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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) waves to the crowd as she rides in a car during the SF Pride Parade on June 30, 2019, in San Francisco.
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Kamala Harris’s path to the Democratic nomination, explained

It all hinges on South Carolina, California, and going after Joe Biden’s support with black voters.

If the campaign visits Sen. Kamala Harris has been making are any indication, her strategy to secure the Democratic nomination runs straight through South Carolina and the West.

According to an estimate provided by her campaign, Harris has thus far made 32 campaign stops in South Carolina, 16 in Nevada, 26 in Iowa, and 11 in New Hampshire. Throw in a handful of visits to southern states like Alabama, Louisiana, Texas and Georgia, and some time spent in her home state of California, and it all confirms the plan that one of her campaign advisers laid out for Politico last fall: “SEC primary meets the West Coast offense.”

As Vox’s Dylan Scott has written, the notable size of the Democratic field suggests there are 25 competing theories for winning the party’s nomination. Harris’s relies on the support of black voters, women and a primary schedule that could well play to her strengths.

Ultimately, her path, like that of many others, is dependent on building momentum in the early states and then sweeping the primary in her home state of California on Super Tuesday. Harris needs to perform well — if not win — in the Iowa caucuses. She can afford a lower place finish in New Hampshire as long as she dominates Nevada and South Carolina, and because of a shifted primary schedule this cycle, she can ultimately secure her lead with a massive haul of California delegates.

While Harris’s name recognition still lags that of other frontrunners including former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, a breakout moment at the June Democratic debates has helped solidify her ascent into the 2020 field’s top tier of candidates.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In Miami
Democratic presidential candidates former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and California Sen. Kamala Harris pose at the first debate.
Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto/Getty Images

In a striking confrontation at the debates, Harris went after current frontrunner Biden on his past record working alongside segregationists and opposing federally mandated busing as a means of school integration in the 1970s. The move highlighted a central piece of her electoral strategy: Harris is making a deliberate play for black voters, a constituency she needs to win if she wants to carry the nomination — and one that Biden is already polling better with. For Harris to win in South Carolina, it’s likely she’ll need to cut into Biden’s existing support there.

“She needs to perform well enough in Iowa and New Hampshire to stay credible, perhaps do better in Nevada, and have a strong finish in majority-black South Carolina. Then she must spring into a clear lead with a win in her home state of California, which votes just three days later,” Ed Kilgore writes for New York magazine. “It’s all quite doable, but doesn’t leave much room for error.”

For now, Harris’s campaign is focused on leveraging the recent gains she’s made following the June debates to further establish her candidacy in Iowa, New Hampshire, and the more diverse battlegrounds of Nevada, South Carolina, and California.

“I plan on winning the election. Period,” Harris said during a June campaign appearance.

Harris could send a message with a strong performance in Iowa

Historically, the Democratic nominee wins one of the first two early states: Iowa or New Hampshire. This cycle’s massive field could shift that expectation, but the ultimate nominee would still need a strong showing in both in order to build the momentum needed to do well later on.

“The eventual nominee almost always wins Iowa or New Hampshire, or at least beats expectations in one of those two states,” Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, told Vox. “Harris has to do the same.”

Harris’s campaign is in the process of building on the support she recently gained following the Democratic debates. In Iowa, the campaign ramped up its hiring earlier this summer and now has roughly 65 staffers. In New Hampshire, too, it recently added 25 people to its regional team.

Presidential Candidate Kamala Harris Campaigns In Dubuque, Iowa
Guests wait for the arrival of Democratic presidential candidate and California Sen. Kamala Harris for a campaign stop in Dubuque, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Based on the number of stops she’s made so far, Harris seems to be placing a bigger bet on Iowa than New Hampshire (she’s made 26 stops in the former and 11 in the latter). This could simply be because the Iowa caucuses take place first in the Democratic primary calendar, and serve as a litmus test to help set the tone for many other races down the line.

As the Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes writes, “In 2008, Barack Obama struggled to win over African American voters in the South — until he won in the Iowa caucuses, which showed black voters that he could capture majority-white states.”

Kamala Harris Campaign Stops

State Number of Stops
State Number of Stops
Iowa 26
New Hampshire 11
South Carolina 32
Nevada 16
Alabama 2
California 11
Florida 2
Georgia 2
Louisiana 3
Michigan 4
Ohio 1
Texas 5

Iowa could also seem like a more promising state for Harris to compete in because Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have stronger home-state advantages in New Hampshire, as lawmakers from Vermont and Massachusetts, Kondik hypothesizes. (It’s unclear, however, how much these geographic ties will ultimately benefit the two New England senators.)

While it’s still early, the polls also suggest that Harris could capitalize on the boost she’s seeing in Iowa. According to a poll conducted by Suffolk University for USA Today, Harris has surged to second place in the state, less than 10 points behind Biden.

“We feel like we are competitive there and just as competitive as anybody else,” a Harris campaign aide told Vox.

South Carolina and Nevada are integral to Harris’s strategy

Beyond the two early states — which are older and whiter — Harris needs to put forth standout performances in South Carolina and Nevada to maintain her campaign’s viability.

South Carolina, a state often seen as a bellwether for black and Southern voters, is especially central for Harris. And she’s already invested significant resources in the region, where expanding her support among black voters will be vital. (In 2016, 60 percent of South Carolina primary voters were black.)

Democratic Presidential Candidates Attend The South Carolina Convention
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) dances with a marching band upon arrival at the 2019 South Carolina Democratic Party State Convention on June 22, 2019, in Columbia.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

At this point in the race, she’s hired 49 staffers and racked up some major endorsements, including a number of influential state lawmakers, like Rep. J.A. Moore, who recently flipped a Republican district.

