Skip to content
The Sweep: Does Harris Help or Hurt?
Go to my account

The Sweep: Does Harris Help or Hurt?

Or will the election just be a referendum on Donald Trump?

Campaign Quick Hits

Cash rules everything around me: The Biden campaign announced Friday it had raised $48 million in the 48 hours after announcing Sen. Kamala Harris had joined the ticket. That’s about a third of the total the campaign raised in the entire month of July. 

The cake is baked: According to a new CBS News poll, 96 percent of likely voters say their minds are made up about who to vote for this year. That same poll has Joe Biden leading Donald Trump by 10 points with only 2 percent undecided. In 2016, the same poll showed 11 percent of voters were still undecided or likely to change their minds before election day in a 4-point race.

NeverTrump leading in the polls: Asked why they supported Democratic nominee Joe Biden, 56 percent of registered voters chose “He is not Trump” as their primary reason in a Pew study released last week—nearly triple the next most popular reason, “leadership/performance” (19 percent). As Amy Walter from Cook Political Report put it, “If Biden wins he would come into office without any sort of political or policy mandate other than being ‘not Trump.’”

A way-too-early look at 2024: Among Republicans, 31 percent of respondents to a recent survey picked Mike Pence as their 2024 nominee—far more than the 17 percent who picked the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and the 11 percent who chose Nikki Haley, the president’s former U.N. ambassador. Interestingly, Tucker Carlson garnered 7 percent in the poll, beating out folks like Sen. Marco Rubio and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

Fun times: Wu-Tang may be forever, but that ice cream truck jingle that annoys you every summer is not. Wu-Tang’s RZA and Good Humor have released a new song to replace “Turkey in the Straw,” which was used in minstrel shows and has had racist lyrics in the past. Plus, it’s just a deeply terrible song. ODB was right: Wu Tang is now literally “for the children.”

To Those New Experts on What It Means to be “African American”:

Before we dive in, I need to get something off my chest. A friend of mine was recently on cable news and referred to Sen. Harris as “African American.” She got a flood of emails “correcting” her. “She is not African American, she is Jamaican, get your facts right and correct yourself on air,” read one such missive. First of all, she’s not Jamaican. She’s American. Her father was Jamaican. And while I don’t know her family’s full history on her father’s side, it seems to me there’s a pretty good chance her father’s family came to Jamaica involuntarily … from Africa. But while I think the point is being made in bad faith online by people who aren’t actually invested in the African American experience, in The Sweep, we will be using black. Harris describes herself as black (“I’m black, and I’m proud of being black”), and I particularly liked Jamelle Bouie’s discussion of the terms here in which he added that black can “be used in reference to the cultural heritage of Americans of African descent.”

Now let’s get back to it. First up, Andrew sets the stage …

And If You Don’t Know, Now You Know

The top of the 2020 ticket is set. Joe Biden tapped Sen. Kamala Harris, formerly a bitter campaign rival, to be his running mate last Tuesday, bringing to a close a period of endless media speculation about who the former vice president would choose. (In fairness, it’s not like there was much else going on in the news.)

Early in the campaign, Biden let it be known that he was planning to choose a woman to be his running mate—a noteworthy thing in itself, since the like has only happened twice before for a major party, and particularly so this year, since Biden’s pick was widely expected to leap to the top of the heap for the most likely Democrat to succeed him as the party’s next presidential nominee. As protests against racism and police brutality sparked across America following the death of George Floyd earlier this year, Biden additionally decided it would behoove him to pick a black woman to join him on the ticket.

Taking those factors alone under consideration, Harris was an unsurprising choice. Of the candidates considered, she was the one with the biggest national profile—it wasn’t that long ago, after all, that she was considered a 2020 favorite herself. Of the other candidates Biden reportedly considered, none were quite so ready for primetime as the California senator.

“I thought Karen Bass was the best pick among those under consideration, but then the whole Communist thing exploded on her,” said GOP strategist Gregg Keller. “I never thought Susan Rice was a viable option and thought she’d do the ticket more harm than good.”

Still, the Harris pick was risky for the Biden campaign in some ways. As a matter of policy positioning, it was awkward—Harris is disliked for her prosecutorial past by many on the anti-police left, while her expansive view of executive power and severe gun-control positions, among other things, make her an anxiety-inducing figure among some of the wishy-washy right-of-center voters the Biden campaign hopes to lure away from President Trump.

The pick also felt odd given the strong animosity Harris showed toward Biden on the campaign trail. During the first primary debate, while most candidates were still trying to maintain a spirit of camaraderie and project a unified front against President Trump, Harris blindsided Biden with a stinging rebuke of his former opposition to school busing during the 1970s and ’80s. She also threw her support behind several women who said Biden’s handsiness while meeting them at events had made them feel uncomfortable.

