“We want to be in to make sure that we have a strong top-three finish,” campaign manager Juan Rodriguez said of the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses, when Democrats will cast the first votes of the primary season. “I think that will kind of continue to give us a slingshot to go into that early primaries day calendar.”
The pivot comes as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) continues to rise nationally and as Harris — and other candidates — struggle to dent the strength of former vice president Joe Biden in the polls. Many Democrats believed his support would start to fade, and his continued strength is leaving less room for other candidates to elbow their way into contention, forcing some to reconsider their approach.
Harris’s moves also come at a critical moment in the campaign calendar. Less than five months remain until voting begins — not much time for an assault on the commanding position of Biden, Warren or Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.). The third-quarter fundraising period ends Sept. 30, and a weak showing could damage several of the hopefuls.
For Harris, the renewed Iowa focus suggests her strategists, who once felt she had many paths to the nomination, are seeing those options dwindle. South Carolina, for example, was initially viewed as a promising target for Harris, who could then use her momentum to vault into the rest of the primary season. But Biden holds a persistent lead in the state, where he benefits from the loyalty of many black voters.
Harris’s plan for frequent Iowa appearances will not preclude efforts in South Carolina, where she will also campaign this weekend. But it does represent a major pivot for Harris, who spent most of the last months crisscrossing the country to big-dollar fundraisers to the exclusion of more regular campaigning.
Although her campaign was the first to buy television ads in Iowa and she staged a five-day bus tour there in August, Harris had not campaigned in Iowa in five weeks as of Thursday morning — a longer drought than any of the leading candidates.
Harris, a senator from California, has also been scarce recently in other early primary states like New Hampshire, where she’s appeared once in the last two months, and South Carolina, which she has not visited in more than two months.
Rodriguez said those omissions were strategic. The campaign, he said, believed the candidate should be fundraising rather than retail politicking so she could build the necessary resources to spread her message in Iowa and other early states.
But Harris has struggled to turn her attention-grabbing campaign launch into consistent momentum. Early on, campaign staff and advisers argued that her main problem was name identification, since fewer people knew her than Biden, Sanders or Warren. As soon as she got herself out on the campaign trail, they said, she’d catch up in the polls.
But Harris has not been in front of early-state voters as much as the other candidates. And now Harris’s donors are increasingly concerned about her prospects, while the campaign is seeking to dampen expectations for fundraising in the year’s third quarter.
“She has consistently been in the top four or five [in the polls], but with the acknowledgment that we’ve got to get her out there more,” said Harris communications director Lily Adams. “That’s the purpose of getting her out there in October, spending half the month or so in Iowa, making sure we’re there every week.”
Still, a top-three finish in Iowa — let alone a nationwide comeback — will not come easily. An Iowa poll released this week, conducted by longtime Harris pollster David Binder for Focus on Rural America, found Harris at five percent in the state, trailing not only Biden, Warren and Sanders but also South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
The poll showed Harris slipping 13 points from where she stood after staging an emotional attack on Biden in the first Democratic debate, after which Harris described herself as a “top-tier” candidate.
Asked on Thursday about that drop in polls, Adams said the campaign never believed the earlier polling spike would last, referring to it as “a sugar high.”
But the unspoken challenge — for Harris as well as other Democrats — is Biden’s durability, as Harris advisers and allies acknowledge privately. Despite attacks from his rivals, multiple gaffes and questions about his age and record, Biden has maintained his spot atop virtually all state and national polls.
Harris’s advisers have long seen Biden as the rival she needs to beat, particularly when it comes to African American voters. But so far, she been unable to dislodge or put a visible dent in Biden’s prospects in Iowa, South Carolina or elsewhere.
Her campaign has demonstrated a belief — as evidenced in part by her strategy in the first two debates — that Harris can pry voters away from the former vice president, particularly if he falters. If he doesn’t, she will not be the only 2020 hopeful whose path to the nomination will taper.
“I don’t know what their plan is to maintain that [durability],” Adams said of Biden. “Our strategy is going to be to get [Harris] out there more, and make sure that she’s like right up in people’s face when they’re making that decision.”
Even so, Harris has faced ongoing questions about her central message and reason for running, something many voters have said she has not made as clear as some competitors have. While Biden, Warren and Sanders have long-established political identities — Biden pitching himself as a return to normalcy, Warren advocating “structural change” and Sanders pushing a revolution — Harris entered the campaign without an easy-to-sum-up pitch, and has yet to establish one.
In the last debate, Harris often looked directly at the camera and challenged President Trump rather than her Democratic rivals, something her advisers say reflects her argument that the former California attorney general is the best candidate to “prosecute the case against four more years of Donald Trump.”
Harris has also touted — and spent her Iowa advertising dollars explaining — a “3 a.m. agenda,” her plan to address the issues “that keep Americans up at night.” She’s sought to position herself, between Biden on the one hand and the liberal Warren and Sanders on the other, as a “problem-solving” candidate who favors big change but will take practical steps to achieve it.
On Thursday, Adams took not-so-veiled shots at those rivals.
“We have, obviously, a candidate who’s saying we should just look back to the way things were. But I think that going back is not usually how Democrats conducted campaigns,” she said in a reference to Biden.
On the other hand, Adams said, “I think there are far more ideological, strict ideological candidates who I believe will contribute to the partisan rancor that we’ve seen and watched it for a long time.”
Harris intends to position herself between those two camps during the next stage of her campaign, beginning Thursday night in Coralville, Iowa.
The question is how many voters in Iowa will move to her.