The alternate headline here could be something about how well the campaign of California Sen. Kamala Harris has been able to push the “front-runner” narrative over the past several days. Since appearing on Good Morning America last week, and then holding a successful kickoff event in her hometown of Oakland, California, on Sunday, Harris’ people have been pushing a coordinated effort to capture the “front-runner” mantle for the 2020 Democratic primary. In fact, several articles released yesterday and today seem to confirm that strategy.
First, a local newspaper in Oakland noted how the Harris campaign kickoff event drew larger crowds in the city than Barack Obama did during a campaign stop in 2007, while also noting how Harris seemed to “channel Obama” at the event:
Harris’ campaign estimated that more than 20,000 people came to the event, and the Oakland Police Department confirmed that count. Surrounding streets were closed to traffic and filled with attendees waiting to get in, with lines snaking up Broadway and around the neighborhood.
Then-candidate Barack Obama drew between 12,000 and 14,000 people to the same spot with an early campaign rally in March 2007, according to media reports at the time.
At times, Harris’ optimistic and sweeping rhetoric seemed to channel Obama, as well as former President Jimmy Carter, who campaigned in the wake of another administration hampered by scandals and investigations.
From this point, the Los Angeles Times picked up the Harris campaign kickoff and put the words “front-runner” in the title of their article, though they asked whether that designation was truly a good thing or bad thing:
Even before Kamala Harris’ campaign launch in Oakland on Sunday, her nascent 2020 bid had already hit full gallop — a star turn on “Good Morning America,” a self-reported seven-figure fundraising milestone, a friendly reception in a key primary state.
With that fast start, Harris has stoked a perception that she is not just an elite candidate, but among the Democratic front-runners — a designation that is loaded with both upside and danger in this very early stage of presidential jockeying.
The California senator and her campaign strategists aren’t yet declaring her the favorite. But her days-long debut, crafted for maximum impact, showed a desire to make a big and early splash.
“This is what you do,” said Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist with extensive experience in candidate rollouts. “You announce, and then you try to create measures of success, and then you get the press to write you’re the front-runner, and then you use the clips to raise more money.”
Even though the Times story is more of an analytical piece, it basically gives Harris the coverage she desired, which is to place her name adjacent to the “front-runner” mantle very early on in the race. The mere fact that we here are also discussing it shows how successful this “shock and awe” campaign launch has been now that the shutdown news is dissipating.
Another outlet, Vanity Fair, also picked up the “front-runner” wording as well in a piece examining her campaign launch and prospects in the coming months:
The rally generated a favorable reaction for the 54-year-old senator, who has emerged as a Democratic star of the Trump era for her sharp criticism of the president and her high-profile grillings of his nominees. The launch drew comparisons to former President Barack Obama, who also officially announced his campaign with a large rally in his home state—in his case Illinois, outside Springfield’s Old State Capitol, where Abraham Lincoln gave his historic “House Divided” speech. Some regarded Harris’s address to be even stronger than Obama’s, and suggested the early signs of Harris’s momentum may give other potential aspirants second thoughts about joining the 2020 field. “This race has only begun, but there are some folks who should now re-run the [calculus] on their political futures,” the Daily Beast’s Goldie Taylor wrote on Twitter. “Several otherwise strong candidates have been testing the water—Bernie, Hillary, Beto, and Corey, among others. This changes the math for them.”
While the address did seem to confer front-runner status on Harris, the Iowa caucus—the first contest of the Democratic primary—is still more than a year away, and plenty can change in the interim.
As the Vanity Fair piece also points out, however, being a “front-runner” has benefits, but also comes with serious challenges:
Perceived front-runners also run the risk of attracting the “establishment” label, leaving them vulnerable to progressive challengers. Still, Harris’s speech was a strong start and one that signaled how formidable a figure she’ll be heading into 2020. “She really took a large step toward demonstrating—not telling people, but demonstrating to people—she’s a candidate who can go the distance,” former Obama adviser Anita Dunn told the Los Angeles Times.
You have to hand it to the Harris campaign team. President Barack Obama remains eminently popular with Democrats and even many moderate voters. What better personality to model a campaign and candidate after than the last popular Democratic president? The answer to that question depends on who you ask.
In trying to answer that question, Politico decides to toss cold water on the notion of comparing any Democratic candidate to Barack Obama or even trying to find the “next Obama” in 2020. Democrats, Politico argues, will find it almost impossible to recreate the lighting that struck with the Obama coalition, and much of it has to do with such a diverse field in 2020:
The demographic path Obama charted in the 2008 Democratic primary is a tantalizing one: Put together African-Americans with young voters and white liberals who live near Whole Foods, and you can send every other Democrat packing. But there’s a big problem with trying to recreate Obama’s 2008 success in 2020. In a field with so many choices and so much diversity, African-American voters are far less likely to function as a monolithic bloc.
But their role may be more complex this time around. The primaries of 2008 and 2016 quickly came down to binary choices. In 2008, North Carolina’s John Edwards limped into the South Carolina primary, came in third, and called it quits, making it a two-person race for the rest of the South and beyond. And 2016 was always a contest between Clinton and Sanders (Jim Webb’s plea for time notwithstanding). With the white vote divided, once black voters forcefully swung behind Clinton, the race was over.
This white male pundit has no special insight into the mindset of today’s African-American voters. But early polling suggests they are not rushing unanimously toward any one bandwagon. This week’s POLITICO/Morning Consult poll shows Biden leading among African-Americans with 26 percent, followed by Sanders with 14 percent. Harris comes in third with 7 percent (most of the poll was conducted just before she announced her candidacy) while Booker (2 percent) and Holder (1 percent) are near the bottom of the pack.
The smorgasbord of candidates on the Democratic side will make it harder for any single candidate to consolidate a voting bloc based on race or gender. 2008 and 2016 were basically test cases in this and showed that certain voting blocs can be locked up early giving a candidate a significant lead. 2020 may be an entirely different ballgame with a plethora of minority and female candidates in the mix, the likelihood of someone like Harris locking up African-American voters early in the process seems low.
Nonetheless, Harris is in this for the long haul and her team has been working tirelessly to craft an image and a candidate who can appeal to Democratic primary voters across the country.