Politics

Science Concludes Kamala Harris Would Be One of Worst Possible Democratic Presidential Candidates

At least if the goal is to stop losing working-class support.

McAuliffe and Harris, both wearing masks and blazers, smile onstage. Harris is bending over and pointing animatedly toward someone in the audience.
Vice President Kamala Harris campaigns with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe in Norfolk, Virginia, on Oct. 29. Win McNamee/Getty Images

There’s a lot of soul-searching going on in the Democratic Party right now! That’s what losing a gubernatorial race in blue Virginia while the president has an approval rating of negative 50 will do, I guess. One funny thing about this, a new Data for Progress calculation shows, is that Biden’s rising disapproval (which presumably overlaps with, or helped create, the results in Virginia) corresponds precisely with the rising price of gas. So perhaps the solution Democrats are looking for is bribing OPEC.

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However, assuming there is something more systemic and less ethically questionable the party can do, one interesting data point in the discussion comes from a survey conducted by the socialist magazine Jacobin magazine with YouGov and the Center for Working-Class Politics. (For what it’s worth, while Jacobin can be a bit aggressive in its rhetoric, YouGov is a normal/respected pollster.) The group surveyed 2,000 self-identified Democratic and independent individuals* in five swing states who have less educational attainment than a four-year college degree—the kinds of culturally working-class individuals (of all racial backgrounds) whom Democrats did poorly with this year.

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The pollsters created a wide range of pretend candidates using a number of variables, like hypothetical prior professions that ranged from “construction worker” to “CEO,” hypothetical policy positions that were “moderate” or “progressive,” and a hypothetical three-sentence “soundbite” that ranged from “woke” to “mainstream” to “populist.” Respondents were given a paired combination of these imaginary candidates and asked to choose which one they liked more; this was repeated six times with all 2,000 people surveyed, which adds up to a lot of data about what characteristics these kinds of voters find appealing (or, at least, what they say they find appealing). Here are some of the study’s conclusions:

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• Regarding professions, “corporate executives were seen as the least favorable by far, with lawyers the second-least favorable.” (By contrast, “teachers, veterans, small business owners, and construction workers were more or less equally popular.”)

• Regarding racial justice, “candidates who included ending systemic racism among their key issues were viewed favorably, or at least not unfavorably, across virtually all demographic groups we compared, including across race.” The civil rights goal per se of ending systemic racism (when included among a given fake candidate’s three “key issues”) was not viewed less favorably than the study’s moderate civil rights position (“equal rights for all”). The pollsters also found that hypothetical Black candidates, holding other variables equal, were actually viewed more favorably than white ones, and that women and men were both viewed neutrally. However …

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• Candidates whose campaign sound bites used “woke” language (which included references to diversity, racism, and “people of color”) were less popular than those who used “populist“ language. The least popular of all were “woke progressives,” followed by “woke moderates.”

This study, then, suggests that Democrats could alienate working-class voters (as a whole) by nominating candidates who talk about inclusion and the oppression of specific groups but who are, themselves, members of an upper-class “elite.” (The study did not find any statistically significant evidence that working-class Black respondents in particular punished candidates whose sound bites mentioned diversity and racism, but also did not find that such messages performed better with Black respondents than “mainstream” or “populist” soundbites.)*

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Given this, let’s review some facts about Vice President Kamala Harris, the candidate most obviously positioned to become the party’s first post-Biden presidential nominee:

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• She launched her 2020 presidential campaign around the jargony concept of “speaking truth” about inequality and racial injustice.

• She’s a lawyer, her husband is a corporate lawyer, and her brother-in-law is an executive at Uber; she has pursued donations from Wall Street aggressively, to the point that her selection as Biden’s running mate was seen as a friendly gesture to the beleaguered community of investment firm CEOs.

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The resemblance between Harris and the loser-in-the-making candidate that Jacobin and YouGov cooked up is not really coincidental: The fine print of the survey notes that its “woke moderate” message category, which “combines a softer strand of activist rhetoric with more cautious, incremental policy commitments,” was “inspired by Kamala Harris and [New York Sen.] Kirsten Gillibrand.” For what it’s worth, here is the study’s hypothetical “woke moderate” sound bite:

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“Our unity is our strength, and our diversity is our power. But for too long, special interests have blocked critical progress in addressing systemic racism, climate change, and access to affordable health care. We need creative leaders who will fight for our values, listen to the experts, and make real change happen.”

This kind of language is reminiscent of not just Harris’ campaign, but also Hillary Clinton’s in 2016; you may also remember that Clinton, a lawyer, got quite a bit of press for having given paid speeches behind closed doors to major banks.

Now, in theory, this study suggests there could be a Democratic candidate who was even more alienating to working-class voters than Harris or Clinton, namely a CEO who spoke like a “woke progressive.” Which is funny because that describes Starbucks founder and short-lived 2020 candidate Howard Schultz, whose past brainwaves included suggesting to his company’s baristas that they consider starting conversations about race relations with random customers.

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Whom should Democrats nominate instead of Harris or Howard Schultz if Biden decides not to run? The study does indicate that veterans, teachers, and small-business owners who use either populist or “mainstream” messaging should do well, which are descriptors that roughly fit Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly (who in addition to being an astronaut is also a veteran who co-founded an aeronautics company) and Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock (who was a pastor, which is kind of like being a teacher and a small-business owner at the same time).

So, one of those two oughta do it. Problem solved!

Correction, Nov. 19, 2021: This post initially said the poll in question surveyed voters; in fact, both voters and nonvoters were included. The post also suggested that the “woke” messaging in the study was viewed unfavorably by respondents of every race. Rather, it was viewed unfavorably by respondents as a whole, a group that included representative numbers of both white and nonwhite individuals.

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