12 min read

The Kamala question

Is Kamala Harris the right running mate for 2024? And would she be the obvious nominee if Biden weren’t in the picture?
The Kamala question
Photo by the White House

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, August 9, 2023. The 2024 elections are 454 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

It’s time to talk about Kamala Harris again. The last time I wrote at length about the vice president, in September 2022, I mentioned that queries about Harris were probably the most common type of questions to land in my inbox.

Almost a year later, that’s still true. With the 2024 campaign heating up, many of you have continued pinging me with a stream of Harris-related questions, wondering (often with an unmistakable note of anxiety) what her role will be in the next campaign: running mate, presidential nominee, or — if some of the questioners have their way — neither?

So I figured that it’s time to revisit my 2022 piece and update you on my latest thinking about Harris and the broader Democratic bench heading into 2024 and beyond. Before we dive in, here’s a sampling of some of the questions I’ll aim to answer below:

Does Vice President Harris automatically get added to the ticket? Does Biden or the Democratic party decide who should run for vice president? Do you think the party would do better, given the age question, with someone else on the ticket? Do you think she should throw herself on her sword and step back? — Carol F.
Curious how/why VP Harris has fallen out of favor and seems to have a reduced role? Might this mean Biden would opt for another running mate? How could this affect his campaign success?  — Mimi H.
If Biden doesn’t actually run for 2nd term for some reason (health, age, etc) is Harris automatically the nominee or might others step up? What are her strengths and weaknesses? I know it’s late in the process but things happen. — Catherine C.

These are two types of questions here: process questions and political questions. Let’s tackle the first kind first.

For starters: no, Harris technically does not automatically become the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2024. She still has to receive the support of at least 1,888 Democratic delegates at the party’s convention in Chicago next summer, just like Biden does. (In practice, that vote is just a formality and the delegates will rubber-stamp whoever the presidential nominee picks. There is no evidence that Biden is considering tapping anyone besides Harris for the role.)

And no, just because Harris is vice president, it does not mean she would be slotted into the presidential nomination if Biden were to bow out before the convention. If that were to happen, there would be an open primary process, in which Harris would almost certainly run, but so would many other people.

But what you all really want to know are the political implications here. Is it smart politics for Harris to be renominated as vice president? And is she positioning herself well as the logical Democratic standard-bearer in 2024, if Biden suddenly steps aside, or in 2028? Let’s take those two questions one at a time.

This time, we mean it

A few semesters ago, I had a professor whose name I won’t share — Georgetown classes, I’ve learned the hard way, are strictly off-the-record unless stated otherwise — but who is fairly high-up in the Democratic Party and a well-known Harris ally. Many of you would be familiar with them.

The class took place during the Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmation hearings, and the professor told us confidently that Jackson’s nomination process would be a turning point for public perceptions of Harris. Because Harris is the first Black female vice president, the professor said, and Jackson would be the first Black female Supreme Court justice, Harris would be much more linked in the public consciousness with Jackson’s successful confirmation than Biden, the president who nominated her. After Jackson joined the bench, the professor assured us, opinions on Harris would start to turn around.

Maybe they were just spinning, albeit for a bunch of undergrads (again, wouldn’t be the first time in a Georgetown classroom), but the professor seemed to honestly believe what they were saying. I, on the other hand, thought it was ridiculous, and (politely) said so. There was simply no way a vice president would be more associated with a Supreme Court confirmation (or anything achieved in an administration) than a president, I said, no matter the similarities between them and the justice.

I think the evidence bears out that I was right — Jackson’s confirmation came and went without a discernible change in Harris’ polling — but I’m not sharing this story to say “I told you so.” (Mostly.) I’m sharing it because it seems to me that every few months, the VP’s allies take to the media to make this same case: this will be the moment that people’s minds change about Kamala.

We heard this after Dobbs. We heard this after the midterms, when the end of the 50-50 Senate freed her up to do more travel. We heard this after Harris visited Africa. And we heard it after a recent string of speeches in which Harris seemed to be more comfortable extemporizing and more integrated into Biden’s economic messaging. You can decide for yourself if any of these so-called “turning points” ended up impacting Harris’ popularity:

Here’s the thing, though: that long-awaited moment — the grand turnaround in Harris’ polling — will probably never come, and that probably doesn’t matter. Harris’ allies should stop waiting for it, and her critics should stop grousing about it.

After all, a 2017 study found that vice presidential approval really just mirrors presidential approval. Yes, an NBC poll in June found Harris to be the least popular vice president in recent history — but, according to this thinking, that’s really only because her boss is the least popular president in recent history. “In the aggregate, citizens seem to have no independent opinion of vice presidents,” the study’s author, political science professor Jody Baumgartner, wrote. Opinions on Harris are inextricably linked to opinions on Biden.

On top of that, we are in something of a post-approval era, where almost anything can happen — war in Europe, say, or the end of Roe v. Wade — and approval ratings don’t move an inch. We are so over-exposed to our politicians now, and so tribal in our thinking, that pretty much everyone is already familiar with all the relevant characters and approximately half the country has decided whether to dislike them after seeing their (R) or (D).