In one sense, the broadsides were not unusual: Biden, after all, was the frontrunner Harris was trying to topple. But the specific lines of attack she chose, suggesting he was out of step with the modern Democratic party on racial and gender issues, make for an odd pairing with her new role as the primary cheerleader for the Biden-led party ticket.

Still, some strategists we spoke to suggested that Biden might have picked Harris not in spite of their history of butting heads, but because of it.

“Here’s a guy who got called out by Kamala Harris in public, and who took that experience, rethought his old views, and introduced real proposals that won over critics and turned a rival like Harris into an ally,” Democratic strategist Max Burns told us. “I think that sends a hugely important message not just to voters, but to the Hill and the civil service that unlike Trump, Biden is actually a deliberative administrator.”

Help, Help Me Kamala

Now let’s break it down with the most frequent question I’ve been asked since Sen. Kamala Harris joined the ticket: Does she help or hurt Biden’s chances of winning? The real answer is … probably neither. As I wrote before the pick was announced in our first edition of The Sweep:

According to a poll released last week, 54 percent “said it will have no impact on their choice for president.” And we have good reason to believe that. The Wall Street Journal compiled polls from 1988-2016 and found “overwhelming majorities have said a candidate’s choice of running mate has no effect on their vote for president.” And just to prove the point, they noted that “[i]n the past 17 elections, five Democratic vice-presidential nominees and six Republicans failed to put their states in the win column.”)

But there are reasons to think this time could be different. Harris is an historic pick and Biden’s enthusiasm numbers have been flagging as questions continue to percolate about whether he would even run for a second term if he won. So let’s run through the best arguments on both sides, shall we?

Harris helps because she can …

Focus on fundraising: Harris was never a fundraising powerhouse during her own presidential run, lagging behind the upstart Pete Buttigieg and the Bernie Sanders small-dollar machine. But since then, her June fundraiser for Biden raised more than Hillary Clinton’s did. And the fundraising surge after the announcement doubled the Biden campaign’s previous one day record. It is a primary responsibility of the VP nominee to keep the big donors happy and feeling connected to the campaign, and coming from California, this should come easily to her. This is probably the biggest reason Harris in particular is a net plus for the ticket compared to Biden’s other finalists. 

Help Senate candidates in the South: Democratic Senate campaigns don’t seem to need much help these days. The numbers across the board are staggering, with Democrats set to pick up as many as eight seats come November, but there’s no harm in having a VP nominee who can run up the score. Black voters, of course, make up a large percentage of the Democratic base and even more so in the South where several of these pick-up seats are. As Max Greenwood noted over at The Hill, “There are already signs that Biden’s presidential campaign is building out Harris’s political team with an eye toward the South. On Tuesday, the campaign tapped its Southern Political Director Vince Evans as Harris’ new political director.” Then again, it was Joe Biden who broke Barack Obama’s turnout record in South Carolina during the primary. 

Win over more black men: Trump got more than three times more support from black men than black women in 2016 (though we’re still talking single digits, of course). As of just a few months ago, 24 percent of black men approved of Trump’s job performance versus only 6 percent of black women. If Kanye manages to get on the ballot in any of the battleground states (and that’s a big “if” at this point), there is real concern that Trump and Kanye could pull a few points from Biden with black men in particular. Will the possibility of electing the first black woman vice president be enough to overcome the gender divide? Maybe. On the one hand, her primary campaign never caught on with black voters. On the other hand, polling since she joined the ticket suggests that black men are, in fact, a little more likely to vote for the ticket now (though still not as much as black women). And she’s putting in the effort. Just yesterday, Essence and The Grio both published interviews with her. And the campaign has gotten headlines like “Black Colleges See Kamala Harris as a Much-Needed Champion” in Bloomberg and “Harris’s wooing of Black activists paved a path to the ticket” in the Washington Post

Pull more of the Asian vote: While black voters will make up about 13 percent of the 2020 electorate, Asian voters are expected to count for only about 5 points. Thinking to 2024 or 2028, however, they are also the fastest growing voter demographic. In 2016,  Asian-American/Pacific-Islander (AAPI) voters favored Hillary Clinton about 2o-to-1over Trump nationwide. But in some battleground states, Trump had made inroads over Mitt Romney’s performance four years earlier. Every little bit counts, but we are talking pretty small numbers here and within a group where Democrats were already strong. 

Run up the score with suburban women: Normally I would put this higher on the list. After all, women make up more than half of the electorate and somehow we still haven’t had a woman on a winning presidential ticket. But there are two problems with this argument. First, Hillary Clinton didn’t win the White House, so clearly having a woman on the ticket is not alone sufficient. And second, Biden was already leading among women by a larger margin than Clinton was in several of the battleground states. He’s running 25 points ahead of Trump with all women and 17 points ahead with suburban women—a group Republicans used to rely on. Running up the numbers in the suburbs will help but it’s unclear whether Harris can be any more effective than Biden at being “not Trump” when it comes to this group.

