When Kamala Harris swept the California Senate race in 2016, she did it with an extremely broad base of support — beating her opponent in “all major age groups, education levels and ethnicities.” Whether she can do the same on a national scale remains unclear.
Harris has had one of the strongest debuts of any Democratic candidate so far, drawing in a crowd of thousands during her official launch a week after Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January and similar feedback in the events that have followed. Her candidacy is also historic: Harris would be the first African-American woman and the first Asian-American woman to be a major-party nominee for president if she ultimately secures the Democratic nomination.
But she hasn’t been leading in any polls just yet. In recent Morning Consult and Quinnipiac polls, Harris continued to trail Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, including among both women and African American voters. It’s a dynamic that could be due, in part, to name recognition, since Biden and Sanders are just more well-known by Democratic voters at a national level.
Harris’s campaign is making a bet, however, that she could shore up support, especially among progressive voters, as she continues to introduce herself to people across the country. Given her unique profile and progressive policy platform, both women and African American voters — which are seen as powerhouse blocs within the Democratic party — could be key targets as the primary season begins to unfold.
The expansive support she saw during the California Senate race also suggests that Harris been able to connect with a variety of Democratic voters before. (California’s likely voters overall are 59 percent white, 21 percent Latino, 11 percent Asian American and 6 percent African American.)
This time around, she faces a very different set of challenges.
In 2016, many widely considered Harris a favorite against Sanchez due to high statewide name recognition and her more left-leaning policies. In 2020, Harris is seen as a top-tier candidate, but she’ll have to work to reach voters across the U.S., who are less familiar with who she is.
“It is very hard to compare the 2016 Senate race with the 2020 Democratic presidential primary,” YouGov polling director Joe Williams told Vox. “Harris is facing numerous, well-financed and well-known candidates who have already established national reputations.”
Her base — as it stands over 19 months out from Election Day — isn’t particularly defined.
“It’s still too early to know what her strongest base is,” Matt Barreto, founder of polling and research firm Latino Decisions, said.
In examining the voters who do back her in a new Morning Consult poll, however, there’s clearly existing support from African American voters and women that she could continue to build upon — backing that could help her secure key primaries, especially in southern states like South Carolina.
This is what Harris’s support looks like so far
Because Biden and Sanders have dominated the 2020 polls so much — the Morning Consult weekly tracker has Biden at 35 percent support and Sanders at 25 percent support — they’re leading across a whole set of key demographics. In both the Morning Consult and Quinnipiac polls, for example, Biden leads among African American voters and women voters, while Sanders leads among younger voters.
Harris meanwhile, does not lead in any demographic group cut across age, race, gender, or education level, but a lot of this is likely due to the fact that she is simply less well-known than her two counterparts. What’s a bit more interesting to examine, at this point, is the demographic breakdown of the people who have already listed her as their top choice.
Looking at the latest Morning Consult poll, conducted last week, about 8.4 percent of a nearly 14,000-person survey pool ranked Harris as the candidate they would pick in a Democratic primary. That comes out to about 1150 people who have expressed their support for her.
Of those people, 60 percent are women, 64 percent are white, 28 percent are African American and 26 percent are between the ages of 30-44.
Compared to likely Democratic voters represented in the poll, Harris’s supporters are more likely to identify as liberal and have a college degree. They are also more likely to be women or African American than the average Democratic voter in the Morning Consult survey.
Broken out across race and gender, her largest pool of backers are white women, who make up 38 percent of all her supporters. White men come in second at 26 percent and African American women come in third at 18 percent.
Compared to both Biden and Sanders, a larger proportion of Harris’s base is made up of African American women.
Her early events have focused on appealing to women of color — but she’s also got a track record of developing a wide base
Harris appears focused on building up the support she already has, while also expanding the scope of her coalition. A number of her events have taken place at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and some of her earliest remarks were at an annual gala held by her sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha.
“Trying to judge it by where she’s campaigning, I think she’s certainly making a strong play for the African American vote and doing the event at Howard and doing the events in South Carolina, Houston and Dallas,” Barreto says.
Bolstering her support among African American voters is a key plank of Harris’s primary strategy, her advisers told Politico last fall. Harris’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
While she faces competition from others in the field, including Cory Booker and Biden, for this particular group of voters, her candidacy also stands out for its historic nature.
Harris was the first African-American woman to become California attorney general, the first African-American senator California has ever elected, and the second African-American woman to sit on the Senate’s powerful Judiciary Committee.
“I would think in a national Democratic primary, part of Harris’ path to victory is doing what Obama did: performing strongly in the South, where African-American support is so important,” says University of Virginia’s Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
Barreto notes that it also wouldn’t be surprising if Harris is ultimately able to develop a wide-ranging base, like the ones she built to secure the Senate seat and attorney general position in California.
Already, in California and South Carolina, she’s secured endorsements from a number of key lawmakers and civil rights activists including Gov. Gavin Newsom, labor leader Dolores Huerta and Rep. Barbara Lee. Last week, she picked up a slew of endorsements from African American lawmakers in South Carolina including state Reps. Pat Henegan and J.A. Moore. (Others in the Democratic field including Booker and Sanders have also been racking up endorsements across the major primary states as well.)
“In California, in her races as attorney general, she seemed to have pretty broad support. She didn’t seem to be fueled by one particular demographic subgroup,” says Barreto. “That’s good news for a candidate.”
Additionally, Harris has rolled out policy proposals that could resonate with a wide spectrum of voters, such as a recently-announced plan to close the teacher salary pay gap.
“Her recent proposals about raising teacher salaries has led local people in the Rust Belt and South Carolina to acknowledge her,” University of Tennessee political science professor Richard Pacelle told Vox.
California’s primary is earlier this cycle — that could help Harris, but it could also set very, very high expectations
One additional change that could give Harris a potential boost down the line is the shifting primary schedule for 2020, which has moved both California and North Carolina’s primaries to “Super Tuesday” in early March.
Given the number of electorates California has, Harris could send a strong message by performing well in the Golden State. Her home-field advantage carries risks though: High expectations could also set her up for failure if she flounders in any way.
It’s definitely “double-edged,” says Pacelle. Previous candidates like Marco Rubio, for example, saw their campaign momentum stall when they lost their home state to a challenger.
“It may be that anything short of a victory there will seem like a disappointment. Fairly or unfairly, these primaries can be about expectations,” says Kondik.
And even if Harris does win California, there’s no guarantee that success will be enough to propel her to the nomination. In 2016, for example, John Kasich, a former governor of Ohio, performed well in the Ohio primary, but ultimately lost every other state.
A definitive finish in her home state — coupled with strong performances in other key places — could give Harris the leverage, however, to further cement her position as one of the top candidates.
“If you add California as a potential base to South Carolina, Georgia, and other heavily African American states, that’s about 70 percent of the total delegate haul through Super Tuesday,” says Paul Mitchell, a vice president at Political Data, a voter data and software firm based in California.