping.
Yet political reporters, pundits and social media loudmouths seem unusually eager to pronounce one of them dead on arrival. Why this obsession with taking Kamala Harris out of contention before the voters speak?
The morning after Thanksgiving, readers of the New York Times and the Washington Post were greeted with what were essentially political obituaries for the Harris campaign. Yes, it has been struggling. But so have the campaigns of Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and most of the rest. They’ve all struggled with obstacles and adversity and all have made serious mistakes (and if anyone believes Pete Buttigieg is not going to endure some hard hits – and that his self-inflicted wounds won’t bleed brighter under the Klieg lights – now that he’s emerged as flavor-of-the-month they need to study up on political history).
The Post article, by Chelsea Janes, opens with quotes by Senator Harris saying she feels both South Carolina and Iowa are important for the primaries (insert narrator’s voice: both are). Janes writes, “It was typical of Harris and her campaign, which has often displayed a desire to be everything to everyone.” (It is typical of political reporters to take an essentially true statement and, because truth necessarily includes nuance, portray it as some kind of a flip-flop, especially on slow news holidays.)
Janes’ evidence that the Harris campaign is doomed? She interviewed some unnamed Greenville, South Carolina voters, where “the crowd cheered Harris when she finished, then clamored forward for a selfie scrum.” Wait, that sounds like a healthy campaign, right? But according to Janes, “Here, as elsewhere, voters generally say they like Harris and haven’t ruled her out. But few identify her as their first choice.” So voters haven’t ruled her out, but she’s done for?
The rest of the Post piece rehashes previously reported stories of tensions between Harris campaign manager Juan Rodriguez and some other staffers, and the Bobby Kennedy-like role played by the candidate’s sister, Maya Harris, in the campaign’s strategy and tactics. For those of us who have worked in campaigns, we all know this is something quite commonly part of many campaign organizations. Operatives and staffers rise and fall in all campaigns, just as players on professional sports teams emerge or subside during the season. Campaigns are where talent and skill are tested. Unlike sporting events, though, they have real life consequences. Campaigns are by definition pressure cookers on their staffers. The truth is that every other presidential campaign is going through the exact same thing right now, whether its internal machinations are reported or not.
The New York Times story is titled “How Kamala Harris’ Campaign Unraveled,” and was penned by three dudes: Jonathan Martin, Astead W. Herndon and Alexander Burns. What? It took three reporters to take dictation for a hit job by a rival candidate (one who left fingerprints, as we’ll now demonstrate) and apparently there aren’t any women on the Times’ campaign staff who also had the necessary stenographic skills?
The Times piece leads with the resignation letter penned by the Harris campaign’s former “state operations director,” Kelly Mehlenbacher, a resignation “effective November 30, 2019,” in other words, tomorrow. What the Times failed to disclose is a fact Politico reported two days ago: Mehlenberger now works in a similar capacity for Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign – days before her resignation was to be official.
“This is my third presidential campaign and I have never seen an organization treat its staff so poorly,” wrote the newly minted Bloomberg staffer (now, two weeks later, on her “fourth” campaign). Mehlenberger, a 2007 graduate of Texas Tech University, according to her Linkedin page, worked as an accountant for the Clinton Campaign in 2008 and its treasury manager in 2016. She also did stints at USAid and the State Department when Hillary Clinton was SOS. But in the language of millennial whining she thinks herself a seasoned veteran of three (now four!) distinct presidential campaigns, yet in none did she serve in a decision-making position or worked directly with those making the tough strategy and campaign management decisions. Mehlenberger is a seasoned bean counter, perhaps: that doesn’t bring any special knowledge or experience on how campaigns are actually won and lost. Yet her letter reeks of her own presumption that she knows better than those who have won campaigns.
The Clinton campaigns – product of more than a quarter century of organizing a well-oiled political machine – didn’t have the fundraising struggles that most first-time national candidates must endure. They didn’t have to lay off or reassign staff members because money was never tight. And now that Mehlenberger has found a new sponsor as flush as Bloomberg she’s back on easy street.
But if anybody doesn’t believe that her new boss didn’t sign off on, or even orchestrate, the leak of her resignation letter to the Times, that would just reveal a profound naiveté on how these kinds of news stories are spoon-fed to reporters.
The Bigger Question: Why Would Bloomberg Do That?
Why would Michael Bloomberg’s campaign deploy that kind of hit against a candidate that the media is telling us has no chance? That’s a very interesting question, isn’t it?
It is no secret that Bloomberg seeks a leveraged buyout of the so-called “center lane” occupied by Joe Biden and which Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are gunning for via their issue positions. Harris – who is one of the candidates supporting her own version of “Medicare for All” – has not aimed ideologically at that center lane but remains a plausible threat to be the last one standing who can command it, because at the core the campaign and the candidate are coalitional.
Coalition candidates don’t need to stake a claim on a single “lane,” right, left or center. They just need to sew together two or more of the Democratic Party’s many lanes as a base while being acceptable to the other working pieces of the coalition. Ideology is only one of the factors that make up those lanes. The others include race, gender, education level, religion and sexual orientation, as well as generational demographics. In the Democratic primaries, yes, “progressives” and “pragmatics” are both big deals, but so are African-American voters (particularly black women), Hispanic and Asian American Pacific Islanders, women (college educated, single and suburban white women played very key roles in taking back the US House in 2018), even as each demographic group includes left, right and center tendencies.
