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Maya Harris is Hillary Clinton’s most interesting hire yet

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton named a triad of wonks to lead her policy team. Two of them were widely expected: Jake Sullivan, a top aide to Clinton when she was at the State Department, and Ann O'Leary, who served as legislative director in Clinton's Senate office, both made the cut.

But the third member of the team, Maya Harris, is perhaps the most interesting. Harris, the sister of California Senate candidate Kamala Harris, isn't a known member of Clintonland. She didn't hold a key position in Bill Clinton's White House, or on Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign, or in Hillary Clinton's State Department. She's a law professor and, most recently, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where she published only a single paper — but it's a paper that may prove key to Clinton's 2016 efforts to hold, and even expand, Obama's coalition.

The paper's title is "Women of Color: A Growing Force in the American Electorate," and in it, Harris criticizes politicians and political strategists for only addressing the concerns of women of color "as a part of broader efforts aimed at women, youth, or a specific racial or ethnic group." Women of color, Harris argues, are their own, incredibly fast-growing voting bloc, and any politician who wants to win them needs to make sure "their interests are priorities on the policy agenda."

But Harris's paper isn't just about how to win the votes of women of color; it's also about why politicians should try. She spends most of the paper laying out just how decisive these voters will be in future elections. "Women are the country’s largest voting bloc, and women of color are the fastest-growing segment of that group," she writes, going on to note that "women of color represent 74 percent of the growth in eligible women voters since 2000."

Moreover, women of color aren't just eligible to vote — they really do vote, at least if you give them something to vote for. This chart from her paper makes the point well — in every subgroup you can think of, women vote at higher rates than men, and African-American women vote at higher rates than anyone:

harris women on color turnout

(Maya Harris/Center for American Progress)

Harris's paper doesn't delve deep into what kinds of policies are likely to win over women of color, but her basic political theory is an interesting signal of how Hillary Clinton's campaign might try to fashion its own version of Obama's coalition.

There has been wide skepticism that Clinton can sustain the high turnout among minority voters that Obama managed. Harris's point is that most of those voters are women, and that if Clinton wants them to turn out, she needs to give them reason to turn out. In hiring Harris to help lead policy on her campaign, it's a reasonable bet that Clinton is signaling she agrees, and intends to try to give them reasons to come to the polls.

And here, Clinton might run a very different kind of campaign than Obama. As much as part of Obama's 2008 appeal was that he would be the first black president, he was at pains to avoid proposing policy specifically aimed at the black community.

Only 12 percent of the electorate, after all, is African-American. Obama needed to convince a majority of voters that he would govern on their behalf, and so even when he gave his famed race speech in Philadelphia, he was quick to separate his historical analysis of racism from his policy intentions:

I have asserted a firm conviction — a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people — that, working together, we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances — for better health care and better schools and better jobs — to the larger aspirations of all Americans: the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who has been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family.

But Clinton's position is different. The math is on her side. A majority of the electorate is female. A majority of voters of color are female. If Clinton somehow polarizes the electorate perfectly around gender — if every woman votes for her, and every man votes for her opponent — she'll win, and easily.

That means Clinton can work to make policy appealing directly to women in a way Obama couldn't make policy appealing directly to African-Americans. And when it comes to turning out women of color, in particular, one of her key policy advisers will be someone who's spent the last few years thinking about how to use policy to bring women of color to the polls.