Half a dozen prominent Democrats descended on Iowa this weekend, seeking momentum for a primary presidential campaign or testing whether to plunge into an already crowded field. This weekend, Iowa forked into two campaigns.
On one side was Harris, who continues to draw the large, selfie-seeking crowds she has enjoyed since announcing her bid. On the other side was everyone else, Democrats like Castro, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose crowds numbered in the double digits and who mostly dubbed themselves underdogs as they implored Iowans to keep an open mind.

No one should mistake success in February 2019 with status as the “favorite” or the “leader” in a race in which several major players have yet to decide to run (or not), no debates have been held, and 11 months remain before the first real votes are cast.

That said, it is worth considering how Kamala D. Harris has differentiated herself from the crowd. We find the process fascinating by which one candidate seems to gain the limelight — bringing more coverage, which in turn elevates that candidate above the crowd of opponents. How did she catch on so fast?

Let’s start with what doesn’t make a difference, at least at this stage: money (Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) has raised more), name ID (she gained more visibility during the Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh hearings, but others such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren are better-known) or specific policy initiatives. (Warren leads the pack in that department.)

More important than those things, at this stage in the race, are four factors that appear to have helped Harris.

First, she is relatively new on the national scene. With social media, 24/7 coverage and the never-ending presidential campaign, candidates lose their freshness with remarkable speed. Sanders offers nothing different than he did last time; Warren’s wonkishness is a plus but is overshadowed by her long-running feud with President Trump and her familiar presence as a standard bearer for her wing of the party. (You do wonder if she missed her window in 2016.) If you were in the mix in 2016, it’s hard to be novel or intriguing. Plainly, Democrats are hungry for optimism and for feistiness but, it seems, also a newer face who hasn’t worn out his or her welcome.

Second, she timed her entry well. The Warren announcement buzz had worn off; Sanders hadn’t decided. Beto O’Rourke was driving around shaking off his “funk.” She got a couple of weeks largely to herself to introduce herself to voters.

Third, her roll-out — a lively book tour, a video announcement and then a big, enthusiastic rally in Oakland, Calif. — came off without a hitch. The book tour got some of her biography out into the public consciousness ahead of her formal announcement advance, allowing her to loosen up in front of crowds. She got practice in sharing her personal story. She’s also activated a network of her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters who turn out to cheer and seem to ground her.

It is that ability to weave one’s personal story (in her case, a woman raised mostly by her mother after a divorce, a multi-ethnic American and a prosecutor wanting to do good from the inside) that allows voters, whether in person or through a screen, to connect in some emotional way with the candidate. Voters fall in love with candidates, not proposals; if they don’t know you, they cannot fall in love.

Finally, let’s face it, she has some of that “it” — the smile, the joyous laugh, the ability to intersperse inspiration with policy responses. (We are an aspirational people, she declares, trying to live up to our founding creed.) She doesn’t get lost in airy platitudes or in the weeds of policy; she paces her appearances with some of each. She can read a room. Call it connectivity or empathy, but the best politicians have it, and those who don’t cannot fake it.

Now, the first three of these factors (newness, timing, roll-out) will not help Harris down the road. However, it’s the last factor to which we should pay close attention. Whether it was Presidents Barack Obama in 2008 or Ronald Reagan in 1980, a candidate who strikes an optimistic tone without being a Pollyanna and who leaves an emotional impression on voters can take off.

This is the current state of affairs, remember. Bad interviews, poor debate outings, mini-scandals made for cable TV and more can derail any candidate. But by the same token, it is hard to win a presidential nomination in our media-dominated politics without that “it” factor. Harris has it. We’ll have to see if others do too.

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