Barack Obama is still the defining coalition builder of Democratic politics of the 21st Century. Hillary Clinton also won the 2016 nomination simply because she proved far more agile at building coalition than Bernie Sanders. If we look at the current field from the point of view of which Democratic candidates have the highest potential to be that coalitional candidate in 2020, Kamala Harris is one of a very short list that fits the bill.
Joe Biden, even if nominee, will have problems getting the votes of the same white self-identified “progressives” that dragged Hillary Clinton’s nomination enough to hand the reins of power over to Donald Trump. Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders have even worse problems with the core of the Democratic coalition that are black voters.
If we really drill down on this question as I have tried to do all year, the small group of potential coalitional nominees can be reduced to Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker or Julian Castro: none of them are going to win each sector of the coalition in the primaries but all would be acceptable to most as nominee, enough to unite the electorate (the Booker and Castro campaigns admittedly may not last much longer); and Amy Klobuchar is still not so defined nationwide as to be buttonholed out of coalitional potential. Beto O’Rourke woulda, coulda, shoulda as well, but that ship has sailed.
Bloomberg sees Harris as enough of a problem for his strategy to have hired a former Harris staffer who had written a letter that could be leaked to the NY Times to whack the California senator.
If Joe Biden does poorly in the early primaries, if Pete Buttigieg does not win Iowa (or even if he does but then goose-eggs it in New Hampshire, Nevada and/or South Carolina), what Bloomberg counts on is a perception that the race is suddenly down to Warren versus Sanders – oh the panic that would ensue! – and he could step in as the great self-funded center-lane savior amid the predictable media din over “Democrats veer too far left to win in November.” (It’s a false narrative but gullible people fall for it every time.)
At that point, if Harris has beat expectations in Iowa (expectations that are currently so low that beating them could simply equal “wow, she got more votes there than Joe Biden!”) she, and not Bloomberg, would have greater potential as emerging as a coalitional force to stem off a Sanders v Warren finale. As said, Warren (but not Sanders) has that coalitional potential, but when it comes to black voters in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday, Harris’ potential stands head and shoulders above Warren’s, whose only possible shot at the majority of that vote would be as the last-standing available Bernie or Pete stomper. For Mike Bloomberg, eliminating Kamala Harris from contention by Super Tuesday is the Sina Qua Non – that without which nothing else can be made to happen – of his candidacy’s potential shot at relevance.
This gambit by Bloomberg may prove folly, though, in the end. In that Sanders v Warren finale that he has put his chips all in on, he’s perhaps underestimated just how heavily the antipathy toward Sanders is among very important pieces of the Democratic coalition who might by then see Warren for what she has been all along: the one political technician in this cycle, perhaps in all America, who knows how to cut the wires and dismantle the Sanders time bomb from blowing up the convention, and thus the November election, once again.
At that point, if Bloomberg has succeeded in eliminating Harris from contention, and she’s no longer in it competing particularly for women voters with Warren, the billionaire straight out of central casting may find himself Warren’s convenient foil more than her destroyer.
What the November Straw Poll Results Tell Us
Our November post-debate straw poll could only be voted on by subscribers to my América newsletter, a group that is highly representative of the grassroots volunteers, small donors, opinion leaders and experienced political organizers of multiple pieces of the Democratic coalition. Early in the year, Harris led. Then in the Spring, Warren jumped into the lead. After a great first debate, Harris won the straw poll anew. In the Fall, Warren took back the lead. And now Harris is on top again.
Harris was favored by 44 percent of our subscribers, Warren by 32, Biden by 11, no preference got five percent and no other candidate scored above two percent. These are the same voters taking part in each straw poll. We’ve been able to track how the real movers and shakers of the Democratic primaries at the most grassroots level – the ones who always end up deciding the nominee because they’re the people who do the hard work of democracy – have evolved over the course of the campaign.
The same voters have been going back and forth between Harris and Warren, at each moment depending on perceptions over which had the best shot at winning the nomination at that moment. As I’ve stated again and again, the political reporters and pundits seem blind to this overriding dynamic: the cohort of Democratic primary voters who want justice after what they perceive as Hillary Clinton – and all women by representation – having been robbed of her popular vote victory in 2016, and for them that justice means they want a woman as nominee in 2020: Not Tulsi Gabbard, obviously, but a coalitional woman nominee.
(Yes, if you wander into the muck of social media there are Harris and Warren supporters that angrily attack each other and their candidates. But our straw poll results consistently show that both are acceptable to people who like the other more. That’s the reality on the ground, not what social media wars suggest.)
Kamala Harris’ campaign is still alive. She has obeyed Che Guevara’s credo as stated above, that the guerrilla fighter must, first and foremost, survive to fight another day. Kamala’s still here. Harris is on the ballot in every state. Hers is not the richest campaign – it’s a guerrilla operation, like others that have won before. Joe Biden, and now Mike Bloomberg – and probably Pete Buttigieg soon, too – are stepping on their own rakes regularly enough to keep anyone from full control of that center lane, particularly the part of it that are African-American voters who are not actually “centrist” or even “moderate,” but, rather, are miscast as such, mainly by white reporters, because they are experienced and pragmatic at the art of the possible in politics and elections.
That’s why Mike Bloomberg considers Harris a threat, enough to raid her staff and plant a hit piece to try and convince people she’s already dead. Guess what? She’s not. And his hit was a botched job, with his fingerprints all over it, the work of a newbie at national level politics (New York mayors – ask guys named Giuliani and de Blasio – have always been notoriously bad at this!). Watch your back, Mikey. You may have just made stronger that which you could not kill.
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