How Kamala Harris Could Win The 2020 Democratic Primary

Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who officially said she is running for president in an announcement on Good Morning America on Monday, has the potential to be among the strongest contenders in the 2020 Democratic field. There may be no other candidate who better embodies how the modern Democratic Party has changed over the last few decades in identity and ideology.

Harris, the daughter of an India-born woman and a Jamaica-born man, spent much of her childhood in Berkeley, California, before going to college at Howard University. She was the first woman, first person of South Asian descent and first black person to be elected district attorney in San Francisco. In that job, she irritated one of the Bay Area’s most influential Democrats, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, by refusing to push for a death sentence for a man accused of killing a police officer because of Harris’ personal opposition to capital punishment. In endorsing Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2007, she broke with much of the state’s political establishment, which was then behind Hillary Clinton. Harris, as a senator, has embraced the causes of the party’s liberal wing on issues of gender and racial equality. She gave a speech last year criticizing people who say Democrats spend too much time and energy on “identity politics.”

In short, post-Obama, the Democratic Party is increasingly the party of women and the “woke”, and Harris’ biography and politics align well with where the party has moved.

So Harris could have broad appeal across the Democratic primary electorate. You can see that in my colleague Nate Silver’s analysis of how each potential 2020 candidate might appeal to five key constituencies in the primary — Harris comes out looking stronger than any other potential candidate:

Her biography and record make it easy to imagine Harris doing well with African-Americans, who likely will represent about one-in-five primary voters in the Democratic primary electorate, as well as Asian-Americans. Harris narrowly lost the Latino vote in her 2016 election to a fellow Democrat1 who is Mexican-American (Loretta Sanchez), but there isn’t any particular reason to think she is disliked by Latino voters. The way Harris is likely to position herself on policy issues during the campaign — liberal as any candidate on noneconomic issues but not as liberal on economic issues as, say, Bernie Sanders — echoes Hillary Clinton’s platform in 2016 (Harris’ sister Maya was Clinton’s policy director.) So I’m sure party loyalists, particularly black voters and older women, who backed Clinton will give serious consideration to Harris. The California senator is not particularly young (54), but you could imagine millennials galvanizing around electing the first Asian and first female president in the same way they embraced Obama in 2008. (We’ll come back to The Left in a moment.)

Moreover, looking at the current primary calendar,2 I’m not sure about her prospects in Iowa and New Hampshire (more on that in a bit), but the order of the states is set up well for Harris after that. The third contest is in Nevada, a state that borders California, so voters there may more familiar with Harris than other candidates. South Carolina is next, and African-Americans will likely constitute a majority of voters there.

After those four early contests, nine states are currently scheduled to vote on March 3, and that could be a great day for Harris. Those nine primaries and caucuses include California — Harris’ home state, which also has a large Asian-American population — as well as four states in which the Democratic electorate will likely be more than a quarter black:

The racial breakdown of the March 3 primaries

Percentage of Democratic voters by race according to 2016 exit polls

State Asian Black Latino White
Alabama 1% 54% 1% 40%
California* 11 9 26 56
Massachusetts 4 4 6 85
North Carolina 1 32 3 62
Oklahoma 1 14 4 74
Tennessee 1 32 2 63
Texas 3 19 32 43
Vermont 1 1 0 95
Virginia 2 26 7 63

*No exit poll was conducted for California in the 2016 Democratic primary; these figures come from a pre-election Field Poll that found top-line results well in line with the actual vote. The Field Poll also released results by race with “Asian” and “Other” respondents combined; that number is the one shown here.

Sources: Edison Research, Field Poll, Pew REsearch Center

Also in terms of her strengths, Harris has stood out among colleagues during Senate hearings, putting her prosecutorial skills on display with her sharp and quick questioning of witnesses. Debate performances can really matter in primaries, and the hearing performances suggest she might be strong in debates.

She’ll need to be. To be clear, all of Harris’ strengths outlined above are really potential strengths. In most national primary polls conducted so far, she’s been in the single digits. Those polls mostly reflect a lack of national name recognition, but Harris will have to build her support almost from scratch. And a lot could go wrong for her.

The biggest potential problem for Harris may be that her campaign simply never really catches on with voters. Despite seeming to reporters like me to be a strong candidate on paper, Harris could be the 2020 Democratic version of Marco Rubio or Scott Walker, who both struggled in the GOP’s 2016 primary despite being hyped for years as potential GOP nominees because of their potential to appeal to a broad swath of their party.

