The Campaign for Kamala Harris

Influential Democrats see an urgent need to bolster Vice President Kamala Harris’s position with the public, whether or not President Joe Biden withdraws from the presidential contest. If Biden leaves the race, which appears less likely as he digs in against his Democratic critics, Harris would immediately become the party’s most probable nominee. But even if Biden remains on the ticket, the widespread concern among voters about his ability to perform the job for another four years will increase scrutiny of Harris’s own fitness for the presidency.

Amid those concerns, the liberal advocacy group Way to Win is formulating what it calls a comprehensive “surround-sound” effort to boost Harris’s profile with voters, according to plans shared exclusively with The Atlantic. Way to Win, which focuses on electing candidates of color, is planning an extensive campaign on social media and through paid advertising to enhance her public image.

“The reality is Kamala was tapped by Biden as his partner on the ticket and a new standard-bearer for the party, and her role as the VP on the current ticket is more critical than ever, so investing in her is a no-brainer,” the group writes in a new strategy memo.

Way to Win has channeled more than $300 million to liberal groups and candidates since its founding in 2018, and has also emerged as an important source of ideas for Democrats (for instance, encouraging the party to center its 2022 campaign on Republican threats to Americans’ freedoms). The group’s plan reflects a wider belief among Democrats that Harris will loom large in the race whatever Biden decides. As the party tries to dig out of the hole that Biden deepened with his dire debate performance, they are belatedly growing more aware of the need to buttress the vice president’s public standing.

Research by several different Democratic groups has found that even after three and a half years in office, Harris largely remains a blank slate for voters. Mike Lux, an independent Democratic media consultant, is leading a major study of the party’s decline in blue-collar factory towns across the Rust Belt. “In the counties that we study, she is more of a cipher,” he told me. “People don’t know her. They don’t know what she stands for.” He’s found that people vaguely know she’s from California but have forgotten she was the state’s attorney general. “They don’t know what her big issues are,” he said, “other than abortion rights.”

“Message and messenger are inextricably linked,” Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director for Barack Obama, told me. “She will have to rapidly define herself before the Republicans define her.”

Partly as a result of Harris’s ill-defined profile, popular attitudes toward her closely track those of Biden. In a recent national CNN poll, voters with an unfavorable view of Harris outnumbered those who viewed her positively by 20 percentage points—about the same dismal result as Biden’s own 24-point deficit. “They are very merged in their image,” one Democratic pollster told me glumly. “People don’t think he’s got anything done; people don’t think she’s got anything done.” (Like most of the dozen senior party strategists I spoke with for this article, this Democrat asked to remain anonymous in order to talk candidly.)

Research conducted earlier this year by EMILY’s List, a group dedicated to electing Democratic women, and post-debate polling released Tuesday by Way to Win both found that the best way to improve Harris’s image would be to emphasize her role in defending abortion rights.

Since the six GOP-appointed Supreme Court justices overturned the constitutional right to abortion in the 2022 Dobbs decision, Harris has led the administration’s condemnation of that ruling and the restrictions it triggered in a succession of red states. That turn of events provided Harris with a more clearly defined role in the White House after an unsteady first two years that included a shaky spell as the administration’s “border czar.”

“Prior to Dobbs,” Jamal Simmons, who was Harris’s communications director in that period, told me, “our office struggled to narrow down the number of issues we focused on. After Dobbs, there was no question about what the issue priority was.”

From the first days after the decision, Harris linked abortion access to other civil-liberties rollbacks in red states, including on LGBTQ rights, book bans, and voting rights (another issue she had taken up for the administration). As Republican lawmakers passed new restrictions, Harris became the White House’s first responder, who rushed to those states to advocate against the rollbacks.

The result is that Harris has now spent two years honing what may be the most important argument Democrats can make in 2024. Polls invariably show that significantly more Americans trust Donald Trump than Biden, or Democrats generally, to handle the economy and inflation. Although Democrats can hope to narrow that daunting gap, it’s simply too large to eliminate by Election Day.

To win, therefore, the party’s presidential ticket will need to persuade millions of voters who believe that Trump is better for their bottom line to vote against him anyway. Democrats’ best chance of achieving that is to portray Trump and the GOP as a threat not only to democracy but also to Americans’ civil rights and liberties. The party saw how potent that argument could be in the 2022 midterm election.

Biden has been full-throated in his denunciations of Trump as a threat to democracy. But as a Catholic from a heavily blue-collar state, the president has always seemed hesitant about pressing the case for abortion rights. He is also an institutionalist, who has spent more than half a century in Washington, and this tends to inhibit his criticism of the Supreme Court—as last week showed when he focused far more on Trump than on the Court in condemning its ruling on presidential immunity. Many Democrats believed that Harris framed the issues with much greater energy and clarity in a widely circulated video clip.

“Whatever happens on the ticket, she is a very effective communicator about what’s at stake in terms of our freedoms, particularly the right to an abortion,” Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, the chief strategy officer of Way to Win, told me. “And that is going to be a critical part of how we win, in part because it is how we are going to engage younger voters and voters of color who we know care a lot about that.”

Simmons, the former communications director, says that the vice president’s experience as a tough interrogator—both as a district attorney and as a senator during Supreme Court confirmation hearings—point toward her most valuable role in 2024. Voters notice Harris “when she is pushing and pressing and interrogating,” Simmons told me, “and that’s exactly what we need to do in this election against someone who is a 34-time convicted felon.”