Cause Trump to alienate even more voters: If the biggest reason Biden supporters support him is because he’s not Trump (see quick hits above), then Harris is not only not Trump but may have the ability to get under his skin more than most. Trump has already questioned whether Harris is eligible to run for vice president because her parents were immigrants. He called her “nasty.” His son liked a tweet that referred to her as a “whorendous” choice. And that was just in the first week. Attacks from Trump are a quick way to raise her name ID nationally and rally Democrats to defend her and independents to root for her.

Avoid gaffes: his is mostly an argument in the “do no harm” camp rather than the affirmatively help side of the ledger, but not hurting is helping right now. The last thing the Biden team needs are unforced errors caused by someone who melts under the bright lights and intense scrutiny of a national campaign. Biden, after all, has his own gaffes to worry about so adding someone who has run a national race and has been vetted by the media is just a smart prevent defense strategy. (Yes, yes. I know she lost but do you remember anything insane she said or did? I didn’t think so.)

Harris hurts because she can’t … 

Rebuild enthusiasm with progressives and young voters: The poor Bernie Bros. They were the darlings of the Democratic party. They could almost taste the nomination. And now it’s their worst nightmare: Biden-Harris. Said one progressive to Holly Otterbein at Politico, “We might be looking at 12 years of neoliberal power at the top of the Democratic Party.” But while she may not energize the Bernie base from a policy standpoint, Harris skeptics are also relieved that Biden didn’t pick Rice and seem excited about the prospect of making history. 

Persuade conservative voters who are waffling on Trump: According to an ABC/Ipsos pool, 40 percent of registered voters think Harris is too liberal. She’s a senator from California, after all. To the extent there were some 2016 Trump voters who were on the fence, Harris probably doesn’t do much to win them over. She isn’t progressive enough for the Bernie wing, but she isn’t moderate enough either, it seems. After all, she supports a phased-in Medicare for All health care plan that would get rid of private insurance and cover illegal aliens. Plus she wants to ban plastic straws. As Erick Erickson put it, “I go back and forth, depending on the day, on whether I think I’ll stay home or go vote. Harris a heartbeat away from the presidency has me filling out my absentee ballot request form to vote for Trump.” But the better bet is that—when push came to ballot box—those people were never going to vote for Biden anyway. 

Help but energize Trump voters to turn out against her: There’s also a question of whether a pick like Harris can help turn out another type of voter—Trump’s voters. There’s no question that Trump voters don’t have the visceral hatred of Joe Biden that they had for Hillary Clinton. But many Trump voters believe that Biden will not serve an entire term and the VP nominee will become president. I don’t know who Biden could have picked that they would have liked (hint: no one), but Harris may gin up a few extra Trump voters to head to the polls if the Trump campaign can cast her as another Clinton. 

Make California matter: Biden could have picked the governor of Michigan or Stacey Abrams from Georgia to help win a few additional votes in a battleground state or have a better chance of winning the Senate back. Then again, the last time a vice presidential pick flipped a state for his ticket was Al Gore in 1992. Regardless, California doesn’t help Biden and a senator from California probably doesn’t speak fluent mMidwestern-swing-voter either.

Steal the spotlight from Trump: In case it wasn’t obvious, the media loves covering Trump. To the extent that starts helping Trump instead of hurting him, Harris won’t be able to do much about it. She was marginally better known than the other people on Biden’s shortlist but far from a household name. When she announced her run for the nomination, 60 percent of Democrats hadn’t heard of her or had no opinion of her. That number today among registered voters is still above 30 percent and even then she’s hardly a well-known quantity. Both sides will fight to define her for themselves—for better or worse. 

Overcome the sexism and racism that still exists: If there’s one thing we can all agree on in 2020, surely, it’s that some amount of unconscious racism still exists in America. But there’s also plenty of sexism lingering in the wake of the #MeToo movement, too. In 2016, about 40 percent of Americans said they believed the country was better off “when men and women stick to the jobs and tasks they are naturally suited for.” And the percentage of Americans who are satisfied with the way women are treated is down 10 points since Trump took office. Harris didn’t invent sexism or racism and she isn’t going to end it. Just ask Barack Obama. 

Overall, I’d say the arguments for her helping are stronger. But does that actually mean she helps the ticket? No. Especially in this election that has every indication that it will be a referendum on Donald Trump, Biden most likely could have picked anyone from his short list and the outcome in November (or December?) will have been the same. But it’s about the friends we made along the way, isn’t it?

Photograph by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.