But while consensus candidates like Harris work in theory, in practice they often fail to build a base and tend to crash when hard times hit. That was part of Harris’s problem — she briefly managed to catch fire after the first Democratic primary debate, but she made some questionable decisions, failed to maintain momentum and eventually lost to candidates who had built more reliable bases for themselves.
It’s hard to overstate how well Harris worked on paper. Over time, the Democratic Party has become more liberal (especially on racial issues) and increasingly racially diverse, and in the 2018 midterms, the party won women by a whopping 19 points. Democrats strongly disapprove of President Trump and want to nominate someone who can beat him in 2020. Harris seemed perfect: smart, charismatic, electable and someone seemingly able to build bridges between the party’s wildly different factions. She’s a well-qualified, progressive (but arguably not too progressive) black woman who demonstrated her prosecutorial experience in televised Senate hearings. She checked all the boxes. In many people’s minds, she could save the Democratic Party from nominating a still-somehow-not-ready-for-prime-time Joe Biden or a way-too-progressive nominee such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders.
In practice, it didn’t work out so well. Harris had a shining moment early in the primary season when she clashed with the former vice president in the first debate, doubled her support and rocketed into a rough tie for second place with Warren and Sanders. But, as others have pointed out, she had trouble staying in the news and finding a succinct, persuasive message. Other leading candidates were making more narrowly targeted appeals — Biden has Barack Obama’s legacy, plus electability; Warren has “a plan for that”; Sanders wants a revolution — that allowed them to build distinct bases. When the spotlight moved off Harris and her campaign became engulfed in infighting, she lost support.
In retrospect, Harris’s campaign looks like a truncated version of Rubio’s 2016 effort. Analysts, reporters and pundits on the right had high hopes for Rubio in the early phases of the primary: He was telegenic, conservative but not too far right, a potential compromise for business conservatives and the religious right, and a symbol of a party that could expand and build a permanent majority. Rubio’s surge hit at a better time than Harris’s — right after Iowa, rather than in the middle of the summer — but he wilted under the spotlight. After getting hit hard by Chris Christie in a New Hampshire debate, many new supporters deserted him and his campaign spiraled. Rubio’s message was always something like “I’m a unifier, and I can win the election,” but it’s much harder to make that argument when you’re failing to unify your own party and losing elections.
Harris ultimately ran a high-risk, high-reward strategy. She had the potential to unify large chunks of the party, win the nomination and go on to win the White House. And she still might succeed in some future primary. But that strategy doesn’t always play out as planned, and Harris’s risk didn’t result in rewards.