After all, Harris likely will be competing for attention with a lot of candidates. And if she doesn’t do well in one of the first two contests, in mostly white Iowa and mostly white New Hampshire, then I don’t think there is any guarantee African-American voters or even California voters will get behind her. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey or former Vice President Joe Biden (his close relationship with Obama will help) could become the top choice among black voters — or African-Americans could split their votes among several candidates. I think a candidate who won Iowa and another early state and had momentum could carry Harris’ home state of California.

Harris’ performances in Iowa and New Hampshire are also relevant in regard to a second challenge for the California senator: Overcoming doubts from some Democrats about her “electability.” As I have written before, research on elections does not support the idea that female candidates do worse than male ones. Black and Latino candidates seem to do slightly worse with white voters but boost turnout among their identity groups, so the story is complicated there too. But discussions of electability are often used as a cudgel against candidates who are not male, Christian and/or white, because such candidates are perceived as having less appeal to swing voters. Right now, some prominent Democrats are publicly fretting about nominating a woman in 2020, fearing the American electorate is too sexist to elect a female candidate and voters with sexist views will find Trump’s persona and politics appealing, as they did in 2016. And some Democrats privately say they are even more concerned that swing voters in the Midwest won’t embrace a black woman. Harris has to worry that Democrats might decide she is too “risky” and embrace one of the male candidates mainly for this reason.

To be clear, this is a surmountable problem. Some African-American voters were doubtful of Obama’s viability in a general election in 2008 — until he won the Iowa caucuses. This is both an unfair part of the process (why should a minority candidate have to do well in a state with basically no minorities to prove viability) and kind of an odd one (winning the Democratic caucuses in Iowa does not tell you that much about a candidate’s ability to win the general election.) But I tend to think Democratic voters will be much less focused on Harris’ perceived electability if she wins a lot of voters in Iowa or New Hampshire.

Third, I expect Harris to struggle with The Left. Some voters in this group are broadly wary of criminal prosecutors, arguing they have played a key role in America’s much-maligned criminal justice system. Harris’ professional life has been as a prosecutor and some on the left already are highlighting what they view as flaws in her record — being too hard on low-level offenders of crimes like truancy but not aggressive enough in taking on those accused of white-collar offenses, for example.

Harris can overcome The Left if she is strong among other blocs of the party. But if she wins a few primaries, I can see liberals casting her as too establishment and opposing her fiercely, similar to how this bloc unsuccessfully tried to stop Clinton in 2016.

Overall, I would not be surprised if Harris won the nomination. But I don’t see her as the favorite. She ranks No. 1 in some betting markets, but with so many candidates, “the field” is really favored against any individual contender.

How Julian Castro Could Win The 2020 Democratic Primary

On Saturday, Democrat Julian Castro held an event in his hometown — San Antonio, Texas, where he served as mayor for five years — to announce he is running for president. But Castro’s campaign might be a bit a of a long shot considering he’s polling between 0 and 2 percent in state and national polls. That said, he has all the makings of an inspirational candidate — he’s young and ambitious, he overcame a childhood of poverty to attend Stanford and Harvard Law, and if he wins the nomination, would be the first Latino presidential nominee on a major-party ticket. But he also disappeared from the national spotlight after 2016 and now faces an uphill battle to convince voters that he is the strongest choice to oppose President Trump in what could be a very crowded 2020 primary field.

Just 44 years old, Castro first held public office at the age of 26 when he won a seat on the city council in San Antonio. He then went on to run for mayor in 2005, but narrowly lost that race before handily winning in 2009. He was re-elected as mayor twice and made his first big national splash when he was selected as the keynote speaker of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Castro was the first Latino to fill that vaunted speaking slot, and was labeled a “rising star” as a result. In 2014, then-President Barack Obama chose him to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and in 2016, Hillary Clinton seriously considered Castro for her vice presidential pick, but she ultimately opted for Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine instead.

Following his tenure at HUD, Castro founded the political action committee Opportunity First to plan his next steps and promote candidates in the 2018 cycle. Leadership PACs such as Castro’s are often used as fundraising vehicles to build a foundation for a future campaign as well as a way to donate to other politicians’ campaigns. Opportunity First probably did more of the former than the latter — it only donated 10 percent of the money it raised to candidates and parties at the federal, state and local level. Castro also published a memoir in 2018 about his upbringing in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in San Antonio with his twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro, and their Chicano activist single mother and Mexican-born grandmother. Julian Castro has a story to tell voters. But it remains to be seen if he can sufficiently raise his profile to that of a real contender.