These increasingly static approval ratings are also increasingly un-predictive of actual political outcomes, as seen in the 2022 midterms and recent special elections, where Democrats have performed well despite Biden-Harris’ unpopularity. (This is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if most mainstream politicians are unshakably unpopular, the winner of any election will always be overcoming negative approval ratings.)

Perhaps vice presidential approval matters more when a president is 80 years old and the possibility of the VP moving up a spot becomes more realistic. We can’t say for sure; having an 80-year-old president is uncharted territory. Republican presidential candidates have certainly tried to take advantage of the combination of Biden’s age and Harris’ unpopularity, and will likely continue invoking Harris throughout the campaign. “A vote for President Biden is actually a vote for President Harris,” Nikki Haley likes to warn.

But Biden would be just as old if Gretchen Whitmer was his running mate, and based on what we know about vice presidential approval, Whitmer would probably be just as unpopular. So it’s not clear to me that Biden would gain anything by subbing Harris out for another running mate — especially considering the backlash he would receive from Black and female voters, among whom Harris is popular.

By and large, political science research has found that the VP picks have minimal impact on who people end up voting for. (Again, maybe this would be different with an 80-year-old president, but that’s probably too risky an assumption for Biden to go off of considering the tradeoffs.) According to a 2016 study, for every five points that a vice presidential candidate is rated more favorably on a thermometer scale, a voter’s probability of supporting the running mate’s ticket increases by only 2.9 percentage points. (A five-point increase in a presidential candidate’s favorability was found to increase the possibility of a voter supporting that ticket by 10–10.3 percentage points, a considerably higher impact.)

The same study also found no home-state effect for VP candidates (“the average effect of a vice presidential candidacy on home state voting...is zero, statistically speaking”) meaning it’s not as if Whitmer, say, would deliver Michigan for Biden.

In all likelihood, then, there is little about the election that would be fundamentally changed if Biden were to switch his running mate.

The Democratic bench, reconsidered

What about for the top job? Has Harris set herself up as Biden’s logical successor, either in 2024 or 2028?

I think there was a point earlier in Biden’s administration when many Democratic leaders viewed their 2024 choice as binary: the nominee would either be Biden, who some feared was too old, or, if he was pushed aside, Harris, who they feared even more. So they chose to ride it out with Biden and hope for the best.

But I think any analysis of the Democratic bench has to be fundamentally altered by the 2022 elections. During the Obama presidency, the White House largely ignored state-level elections and the party’s lower ranks were decimated as a result. But then a funny thing happened when Biden, an inveterate party man, invested in the DNC and state parties: a bench began to form.

After 2022, the idea that Biden stepping aside would lead to a Harris coronation is laughable. Democrats’ midterm wins ensured that the party was stocked with young leaders who would give Harris a run for her money in any eventual nomination fight, including Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock and Govs. Whitmer in Michigan and Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania.

Of course, there are other likely candidates too (California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg), but I want to focus on the Warnock-Whitmer-Shapiro trio for right now. At the moment, I think those three have positioned themselves the best to inherit the Biden mantle, even more than his own vice president.

There’s no obvious political philosophy that is “Bidenism,” but if you spend some time with it, a few central tenets of the president’s thinking emerge. Keep an eye trained on Scranton. Don’t dismiss working-class, non-college-educated voters as a lost cause. Reach across the aisle and negotiate. Try to build things. Unapologetically lean into patriotism.

During the Obama era and in the wilderness under Trump, the Democratic Party was largely seen as cleaved into two “lanes”: moderate and progressive. Biden has managed to keep the party united by achieving something of a synthesis between these two lines of thinking, with an added dose of populism mixed in. He has pursued incrementalism on some issues, but pushed for larger-scale change on ideas that boast more popular support. He has worked with Republicans when he felt bipartisanship was possible, but also confronted them on issues where he has been able to paint them as extremist.

Warnock, Whitmer, and Shapiro have followed this lead. They have tacked to the left on issues like abortion and voting rights, while still putting a premium on bipartisanship. Working with Ted Cruz was a main selling point of Warnock’s re-election; Whitmer has boasted of signing more than 1,000 bipartisan bills; Shapiro began his tenure with a “GOP charm offensive,” adding Republicans to his Cabinet.

All three share Biden’s focus on building (look no further than Shapiro and I-95 or Whitmer’s slogan, “Fix the Damn Roads”) and his proclivity for the well-placed populist crusade (Warnock’s bipartisan bill to cap insulin prices). They have sought to reach beyond college-educated voters (Shapiro’s executive order removing the requirement of a four-year degree for thousands of state jobs) and made Bidenesque salutes to technocracy. “Let’s show everyone that the cure for cynicism is competence,” Whitmer has said.

At times, these Democrats have tried to move more centrist than even Biden, such as Warnock criticizing the administration’s border policy. (Another up-and-coming Democrat, Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey, did the same this week.) They have also sought to drape themselves in the flag: Shapiro and Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, for example, both talk frequently about leaning into patriotism, much like Biden does.

