The Slatest

The Prosecutor Rests

With no fixed message and no plausible path through Super Tuesday, the Kamala Harris campaign calls it quits.

Kamala Harris speaks to the press after participating in the fifth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season on Nov. 20.
Kamala Harris speaks to the press after participating in the fifth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season on Nov. 20.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

In a call to staff followed by a letter to supporters on Tuesday, California Sen. Kamala Harris announced that she was suspending her presidential campaign.

“I’ve taken stock and looked at this from every angle, and over the last few days have come to one of the hardest decisions of my life,” Harris wrote in her letter. “My campaign for president simply doesn’t have the financial resources we need to continue. I’m not a billionaire. I can’t fund my own campaign. And as the campaign has gone on, it’s become harder and harder to raise the money we need to compete.”

Harris is the first dropout to have touched—however briefly—top-tier status, as she did following the first primary debate in late June. It seemed then, as she used a personal anecdote to deliver a slashing rebuke to front-runner Joe Biden, that she might deliver on all of her potential.

And there was a lot of potential. Harris was an experienced prosecutor and politician, with a dazzling stage presence in speeches and high-stakes congressional hearings. She had a path to the nomination that seemed uniquely crafted for her: As a black woman, she could devote much of her early-state resources to South Carolina where, with a win, she could rocket into the following week’s delegate-rich Super Tuesday contests that included, as its crown jewel, her home state. Her politics, meanwhile, were hazy enough that she could find a message resembling those of left-wing candidates like Bernie Sanders and centrists like Biden, allowing her to claim the middle as a consensus pick.

That haziness, though, turned out not to be an asset, as her inability to consistently define herself and settle on a message left her looking like an opportunist, with ephemeral convictions held together only by the latest polling.

Early in the campaign, Harris aligned herself with the ascendant left wing of the party. She had co-sponsored Sanders’ single-payer health care legislation in 2017 and said, during a CNN town hall early in her campaign, that she’d be willing to eliminate private health insurance. She downplayed her unique experience within the field—that of being a prosecutor in San Francisco, and then the top legal officer in the country’s most populous state—over fears that a strong prosecutorial record would be a liability with the left.

The lack of commitment to this left-wing presentation didn’t take long to expose. On two separate occasions—the CNN town hall, and a presidential debate—she expressed her support for eliminating private health insurance, only to have aides walk it back in the following days. Even after that attack she launched on Biden during the first debate, in which she criticized his opposition to mandatory busing in the 1970s, she herself couldn’t commit to whether she, personally, would support mandatory busing, saying that it was merely “a tool among many that should be considered.”

Later in the summer, as she began a decline in the polls that would continue mostly uninterrupted until she left the race, Harris sought to redefine herself more toward the center, tempering her health care plan and playing up her prosecutorial background. What she really did was hopscotch between successive buzzwords and messages, none of which could arrest her failing campaign. Morale, and fundraising, fell. In a lengthy piece last weekend about the collapse of Harris’ campaign, the New York Times wrote that “her aides are given to gallows humor about just how many slogans and one-liners she has cycled through, with one recalling how ‘ “speak truth” spring’ gave way to ‘ “3 a.m.” summer’ before the current, Trump-focused ‘ “justice” winter.’ ”

As she was scrounging for a message, the path to the nomination that had seemed custom-tailored for her fell apart as one of its key assumptions was proved false: She could not achieve liftoff with black voters, especially older black voters, who have remained Biden’s base for the entirety of the campaign despite sharp criticisms of his record on criminal justice and school segregation. Her home-state status wasn’t getting her anywhere in California, either, as polling showed her in a distant fourth place. These weaknesses left her searching for a strong finish in Iowa, where she spent the last couple of months devoting her attention and (dwindling) resources. During that time, the Iowa caucuses became a four-person race. She was in sixth.

Though the primary may be more of a jump ball now than it’s ever been, and it’s not impossible that a candidate outside the top four of Biden, Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg could make a late run as the party searches for consensus, Harris has decided to cut her losses. She does have a political future to protect, and the embarrassment of getting officially trounced in each early state was something to consider—especially in California, where the filing deadline for its March 3 primary comes at the end of this week.

Harris will have more opportunities in the future—some, like vice presidential consideration, perhaps in the immediate future—and lessons to learn from this campaign.

But what does her dropping out say about the Democratic primary, and what was touted earlier this year as the most diverse presidential field in history, offering their candidacies before the most diverse primary electorate in history?

On Dec. 19, Democrats will face off in the sixth presidential debate, and only six candidates—as of this writing—have qualified. All of them are white, and four of them white men. Yes, Kamala Harris’ campaign made plenty of mistakes. But in a primary where undefined “electability” has been more of a concern to Democratic primary voters than before, the remaining, competitive Democratic field has delivered an unflattering definition.