“We see South Carolina as a huge opportunity, and that’s the first state where you’re going to see the first state with large African American population in the primary,” the Harris campaign aide said. “That’s what’s going to be an interesting marker of that contest.”

As part of her efforts to build out support in the region, Harris has held several events specifically aimed at deepening her relationships with African American voters in the state, including an appearance at the Pink Ice Gala, an annual event held by the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, of which she is a member. Several of Harris’s policy plans also focus explicitly on targeting racial disparities: A proposal she unveiled in July would provide residents who’ve lived in historically redlined districts additional grant funding to purchase homes.

Her ability to win in the state could be dependent on swaying black voters who are currently backing Joe Biden. A RealClearPolitics polling average composed of surveys conducted before the June debates shows Harris trailing Biden in the polls in the state. Even with her post-debate spikes in a series of national polls, she still comes in behind Biden among both black voters and women.

This dynamic is likely due to a massive advantage that Biden has both nationally and in South Carolina: familiarity. He and his wife Jill have vacationed in the state for years, and he was a noticeable presence in the community after the 2015 shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

“Nothing beats familiarity,” South Carolina state Sen. Marlon Kimpson told Vox (Kimpson hosted Biden at a recent town hall in Charleston but has not yet endorsed a candidate in the race). “People in South Carolina want to feel comfortable with you drinking sweet tea as opposed to looking at a good sound bite.”

However, Biden is by no means assured a win in South Carolina, Kimpson added.

“What that does not mean is he’s an automatic shoo-in,” he said. “He will have to work extremely hard to build upon the relationships of the past, and create new relationships of an ever-changing guard, not only of elected officials but with community activists.”

Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and a Biden supporter, said Biden needs to tout his record as Obama’s vice president. Richmond said Harris will try to undercut Biden’s support with black voters, but “I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as one might think.”

“I just think he has to be forceful about his record,” Richmond told Vox. “I think he should not only remind people that he was vice president, but the things he did when he was vice president. He has a record, he’s always been in the fight — you have the Obama years, and you have the strong relationships. He’s not new to the civil rights fight.”

Farther west, California’s immediate neighbor, Nevada, could be a potential opportunity for Harris. She’s staffed up in the state and is putting together a strong organizing team, longtime Democratic operative Billy Vassiliadis noted.

“In a caucus state, it comes down to organizing,” Vassiliadis told Vox. “She, from what I can see, has put a very strong team together.”

Polls show Biden is a frontrunner in Nevada as well, but both Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are making serious plays for the state, partly by reaching out to its labor-heavy electorate.

Democratic Presidential Candidate Sen. Kamala Harris Attends Campaign Events In Las Vegas
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during a town hall meeting at Canyon Springs High School on March 1, 2019, in North Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Nevada, like South Carolina, reflects the priorities of a more diverse set of voters: Hispanic and Latino voters make up a huge chunk of the state’s Democratic base, but there’s also a significant bloc of African American and American Asian and Pacific Islander voters. And 2020 candidates are trying to make inroads with both groups. Nevada’s black voters, in particular, sometimes feel overlooked, one community activist told Vox.

If Harris wants to head into her home state of California with an edge, her path between Nevada and South Carolina has a razor-thin margin for error. It all starts with momentum in Iowa and a test of whether she can continue to build on that.

“As far as folks who organize, nobody is sold on anybody yet,” said Erika Washington, the executive director of Make It Work Nevada, a nonpartisan organization focused on black women’s issues. “I think that at this point, none of them have won my vote because none of them have actually asked for it.”

That all brings us to Super Tuesday, with California looming large

Harris’s performance in South Carolina and Nevada will likely inform how she does on Super Tuesday on March 3, which now includes the delegate-heavy California.

Presidential Candidate Kamala Harris Holds Her First Organizing Event In Los Angeles
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) appears at her first Los Angeles-area presidential campaign organizing event on May 19, 2019, in Los Angeles.
David McNew/Getty Images

Harris has some important advantages there: As a longtime prosecutor in the state and its current US senator, she already has massive name recognition in a place that’s typically very expensive to compete in. If she’s able to come out on top in the state, a behemoth with more than 400 total delegates, it could help her solidify her lead. Conversely, if she doesn’t perform as strongly as anticipated, it could deal a significant blow to her campaign given the high expectations she may encounter as a home-state senator.

“I think she has inherent advantages in California, but there are other candidates that can also play here,” Political Data’s Paul Mitchell previously told Vox. Both Biden and Sanders are also seen as strong competitors in the state because of the degree of name recognition they’ve already built up from their respective national campaigns, he notes.

Harris’s aide points to the fact that she won three times statewide in California, and added that while it was “anybody’s game,” it’s clear that Harris has some critical advantages for this particular race. According to the latest California polling, however, she’s still got some ground to make up: Biden and Sanders currently come in ahead of her, per the RealClearPolitics polling average.

California’s presence on Super Tuesday also dovetails with several other primaries taking place in the South including Texas and North Carolina, which will both hold their races on March 3 as well. “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 Mitchell.

The campaign is “building to be competitive” in several of these places, which make up the so-called SEC primary, the Harris aide said. Such efforts are evidenced by the fact that Harris has already paid multiple visits to Texas, and campaigned in Louisiana and Alabama.

The results of Super Tuesday could ultimately be very telling for candidates across the board. For Harris, they could reveal whether her campaign is taking off — or stalling completely.

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