Kamala Harris is out. What have we learned about party politics?
ProPublica’s Dara Lind tweeted earlier today that the correct analogy for Kamala Harris was the 2016 bid of Scott Walker – not Marco Rubio, which has been a more popular take. The Marco Rubio comparison is perhaps the standard "party decides" one. Without mentioning specific candidates, Vox’s Matt Yglesias put this plainly: "Harris was a Party Decides candidate in a Consequences of Party Reform world."
In one sense, Yglesias is correct and I suspect it will drive a lot of takes. As Seth Masket has found in his recent surveys of Democratic activists, Harris drew a lot of vague and diffuse support, with activists “considering” her. She gained little traction as a first choice and never developed a core constituency. This, to draw again on the 2016 analogy, is a Scott Walker problem, not a Marco Rubio one. The obvious – though not necessarily correct – conclusion is that the nomination system is no longer set up to allow the selection of a candidate who is satisfactory to a broad cross-section of the party, even if that person doesn’t electrify any of those segments. This logic of party nominations might not be dead – it might just be on hold. Or it might be a casualty of increasingly wild and permeable campaign finance and media environments.
But the nominations question isn’t just about change. It’s also about continuity. First, the nomination process is one of coordination and collective action. That hasn’t changed, even though the process has. The trappings of an election – with a long, expensive campaign and a sense that people deserve a meaningful choice at the ballot box – have merged with the strategic imperative of picking a viable candidate to go on to … another election. The logic is clear if you think of the primary as a kind of first-round election, or a local marathon where your time can qualify you for the Boston one. If you think of the nomination as an exercise in coordination, though – which candidate actually has the broadest appeal – the election method turns the whole exercise into a national guessing game. Here’s where the Rubio comparison is helpful, mostly because it seems like a contrast. Rubio seemed like the candidate other people would like (ETA: who do I owe a citation for this? Someone wrote it in 2016, and it was a good observation). It’s hard to tell, but I’m not sure that’s what’s happened with Harris. My impression, instead, is that many Democratic voters like Harris just fine, but were waiting for her candidacy to catch on a bit more. Both of these illustrate the difficulty of coordinating in a diffuse national election context, but in different ways.
In the hours since the California Senator’s departure from the race, some of the commentary has lamented the absence of candidates of color from the top tier. This, too, reads somewhat like a collective action problem – if it was important that the top tier was more diverse, then why aren’t the non-white candidates pulling in more donations and polling better? Are Democratic primary voters assuming that everyone else will support Harris (or Booker, or Castro…)?
But this problem also speaks to an older dilemma for Democrats, which is how to approach diversity and representation. Democrats have generally won on the votes of minoritized groups – once “white ethnics” (predominantly Catholic immigrants and their descendants), and then African Americans and to a lesser extent Latinos – without necessarily highlighting these groups by nominating them for visible offices like the presidency. (Women and Jewish Americans would also fall into this category.) Harris, despite initial promise, hit this issue exactly the wrong way. At a time when questions about criminal justice have gained salience, her record as a prosecutor was defined by early criticisms and made her an undesirable candidate for that constituency. And while recent presidential tickets that featured someone who wasn’t a white, Christian man have tended to be the ticket that won the most votes (Obama, VP nominee Joe Lieberman, Hillary Clinton), half of those tickets fell short of an Electoral College victory, leaving Democrats nervous about pushing demographic barriers. This is a return to the party’s historical norm, where appeals to minority groups have often outpaced their access to positions of power.
Concern with a candidate’s potential to win an election has long been a concern for presidential nominations, even if the calls for “electability” have not always been as dire and clamorous as they are this year. What’s different about this nomination cycle is not only the state of party strength, but also the impact of strong and angry partisanship. The current state of partisanship has made Democrats both vehement and cautious. At the same time that the left wing of the party has grown in size and impact, demanding significant policy change, fear among Democrats of a second Trump term looms over all of the nomination discussions. A stronger party might be able to do more to reconcile these two clashing impulses. As it is, they have emerged as the major alternatives, leaving little middle ground for candidates who promise neither safety nor wholesale change.
Harris’s decision to leave the 2020 race before the December debates appears to have surprised and dismayed a number of commentators. It’s possible, as some have suggested, that there isn’t any systematic reason why her candidacy didn’t take off – the field is crowd and life is sometimes unpredictable. Nevertheless, it may also be that something didn’t quite add up as far as her potential as a candidate and the challenges she faced in the field. Not all of this was new, and none of these problems are easy to resolve. Collective action issues, questions about representation, and conflicting demands from staunch partisans are all problems that defy simple solutions. That’s why we have a nomination process. It should also be why we ask questions about whether the current process has the potential to fulfill those demanding tasks.