THE THREE most recent Democrats to win the White House—Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter—had similar speaking styles on the campaign trail. They were centrist and inclusive, given to hopeful rhetoric, but—most importantly—just opaque enough about precisely what they wanted and stood for to let the broadest possible range of voters project their own hopes and desires onto them.
That is trickier to pull off than it sounds. Candidates who get it right make people feel seen and heard; those who get it wrong appear uncertain and ill-defined. The latter fate befell Kamala Harris, who ended her campaign on December 3rd, after months of low polling numbers.
Ms Harris entered the race ideally positioned to take up the vague, centrist mantle. She served as San Francisco’s district attorney and California’s attorney-general—the first woman, African-American and Asian-American (her father was Jamaican and her mother Indian) to hold either position, making her an ideal insider-outsider candidate.
When she launched her campaign in Oakland in January, before around 20,000 cheering spectators, she praised law-enforcement and criminal-justice reform, promised tax cuts as well as Medicare for All and free college, and she took unimpeachable positions in favour of unity, truth, grandmothers and America. Temperamentally and biographically, Ms Harris was a centrist; stylistically and demographically, she appealed to the party’s younger and more liberal electorate.
But as the campaign wore on, instead of unifying the party’s two wings, she fell between them. At campaign stops, she was often warm and funny; questioning witnesses from her perch on the Senate Judiciary Committee, she can be forensic and commanding; somehow those sides of her often got lost on the debate stage and in interviews. Nor did she ever find a real rationale for running. Elizabeth Warren wants to save America’s middle class; Bernie Sanders wants a political revolution; Andrew Yang wants to give everyone money. Ms Harris just wanted to be president.
She proved gifted at delivering scripted zingers—“That little girl was me”, her reminder to Joe Biden that she benefited from the school-integration policy he opposed; “America does not want to witness a food fight; they want to know how we are going to put food on their table”, bringing a moment of order to an unruly debate in June—but less skilled at thinking on her feet. On that same debate stage, in contrast to her prepared lines, she said she favoured abolishing private insurance, only to reverse herself the next day. At August’s debate, Tulsi Gabbard attacked her record as a prosecutor; Ms Harris’s response was halting and flat-footed.
Soon after that attack, her polling numbers fell to single digits, and never rose again. Her campaign at first pinned its hopes on South Carolina, which votes fourth and has a majority-black Democratic primary electorate, but Ms Harris proved unable to dent Mr Biden’s support from black voters. In September, she joked to a Senate colleague that she was “fucking moving to Iowa”, to no avail. News reports this autumn detailed her disorganised, riven and functionally leaderless campaign, beset by internal rivalries and fund-raising woes. Ms Harris, accustomed to succeeding at whatever she did, seemed flummoxed by the struggle.
Precisely what share of those struggles stemmed from her race and gender is impossible to determine: not none, but not all either. She may have found more success had she stuck firmly to the centre lane, and had her campaign staff remembered that she was running to be president of the United States, not president of left-wing Twitter. Yet her departure, and the struggle of other promising non-white candidates such as Julián Castro and Cory Booker to gain traction, leaves Democrats at risk of treating their increasingly diverse electorate to an all-white debate stage in December (Ms Harris was the only non-white candidate to have qualified).
The most surprising thing about Ms Harris’s departure is not that it happened, but, for all of her star power and early promise, how little she managed to define the race. And the lesson her candidacy offers future presidential hopefuls is that wanting to be president is not enough: candidates must define themselves simply, early and often. Ms Warren and Mr Biden are the likeliest beneficiaries of her withdrawal: our YouGov data show that 51% of her supporters were also considering Ms Warren, and 37% Mr Biden.
Ms Harris’s political future remains bright, despite and perhaps even because of her early departure: she will not have to suffer the indignity of single-digit vote shares. Without the distraction of a presidential candidacy, she is poised to play a sizeable role in the inevitable impeachment trial. She remains an appealing vice-presidential candidate, particularly for a white man, as well as a possible attorney-general in a Democratic administration. And she is just 55 years old, and probably has another White House run in her future.
See our tracker for the Democratic primary race