The lessons we didn't learn from Kamala Harris
Almost every candidate in the race was a long shot
Early Tuesday afternoon the news broke that California Sen. Kamala Harris was suspending her 2020 presidential campaign. The candidate who earlier this year was considered by many observers as one of the favorites for the Democratic nomination won't even make it to the Iowa caucuses.
So what does Harris' exit tell us about the state of the Democratic Party and the 2020 election?
The real answer is basically nothing. And the same is true of all the other candidates who have ended their campaign so far.
Depending on who you count, 29 serious efforts were launched for the Democratic presidential nomination. The vast majority of these were politicians in good standing with reasonably successful track records. There are numerous senators, representatives, governors, and mayors. You could make a plausible case for almost all of them that with more favorable conditions they had the potential to be a top-tier contender, but the state of the race was mostly out of their control. Almost everyone started from a bad position.
The two exceptions were the popular and very well known former vice president, Joe Biden, and the 2016 runner-up who had an enormous grassroots donor base to draw on, Sen. Bernie Sanders. Biden solidly represents the more moderate wing of the party, and started the race with roughly 30 percent support. He has made no major mistakes and has mostly held on to that share. Sanders, in turn, has continued to represent the left wing of the party. He started the race with 20 percent support, and has also made no major mistakes which has let him hold on to that support.
In addition, polls show another roughly 10 percent of the primary electorate are people who won't really choose anyone until it is much closer to when they are going to actually vote.
This left 27 candidates to battle for just 40 percent of the primary electorate with few clear ideological divides to take advantage of. On a purely statistical level the vast majority of them were going to fail. It shouldn't surprise anyone that a candidate starting from a small minority of support with no obvious way to gain traction and competing against so many other skilled politicians failed. For any of them to break through at all required significant skill, great strategy, and a lot of luck. Either that or be worth billions of dollars so they can blanket the airwaves with self-funded ads to pick up a few percentage points of support.
We can't say voters rejected Harris because they were too liberal, since Sanders is polling well. We can't say it is because she is a woman, since a woman won the nomination last time and Sen. Elizabeth Warren is still polling well. We can't say she was rejected for being too moderate since Biden still leads nationally. Nor can we say they she was rejected for not being old enough or experienced enough, since Pete Buttigieg is doing reasonably well. It is definitely possible that Harris' race played a role, since the remaining front-runners are all white, but there isn't enough data to indicate if that was the decisive factor for her campaign.
Yes, Harris had a few clear missteps that other people will point to and a policy record that left her open to accusations of hypocrisy and fence-sitting, but that is missing the forest for the trees. The same could be said for virtually anyone. The fact is that for any of the numerous candidates outside the two original two front-runners, winning was going to be extremely difficult. It would require both a lot of luck and an incredibly well-executed strategy which could nearly predict the future. Harris — like Beto O'Rourke, Jay Inslee, Kristen Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, Bill De Blasio, etc. — simply wasn't able to run a perfect campaign. But that doesn't really teach us much. Harris wasn't the first and won't be the last candidate with a truly impressive resume to drop out.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.