It may seem presumptuous to declare that freshman Senator Kamala Harris of California, who has been in office for only two years, is the most likely Democrat to be nominated for president next year. But those few who said the same thing about another freshman Senator of mixed race heritage named Barack Obama in 2006 found themselves proven right. In Harris’ case she has an even better chance than Obama since she won’t face the Clinton Machine that Obama did.
Here are the five reasons why Kamala Harris should be viewed as the frontrunner:
1. The mega-state of California has about a quarter of the delegates needed to nominate a president. It has moved its primary to March (from its traditional June date) and the winner will garner outsize media attention - and delegates. While California isn’t winner-take-all and apportions its delegates by congressional district, Harris is likely to dominate the delegate count. Any candidate who wins less than 15 percent of the vote in a Congressional seat won’t get any delegates, with their votes allocated to those getting above that number. Analysts say Harris probably can place first in almost every district and will likely win the lioness’ share of delegates.
2. Democratic primaries are now heavily “feminized.” In 2016, 58 percent of Democratic primary voters were women. That figure is likely to top 60 percent in 2020 because recent polls show 62 percent of self-described Democrats are women. Women are also increasingly likely to vote for another woman - especially in the wake of the #MeToo sexual harassment movement. A poll by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation found that 37 percent of women said #MeToo made them more likely to vote for female candidates. That number rises to 50 percent among millennial women and 40 percent among African-American women.
Many women see voting for a “sister” as a distinct way to send a message about their values. “A large number of women use their identity as a woman as their primary political identity,” says Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Indeed, a 2016 poll by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News found nearly 90 percent of Democratic women saying the country would be better off with more women in office.
Democratic pollsters say women now are likely to pick up support from other women and sympathetic men at the polls if candidates are viewed as roughly equal in qualifications. “It’s incredibly difficult for each candidate to communicate, and gender serves as a shortcut,” pollster Stanley Greenberg said. “Voters might think, ‘I don’t know much about the candidate, so I’m going to vote for the woman.’”
3. Democratic primaries are also weighted towards minority candidates such as Kamala Harris. In 2016, a full 35 percent of Democratic primary voters were members of minority groups, and a full three-fifths of them were African-American. Black voters have long been very loyal to candidates who share their background. In 2008, Barack Obama routinely beat Hillary Clinton in Democratic primaries among African-American voters by margins of greater than 8 to 1. In 2004, more than a tenth of African-American voters voted for Al Sharpton in the primaries that year, even though he had a highly checkered past, and no real chance of winning any primary.
“Will voters in the key Rust Belt states like Wisconsin where Trump won identify with a San Francisco Democrat?”
Harris can even claim she has more “street cred” than Obama did with blacks, having attended Howard University, an historically black college, rather than Harvard. More than Obama, she is viewed as a fighter for progressives - she is known to use the “F-word” in public to blast Republicans. In her victory speech after winning the Senate seat in 2016, she quickly pivoted to attacking President-elect Trump and used the word “fight” 33 times in just eight minutes. She has embraced Bernie Sanders’ single-payer national health care and making community college free for all.
4. Harris’ parents hailed from Jamaica and India, so she would be the first major female candidate for president with a family background in the Indian subcontinent. (Bobby Jindal fared poorly in the 2016 GOP primaries and Nikki Haley has not yet run for president).
Indian-Americans – 4 million strong – are the most wealthy demographic subgroup in America. “Indian-Americans consistently over time tend to be the most progressive leaning among Asian groups,” Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist who directs the National Asian American Survey told Politico in 2016. His survey before the 2016 election found that only 18 percent of Indians had a favorable view of the Republican Party, compared with 64 percent who viewed the Democratic Party favorably.
Expect wealthy Indians to create SuperPACS to turbocharge Kamala Harris’ candidacy in a way that will make other candidates highly jealous. Ditto with her support from Silicon Valley moguls, who will like the idea of having a San Francisco Democrat in the White House.
5. Harris will also make an electability argument. Conventional wisdom on the left is that Hillary Clinton failed to match the African-American turnout that Barack Obama generated. With Harris, the Democratic nominee would be a ‘two-fer” – a candidate who would appeal to feminists and minorities alike and drive turnout up.
“If Washington were a Hollywood movie, you couldn’t cast anyone more different than Donald Trump,” says Nathan Ballard, a San Francisco political consultant who worked with Harris when she was district attorney of San Francisco, before being elected attorney general, the state’s top law-enforcement position, in 2010.
Harris checks all the requisite liberal boxes. She has a law enforcement background but with a decidedly liberal twist. In 2004, as San Francisco DA she refused to seek the death penalty against a man accused of killing a police officer. She’s also emerged as one of the leading political figures standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Liberal fans of Harris in her native California are already trying to grease the skids for her. In September, the state moved its presidential primary from June to March, making it a Prime Time Player in the race for the Democratic nomination. Harris would have a huge advantage in such a primary given her name recognition and vast donor network in Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
Harris is also a new political avatar for gay voters. In late October, she shared the podium with Hillary Clinton at the Human Rights Campaign’s national dinner where she proclaimed gay rights were now “under attack by a Justice Department that now stands on the side of discrimination instead of equality.”
So it’s clear that Harris is on her way to pushing all the hot buttons of Democratic primary voters. But what does that say about her ability to defeat Donald Trump or another Republican in 2020?
“All the points she is scoring with the left, including the F-bombs, may not play well across middle America,” Bill Whalen, a former speechwriter for GOP California Governor Pete Wilson who is now a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, told me. “Will voters in the key Rust Belt states like Wisconsin where Trump won identify with a San Francisco Democrat?”
Harris might even struggle in a state like Minnesota, which Hillary Clinton won by only 44,000 votes. “I don’t see her as having appeal outside the big urban areas,” says Barry Castleman, who writes the Prairie Editor blog out of Minneapolis. “She is clearly a liberal not a populist.”
But Harris is convinced that 2020 will be the Year of the Liberal, just as the mid-term elections of 2018 were. When it comes to running for president she's already started her warm up and if you soon see a blur on your TV screen it’s probably her sprinting down the track to 2020.