An open question, of course, is whether Harris delivers those arguments as the nominee or in her supporting role as vice president. If Biden’s critics can persuade or pressure him to drop out, Democratic professionals believe that Harris is, by far, the most likely replacement. Although several leading Democrats—notably, the longtime strategist James Carville—have called for an open contest if Biden steps down, whether such a race would develop is far from clear.

Were Biden to withdraw without endorsing Harris, some of those I spoke with think that at least some credible alternatives would contest the nomination. A strategist working in one of the swing states told me that their advice to any Democrat with presidential ambitions would be to run now, rather than wait until 2028. “It’s not going to be easy for somebody else,” this person said, “but I think that the opportunity of going head-to-head with Kamala for delegates in some ways may be easier than going toe-to-toe with 10 people four years later.”

But that was a minority view. Most strategists I spoke with this week are dubious that a top-tier alternative would challenge Harris, should Biden bow out. One reason is that, in such a circumstance, the Democratic nominee would be chosen at the national convention by delegates who currently are almost all pledged to Biden; that would give Harris, as his vice president, an intrinsic advantage (especially if he endorsed her).

More important, anyone seeking to deny the nomination to the first woman of color to serve as vice president could risk damaging their long-term position with women’s groups and Black voters. Although several Black Democratic congressional leaders—prominent among them, Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina—have urged Biden to stay in the race, they have also indicated that they would back Harris if the president dropped out.

“It would be pretty difficult to explain to Black women, whom we always extol to be the backbone of our party, what the empirical evidence is for basically throwing her aside,” another Democratic strategist told me. “Anybody who steps into the arena against her has to face that argument, and I think it’s a pretty difficult case to make.”

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, considered by many the party’s strongest potential replacement for Biden, has already declared that she will not run even if Biden withdraws. California Governor Gavin Newsom, the other most discussed alternative, is also highly unlikely to run, the people I spoke with believe—and Newsom himself said yesterday that he would not run against Harris were Biden to withdraw. Harris would be strongly favored against any remaining possible rival if Biden left the race.

The Democrats still hoping that Biden drops out are clear-eyed about the risks in potentially replacing him with Harris. Some note that it would be naive to dismiss the inherent resistance that would confront a Black female presidential nominee. Memories of Harris’s performance during her ineffectual bid for the 2020 nomination still haunt those uneasy about her leading the ticket now.

Some Democrats are especially fearful that she cannot hold enough working-class white voters to win the three former blue-wall states of the Rust Belt that now appear to be the party’s only plausible path to 270 electoral votes: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Even if Harris recaptures some of the Black voters and young voters who have soured on Biden, “I don’t think that makes up for the potential losses in the white working-class voter in Michigan,” Adrian Hemond, a consultant advising Democrats in the state, told me.

Still, many Democrats who express such concerns nonetheless believe that shifting to Harris at least offers the opportunity to shuffle the deck, whereas sticking with Biden looks more and more like playing out a losing hand. At a comparatively young 59, she could focus attention on Trump’s own age-related decline. In turn, she would have the opportunity to make a yet-younger vice-presidential pick, which could appeal to some voters turned off by the present choice.

Although it would be a gamble, some Democrats believe that Harris as nominee could galvanize the party by picking Whitmer and creating an all-female ticket, one that would also have roots in the must-win Rust Belt states. Simmons told me that this possible combination animated people he’s spoken with more than any other option for a potential Harris-led ticket. The challenge Democrats face this year “isn’t really about giving people a safe harbor as much as it is about exciting them to act,” he said, and pairing Whitmer with Harris offers a better chance of that than “any other of them in the thinking.”

None of these factors would erase Harris’s real vulnerabilities or establish her as a favorite over Trump. Democrats widely expect Republicans at next week’s national convention to echo the argument that Nikki Haley made during the GOP primaries: that a vote for Biden amounts to a vote to make Harris the president sometime before 2028. “Vote Joe Biden today; get Kamala Harris tomorrow,” declared a Trump campaign ad that aired after last month’s debate. Trump himself escalated his attacks on Harris at a Tuesday rally in Florida. More is sure to come.

Republicans believe that Harris’s roots in San Francisco politics gives them the chance to define her as an extremist “woke” liberal. After her role as border czar, they are also eager to tie her to public discontent with the Biden administration’s immigration record.

But to Democrats hoping to nudge out Biden, Harris’s problems look more manageable at this point than his. In these internal party discussions, she is benefiting from the same concept that Biden likes to invoke: Compare me to the alternative, not to the Almighty. One progressive leader summed up the view of many I spoke with about the relative merits of Biden and Harris when he told me: “I think she’s a less-bad bet.”

Bill McInturff, a longtime Republican pollster, agreed. “If Biden is the nominee, the Democrats are going to face enthusiasm and turnout issues that will impact every Democrat on the ballot,” he told me. “It is not that Harris is a strong candidate, but she at least is a different candidate with an unpredictable effect. This is the rare case where ‘unpredictable’ should be the preferred outcome for the Democratic Party.”

Every Democrat I spoke with agreed that Harris now delivers the party’s key messages on rights and values more cogently and crisply than Biden. Even if Harris simply remains his running mate, however, next week’s Republican convention will create a severe test of her credibility with the Trump campaign’s fresh focus on her as Biden’s potential successor during a second term. And almost all of those Democrats agreed that Harris’s greater fluency won’t count for much if Republicans succeed in convincing voters that she is a San Francisco liberal who failed on the border.

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