How Castro Wins

FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver recently broke down the five main constituencies of the Democratic electorate, and it seems that Castro’s path to victory likely involves gaining support from some mix of Hispanics voters, Millennials and Party Loyalists.

Much of Castro’s political career has been built on support from Latino voters. San Antonio’s population is more than 60 percent Latino, and in his successful 2009 mayoral race, Castro won the nonpartisan election by 27 points over his closest challenger,1 principally by running up the margins in San Antonio’s heavily Latino neighborhoods, particularly in the southern half of the city. In a cluster of precincts northeast of Lackland Air Force Base, for example, as much as 90 percent of the voting age population was Hispanic at the time of the election, and Castro won many of those precincts by more than 80 points. Conversely, in some majority-white precincts north and east of Shavano Park, a small independent city surrounded on all sides by San Antonio, Castro’s chief opponent won by more than 20 points.

Castro has also been vocal in his support for a renewed push by Democrats to reach out to Latino voters. Turnout among Latinos is traditionally low, but given how Obama energized turnout among African-American voters in his presidential bids, Castro’s candidacy could similarly boost Latino participation. But winning the Latino vote probably won’t be enough. Castro will also need to make inroads among millennial voters.

An NBC/Generation Forward poll released in October 2018 found that the personal quality millennials were most likely to say they wanted to see when deciding who to vote for was a candidate could bring about change. And, arguably, what could be more of a change from Trump and his anti-immigrant rhetoric than a Latino candidate of Mexican descent?

As a young Latino man from a San Antonio — a fast-growing, youthful and diverse city — Castro could try to make the case that his experience leading the nation’s seventh-largest city could be the right step for America’s future. And as a former member of the Obama administration, Castro could also play up his White House connection with Party Loyalists, who tend to be an establishment-friendly group. The former president remains incredibly popular among Democrats, and Castro can use his time in Obama’s Cabinet to claim some of that legacy in his own campaign. Among potential Democratic presidential candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden might be the only one with a more obvious connection to Obama than Castro.

The challenges Castro faces

The Democratic Party is increasingly diverse and its voters show decreasing levels of racial resentment — a measure of racial attitudes, especially how whites feel toward nonwhites — particularly among younger Democrats. Yet, this doesn’t necessarily mean voters are ready to elect a Latino candidate. For example, 2016 primary voting patterns show that Clinton was seen as the “Obama candidate,” meaning Clinton’s support among Democrats with racially conservative views fell sharply compared to how she performed in 2008, when she was running against Obama and won many of those voters. What’s more, there’s a supposed “electability” argument that Democrats need a white (and probably male) nominee in order to defeat Trump in the general, so we shouldn’t underrate how race and ethnicity could affect the primaries.

Castro’s level of political experience is also a double-sided coin. On the one hand, he is a relatively fresh face and Democrats may want someone new and young to face Trump. However, Castro might have too little experience. Although he served as San Antonio’s mayor for five years and Obama’s HUD secretary for two and a half years, he’s never run for statewide office in Texas and it’s unclear where he stands on a lot of major issues. His relative lack of experience probably played a role in Clinton’s choice to not pick him as her running mate in 2016, and it could be an issue for him as a presidential candidate, too.

Castro will also need to gather the resources to mount a serious campaign. With his Texas connections, Castro could have access to lots of campaign cash. But it’s possible that another noted Texan, Beto O’Rourke, could pull away many Texas donors who could help jumpstart Castro’s campaign. O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign captured national attention that could translate into a presidential campaign. O’Rourke raised nearly $80 million for his Senate race, and among contributions large enough that their origins are reported by Federal Election Commission, a bit over half of his total cash came from the Lone Star State.2 An O’Rourke bid would also put two young Texans in the field, so Castro and O’Rourke could find themselves stepping on each other’s toes and making appeals to similar parts of the electorate.

If he gains traction, Castro might also take hits from The Left. When he was in contention for Clinton’s 2016 vice presidential nod, progressive groups attacked Castro for being too friendly toward Wall Street firms when dealing with delinquent mortgages and for not fighting hard enough for minority communities. Castro also improved his political fortunes in San Antonio by building a better relationship with the city’s business community, which had been skeptical of him in his first mayoral bid in 2005. Such coziness would not win him support from The Left.

It will be a while before we know if Castro is a true contender. But what we do know now is that he’s running and that his candidacy could make history.