Harris’ political roots, on the other hand, mesh uncomfortably with Bidenism. In her brief pre-vice presidential career, Harris tried for a similar synthesis as Biden but ended up flip-flopping so many times across the ideological map that even her own aides began to doubt whether she had many firmly held policy principles. Harris is viewed skeptically by progressives for her time as a prosecutor; moderates are similarly dubious because of her lurches to the left during the 2020 primaries, such as when she endorsed Medicare For All (until she didn’t).

A New York Times postmortem of her primary bid partly faulted her campaign’s “fixation” with Twitter, in contrast to the Biden team’s mantra that “Twitter is not real life” (another Bidenism tenet). During the campaign, Harris would frequently take on the liberal cause du jour — most memorably when she spent time in a debate haranguing her rivals into calling for Twitter to suspend Trump’s account — while Biden would hang back, picking his spots.

It does not seem as though race or gender is the fundamental divide here (Whitmer is a woman and Warnock is Black), but perhaps it is geography. Barack Obama writes in his book, “A Promised Land,” about how campaigning in rural Illinois helped prepare him for targeting working-class voters as a presidential candidate. Biden is from Delaware, but long ago decided to forge his political identity in Scranton; in the Trump era, he was the only national Democrat welcome as a surrogate in much of the Rust Belt. Likewise, Shaprio and Whitmer were the two Democratic candidates who most overperformed in rural counties during their 2022 races.

Harris, who interestingly has prodded Biden to move beyond his Scranton focus, has less experience campaigning in battleground territory. Her roots are in San Francisco, where her ties to Big Tech (hardly a populist credential) were more important than the ability to connect with rural voters.

This doesn’t mean — by any stretch — Harris has no shot at one day claiming the Democratic nod. In 2024 Democratic polls that exclude Biden, she remains the frontrunner, largely fueled by the same Black support that Biden benefited from in 2020. But Black Democrats — who are much more moderate than white Democrats — did not glom to her in 2020, when she tried transforming herself as a progressive. And, faced with other options with more Bidenesque track records in office, I think it’s possible the same would take place in a post-Biden primary.

In many ways, this brings me to the same conclusion as I shared in my piece last year: perhaps Harris was merely elevated too early. It is hard to do much in the vice presidency: while governors can cut ribbons at new manufacturing plants and senators can sponsor legislation, Harris’ job prevents her from taking credit for anything substantive (except for Supreme Court nominations, I’m told).

Harris was still forming her national political identity when she was tapped as Biden’s running mate. Then, the vice presidency made her a background character at a time when the Democratic Party has shifted in small but meaningful ways, leaving her unable to claim a piece of the transformation even as her boss put it into motion.

This could still change. According to Chris Whipple’s book on the Biden presidency, Biden has privately referred to Harris as a “work in progress,” and he’s right. Recently, the White House has been giving Harris red-meat assignments that feed into her image as a San Franciso liberal brawler — but also ones that position her more closely to Shapiro, Whitmer, and Warnock.

Last week, she was in southeast Wisconsin, touting broadband expansion in rural areas. Yesterday, she announced a pay increase for construction workers in Philadelphia (with a visit to Shapiro’s reopened I-95 thrown in). She has also taken point on the abortion fight, using Biden’s same language of bolstering “freedom” and countering “extremism.”

It is hard to make many policy innovations or establish an independent identity as vice president, which are some of the reasons why VPs rarely ever waltz to the presidential nomination. Harris won’t either. But she would start out as a formidable post-Biden candidate, with sky-high name ID and a strong base of Black support. To figure out the rest, she could do worse than consulting the principles that guided her boss in his long career. Already, a growing generation of Biden copycats is beginning to try it for themselves.

More news to know.

Big news from Ohio: “In yet another major rebuke of Republicans over abortion rights, voters in Ohio on Tuesday handily turned down a GOP-led effort to make it more difficult to amend the state’s Constitution.” / Politico

  • The results, with 95% of the vote in: “No” 57%, “Yes” 43%
  • What’s next: “Arizona coalition launches effort to get abortion rights on the ballot
  • the national view: “A 64% majority of US adults say they disapprove of last year’s Supreme Court ruling that women do not have a constitutional right to an abortion, with half strongly disapproving – an assessment that’s almost entirely unchanged from CNN’s poll last July in the immediate wake of the decision.

Roberts and Barrett join liberals as Supreme Court revives federal ghost gun restrictions / CNN

DeSantis Replaces Campaign Manager with Florida Chief of Staff As He ‘Reloads’ / The Messenger

Kari Lake prepares to enter Arizona Senate race / Axios

Crossings along U.S.-Mexico border jump as migrants defy extreme heat and asylum restrictions / CBS

The day ahead.

At the White House: President Biden will deliver remarks in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to mark the one-year anniversary of his CHIPS manufacturing package.

VP Harris has nothing on her public schedule.

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