Members Only | November 8, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Can Kamala Harris Win Iowa?

On Harris, Joe Biden and black Democrats.

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When political writers like me find others echoing their utterly brilliant points, it’s usually a joyous occasion to declare, “Aha! I was right!” But that’s not how I felt when I read Olivia Nuzzi’s latest in New York about the campaign of the former vice president. Her headline was “The Zombie Campaign.” Mine was “Biden Is Already a Zombie Candidate.” My dek: “his campaign will likely end in South Carolina.” Motherogod!

We’re both wrong.

In fairness to Nuzzi, she reports a number of original and insightful nuggets. But even when all of them are assembled, they don’t add up to a picture of the walking dead. It seems plausible, for instance, that Biden’s “brain trust seems to exist more to comfort the candidate than to compel him,” and that “strategy meetings inevitably devolve into meandering, ruminative roundtables that feel purposeless except to fill time in the day.” Moreover, it’s believable that “nobody will tell the candidate in plain terms what they think he needs to change,” or that staffers wonder if he “really listens anyway.”

Yet none of that seems to have dented his appeal among Democrats.

Obama’s vice president is a good, safe choice.

Nuzzi leans on David Axelrod overmuch. The former advisor to Barack Obama appears to be more focused on protecting his former boss’s legacy than on advancing the interests of the Democratic Party. “They have him in the candidate-protection program,” Axelrod said. “I don’t know if you can do that. I don’t know if you can get through a whole campaign that way. Either he can hack it or he can’t hack it. If you’re worried the candidate can hurt himself talking to a reporter, that’s a bad sign.”

So Biden’s no Obama. Um-kay.

In fairness to me, I was writing in January before Biden announced his candidacy. I was writing moreover during a period of great excitement about Kamala Harris, the biracial daughter of immigrants who became the attorney general of California before becoming one of its US senators. She always looked good on paper. Then she sliced through Brett Kavanaugh before he won confirmation to the US Supreme Court. Her kickoff rally attracted some 20,000 people. It looked like her star was on the rise.

So when I said Biden is a zombie, I was thinking he might win New Hampshire and maybe Nevada, too, but that Harris was sure to win South Carolina, where the vast majority of Democrats are black. But I overestimated the base’s enthusiasm for her. Add to that my theory was that the candidate who wins South Carolina is likely to win the lion’s share of Super Tuesday votes, and the candidate who wins most of those will probably be the nominee. Put all this together and I thought I was making an utterly brilliant point when I said Biden’s zombie campaign will end in South Carolina. Oy!

Not only did I overestimate the base’s enthusiasm for a successful female biracial candidate, but I underestimated the need among black voters to make a very conservative cost-benefit analysis in a time of extreme uncertainty for Americans of color. In retrospect, it makes total sense for lots of African-American voters in a pivotal primary state like South Carolina to say to themselves they might like Harris—or Cory Booker or Julian Castro, for that matter—but the overwhelming goal in 2020 is beating Donald Trump. Obama’s vice president is a good, obvious and safe choice.

Harris seems stuck in a whitewash cycle.

I got something else wrong. Harris still has a chance at South Carolina if she can take Iowa. Iowa’s Democrats are almost entirely white, progressive and affluent. They are right now split between Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (Pete Buttigieg appears to be rising a bit). If Harris can take Iowa, she could “prove” a black candidate can win over white voters, shaking South Carolina’s faith in a safe bet. That’s what Obama did. Indeed, Harris is now pouring virtually all of her resources into Iowa.

Can she take it? I think anything could happen. What I do know is that Harris—and Booker and Castro, for that matter—seem stuck in a kind of vicious whitewash cycle. The more press attention paid to the top three, the less the rest get standing in the polls. And the less standing they get in the polls, the less attention they get from the press. This dynamic, to me anyway, explains why the top three have been the top three for months. I don’t see the pattern changing between now and the Feb. 3 caucus.

And then … I don’t know. I was wrong before. I’d like to be right next time.

—John Stoehr


This is a civics program I co-host every month at New Haven’s Institute Library. The next one is on Nov. 12 (next Tuesday). Special guests include Frank Harris, columnist for the Hartford Courant and a professor of journalism at Southern Connecticut State University; and Batya Ungar Sargon, opinion editor for The Forward in New York. We’re going to talk about a lot of things but especially religion, race and politics.

Please come if you can. I’d love to see you there! —JS


What: Politics in Plain English
When: Nov. 12 (Tuesday) at 7:30 p.m.
Where: The Institute Library, 847 Chapel Street, New Haven.
How much: FREE! FREE! FREE!
Info: For more, click here.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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