Even when the hype around Harris was at its apex, her advisers and confidants wondered if the freshman senator was ready for a presidential run. In each of her past campaigns — first for district attorney of San Francisco, then California attorney general and the Senate in 2016 — Harris improved immensely, rising to the moment and giving her best performances when her back was against the wall.
This time, the moment — and the stage — proved too large. Kamala the campaigner couldn’t live up to Kamala the idea. And her campaign let her down.
Running for president is hard stuff, even for someone with formidable political skills like Harris. Ascending to the top of the field typically takes a galvanizing theme, which she didn’t have. Harris early on didn’t know where she wanted to go. She played from a thin leaflet of material that she ground to dust by year’s end. When she improvised, she tripped, most glaringly over single-payer healthcare.
Eventually, her most memorable moment — her exchange with Biden in the June debate over busing for school desegregation — turned into a mess when Harris flubbed the follow-through. She offered a muddled, shifting answer that allowed Biden’s campaign to paint her as opportunistic and a hypocrite.
Her polling sugar high subsided. She slid to the level of Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard and never recovered.
Aides groused about how Harris never built a base. College-educated white liberals — a group that strongly backed her in past campaigns — split between Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg. Biden, meantime, retained the loyal backing of African American voters, a development that may emerge as the most important story of the Democratic primary.
What’s impossible to assess is how Harris would have fared with a functional team around her. She built a precarious structure of advisers at the top — a kind of team of rivals whose quiet snarks about each other grew louder in recent months — and she allowed senior aides to throw out ideas without designating them a defined area of responsibility.
Harris’ advisers Ace Smith and Sean Clegg launched her with a focus on the back half of the primary calendar — namely South Carolina and California — then pivoted hard back to Iowa only when it was too late.
By the summer, Harris’ team, which by then included Jim Margolis, prodded her toward unity-focused themes that centered on kitchen table economic issues. She never really bought in. And that came through as she resisted really selling it.
On one side was Harris’ sister, campaign chair Maya Harris, who recommended many hires and fed Kamala’s insecurities about the liability of being a prosecutor in today’s Democratic Party —and given her own mixed record. On the other was campaign manager Juan Rodriguez and his partners at the San Francisco-based political firm SCRB, including Smith and Clegg.
Even mundane tasks like agreeing on the candidate’s schedule proved maddening for aides at her Baltimore headquarters. Rodriguez and others failed to anticipate the dramatic drop-off in fundraising, bringing on new staff just a few weeks before laying off dozens in early states and headquarters. Staffers said they had been warning for months of the dire financial situation and worried that Harris herself was unaware.
After the layoffs, many of the aides at the middle to lower levels of the campaign said they weren’t so much siding with one camp or the other as they were throwing up their hands in exasperation at everyone. They weren’t being communicated a plan. They didn’t know if one existed.
It got worse when they realized nothing was going to improve.
Harris huddled with family over Thanksgiving in Iowa and pored over her campaign’s meager and diminishing finances.
In her Tuesday note to supporters, she wrote about the increasing difficulty of raising money in recent months, contending that she couldn’t in good faith tell her supporters and volunteers that she had a path forward if she herself didn’t believe it.
“Kamala has never been in this race just to be a candidate or to be introduced as one,” said a senior Harris aide. “She was here to win. And she’s also said from the start: ‘I’m not going to bullshit people.’ That’s true to form and it’s what people love about her.”
Still, the caution and fence-straddling that Harris displayed earlier in her career, as the lead local and then state prosecutor, perhaps provided clues to her problems as a presidential candidate. In California, Harris stayed out of several fights over criminal justice issues. She avoided taking positions she feared would upset law enforcement or make her look soft on crime — but which have become standard for Democrats in the current environment.
There was cruelty in the timing of Harris’ departure from the race.
She hadn’t been on the air in Iowa since September. She had taken to pleading with supporters for money to put her viral online ad on air.
But on Monday, Harris outside allies Brian Brokaw, a campaign manager from previous runs, and Dan Newman, an old partner of Smith and Clegg, purchased hundreds of thousands of dollars in airtime in Iowa backed by a pro-Harris super PAC. They’d done polling and spent the Thanksgiving holiday cutting the ad. They canceled the buy on Tuesday.
Also, in recent weeks, even as the staff morass consumed her campaign, Harris’ aides and early-state surrogates were talking a lot about how she’d corrected for the tics that ailed her. She gave a dazzling speech at the big Democratic dinner in Iowa that reminded some of her promise.
Harris reclaimed ownership over her career working as a prosecutor, punching at opponents for questioning her motives, asking what some of them have ever done for criminal justice reform and noting that some backed the 1994 crime bill.
She found solid footing on health care, while poking holes in Biden and Buttigieg’s plans.
But behind the scenes, advisers were talking about ways to protect her long-term reputation and extricating her from the mess. Harris is 55 years old. She’s up for reelection in two years in California, and the most important thing her campaign team did in 2016 was clear the field of any serious competition.
“They didn’t want to push her into debt,” said a longtime former aide, pausing. “But then, she might have just had no fight left.”
Now, Harris has become among the most coveted endorsements in the race.
Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, a Biden supporter, said he wasn’t surprised by Harris’ decision to pull the plug. “I think she’s got an incredible future, but this was just not going to be the year and I think doing something now rather than continuing was smart,” Jones said.
Perhaps more importantly, Harris is still very much in the veep stakes, Jones said. (Biden was asked about this Tuesday, but declined to answer.)
“I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Jones added. “In fact, it probably preserved that more than continuing to plow forward under the circumstances.”
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.