Kamala Harris's Campaign Strategy: Don't Pick a Lane

The 2020 candidate is pitching herself as the one who can actually put together a winning coalition of voters, a goal Democrats have obsessed over since their shocker loss in 2016.

Kamala Harris appeared for the first time with her presidential campaign logo at an event Monday at her alma mater. (Al Drago / Getty)

Kamala Harris is a half-Jamaican, half-Indian woman from Oakland, California, the daughter of two UC Berkeley grad students. She went to high school in Montreal. She married a wealthy, white, Jewish lawyer later in life, and didn’t have kids of her own. When she’s not in Washington, she splits her time between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Her first name is Sanskrit and gets mispronounced all the time. She was being mentioned as a front-runner presidential candidate before she’d even headed over to her Senate victory party, all of two years and two months ago.

She is not, by biographical measures, representative of what most would see as the typical American experience. But Harris launched her presidential campaign Monday with a challenge to the rest of the field that—as she put it to me at the press conference she held in the afternoon in the lobby of the Interdisciplinary Research Building at her alma mater, Howard University—candidates who want to win have to speak to “the complexities of each of our lives, and pay equal attention to their needs.”

Elizabeth Warren attacks every issue by diagnosing an economy warped by decades of bad policy. Washington Governor Jay Inslee centers his pitch on the climate-change emergency. For Harris, such a singular focus feels too narrow.

“On the issue of climate change: Every parent wants to know that their child can drink clean water and breathe clean air. And that same parent wants to know that they’re able to bring home enough money with one job to pay their bills and pay their rent and put food on the table, instead of having to work two or three jobs,” she said. “Every person wants to know that there will be a criminal-justice system that is fair to all people, regardless of their race. Every person wants that a mother and father should not have to sit down with their teenage son and have the talk, and tell that child about how they will be stopped or arrested, or profiled and potentially shot because of their race.”

She wouldn’t say that the other candidates are doing it wrong—at least, not directly. “Nobody is living their life through the lens of one issue,” Harris said. “Let’s not put people in a box, and as they make their decisions, let’s give them credit for being smarter than that.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Day gave the country its first real taste of what the 2020 presidential campaign is going to be like. Harris kicked off the action by launching her campaign with an early-morning appearance on Good Morning America from New York. Mike Bloomberg and Joe Biden sat next to each other at a table on the first floor of the Mayflower Hotel at Al Sharpton’s breakfast in Washington, each taking different tacks in addressing records littered with potential problems in appealing to African American voters, if they decide to run. Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders were in South Carolina, at a church where King was supposed to appear before changing plans and heading to a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was assassinated. Kirsten Gillibrand appeared at another Sharpton event in New York. And Warren, Julián Castro, and Sherrod Brown all appeared at smaller Martin Luther King Jr. events in their hometowns.

Bloomberg captured the must-beat-Trump mood that is defining the party, looking at the other potential candidate in the room whose decision would likely do the most to shape the dynamics of the race.

“Whatever the next year brings for Joe and me, I know we’ll both keep our eyes on the real prize, which is a Democrat winning the White House in 2020 and getting our country back on track,” he said.

Harris and her staff knew for weeks that she was going to announce over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, and they built a crescendo around that. Her book tour at the beginning of the month served as a buffer to introduce her to more and more people. While the chattering classes have already anointed her a juggernaut, many ordinary Americans have never heard of her. And the book tour had the added benefit of allowing her to weather initial attacks on her record as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general before she was technically even a candidate.

Let Warren wonk out, they figured. Let Beto O’Rourke take a road trip searching for himself and journaling about his experiences on social media. Let others try to stake out corners of the field for themselves in order to stand out.

Harris is pitching herself as the one who can actually put together a winning coalition of voters, which Democrats have obsessed about ever achieving again since their 2016 shocker loss.

Harris’s logo is inspired by Shirley Chisholm, who in 1972 became the first black woman to run for president. But she is resisting attempts to pigeonhole her: On Monday afternoon, she deflected a question about her Indian heritage by saying flatly that she’s an American, and she refused to talk about how she’d make any particular appeals to black voters because, as she sees it, people have the same worries, “be it a mom in Compton, or a mom in Kentucky.”

King’s most famous speech, a Harris adviser pointed out (on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal campaign thinking) after she finished speaking with reporters in Washington, didn’t just include “I have a dream,” but “Let freedom ring.” The animating spirit of the civil-rights movement, the adviser added, was that people are “called based on our common language and our common spirit.”

The candidate who announced on Martin Luther King Day Jr., the adviser argued, is the one to do that: “The American dream’s under attack, and our American values are under attack. You have to tie those things together.”

Harris isn’t the only candidate making a bigger argument. Booker, who hasn’t announced yet but is on the verge, included a long message Sunday night to go with an Instagram picture of him with the civil-rights icon and Representative John Lewis, along with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.

“I believe we need a revival of civic grace in our country. We have so much common pain in America—from the lack of affordable health care to the opioid crisis to dignity assaulting jobs that don’t pay a living wage or offer basic security and so much more. We have a common pain, but we lack a common purpose,” Booker wrote in a clear preview of what he’ll soon be saying on the trail. “Now more than ever, we need each other to do great things; we need the limitless power that we can manifest through our collective efforts.”

Harris’s early reception was intense. For a candidate whose entry wasn’t at all a surprise, it generated buzz all day. Harris aides bragged that she’d received donations from all 50 states within 30 minutes of announcing, and that her launch video had surpassed 3 million views by the late afternoon. She passed Warren in Instagram followers, they noted, and had 300,000 engagements with her posts there on Monday alone.

By trying to speak to a broader problem, though, what Harris doesn’t have at this point is many specific solutions. Her announcement came with an email to reporters pointing to a bill she wrote that would provide a $500 monthly tax credit to families making under $100,000 per year, another that would reform the bail process, and another aimed at tackling implicit bias in health care that leaves black women three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes.

After spending most of her career as a prosecutor, the biggest early question facing Harris is whether she can convince a liberal electorate that she’s a progressive who tried to bend justice toward victims from the inside, rather than a cop who was out to put people behind bars. Her “For the People” slogan is an attempt to turn that background into a strength, a calling, and her advisers like how that her years in law enforcement stand in contrast to a president who’s facing multiple criminal investigations and has been accused of abandoning the rule of law while in office. The prosecutor for president, they like to say.

That, the Harris adviser said, is how she avoids getting mocked in the way that some went after Barack Obama in 2008, saying he was offering high-minded talk that wasn’t headed anywhere. “It’s not going to be hope and change,” the adviser said. “It’s going to be truth and justice.”