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Why Kamala Harris’ campaign failed to gain traction

Three candidates have exited the 2020 presidential race in three days, though more than a dozen remain. On Monday, California Sen. Kamala Harris announced the end of her bid for the Democratic nomination, sharing a video for supporters that referenced some of the challenges her campaign faced amid a field of wealthy candidates. John Yang reports and talks to The Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Three Democratic candidates in three days have exited the race for president.

    With more than a dozen still remaining in the race, John Yang reports on how the latest to bow out could reshape the campaign.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, California Senator Kamala Harris launched her campaign in January amid high expectations.

    Today, as she left the race, she told supporters in a video message that she doesn't have the resources to compete.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:

    I'm not a billionaire. I can't fund my own campaign.

    And as the campaign has gone on, it has become harder and harder to raise the money we need to compete. In good faith, I cannot tell you, my supporters and volunteers, that I have a path forward if I don't believe I do.

  • John Yang:

    To talk about what happened to Senator Harris' campaign and what her departure does to the race, I'm joined by Chelsea Janes of The Washington Post.

    Chelsea, thanks so much for joining us.

    We began — the Democrats began this campaign season with a historically diverse field of candidates. As things stand now, in the next debate, the "PBS NewsHour"/Politico debate, you're going to have six candidates on the stage, all of them white, four white males, two white women.

    What does that say about what's happening in this race?

  • Chelsea Janes:

    It is certainly striking.

    And, today, we have seen a lot of candidates and pundits and people in that world take to Twitter and point that out. I think it's disappointing to a lot of people, who — in these underrepresented groups that looked at someone like Kamala Harris and said, you know, that's the first person to look like me who is going to have a shot at this.

    And to have it whittle down as it has, I think, on the one hand, you have the most diverse field in history, and, on the other, it's not shaping up to remain that way. And I think there's a lesson to be learned there.

    What it is, is far above my pay grade, but I do think that it's really disappointing to a lot of people in an increasingly diverse Democratic electorate, who hoped that they would see somebody different represented this time around.

  • John Yang:

    The other candidates may still qualify for the debate, but that's what the qualifications — who has qualified so far.

    As you say, Kamala Harris began this race as a rising star in the party, a woman, one of the few women, African-American women, in the Senate, mixed race. She tried to recreate the coalition that elected Barack Obama.

    You were just in South Carolina last week talking about her difficulties gaining traction. What happened to her race? What happened to her campaign?

  • Chelsea Janes:

    You know, I think it really started with a bang. As we all know, she had over 20,000 people in Oakland, still one of the biggest events of this entire campaign cycle.

    But I think what that did was sort of mask for a lot of people sort of the reality of Kamala Harris as a relatively unknown figure nationally. To those of us in the Beltway, who watch all the hearings and know who she was from that, yes, she feels like she's been around a bit.

    But I think, nationally, she had a lot of introducing to do, and her campaign sort of had to operate more nationally, on a broader scale, as if she were a front-runner and I think, eventually, sort of built out this big operation that, when the polling dropped and the money wasn't coming, it was too big to sustain.

    And, you know, entering a Senate race in 2022 in a state as expensive as California, she can't do go into debt. She can't have something like that hanging over her. So, I think this was a calculation that was mostly financial, which is surprising.

    But I think, ultimately, they decided there's no reason to push this. We're not seeing signs of progress. And what was once a really promising campaign just wasn't able to regain its footing.

  • John Yang:

    In your piece, you talked about how she sort of wavered between the — never really defined herself, as part of the progressives, part of the moderates.

    Talk about the difficulty she had sort of defining herself.

  • Chelsea Janes:


    You know, I think it's really interesting. You look at this field, you see Biden. You kind of know who Joe Biden is, and voters say, oh, I know Joe. And Bernie Sanders, you know who Bernie Sanders is. And Elizabeth Warren, with her 2 cents and her big structural change, has sort of carved out a brand for herself.

    But Kamala Harris was never as easy to put on a bumper sticker as some of the others and never found that message that really summed up the brand in a word or two and made you know exactly who she was.

    And maybe it's not fair to ask that of candidates, but I think, in her case, in this time, people really wanted to see someone with clear intentions and clear priorities.

    And as she tried to pitch herself as sort of the one who would work on issues and be practical, not ideological, and as she tried to thread the needle between sort of the moderates in the Democratic Party and Sanders and Warren for the left, she sort of lost clarity in exactly who she was and why she was running.

    And I think one thing we have heard from voters everywhere is that they want someone they can trust and someone whose intentions are very clear. They want to know who these people are.

    And I don't think she ever gave people the answer they were looking for.

  • John Yang:

    Given that, with less than two months to go before the first votes are cast, is there a candidate who would be a naturally — natural recipient of her supporters now?

  • Chelsea Janes:

    It's a great question.

    I have heard a lot of theories on that. But I — my understanding is that some of their polling showed that her — people that supported Kamala Harris, their second choice, it wasn't a clear-cut thing. It came from a lot of places.

    I think you're going to see some of it go to Elizabeth Warren. I think there's a large contingent of people, kind of the suburban women that Harris was courting, that might find their way to her. I think Mayor Pete is obviously someone with whom she's had overlap.

    And I think, initially, it was Joe Biden that her campaign really thought she'd have to sort of undermine to get those voters and pry those voters away from him. So maybe he will be the recipient of some of those voters.

    But I think it helps a variety of candidates, and maybe isn't necessarily a huge push for one over the other.

  • John Yang:

    Chelsea Janes of The Washington Post, thanks so much.

  • Chelsea Janes:

    Thanks for having me.

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