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Kamala Harris’s Withdrawal Shows That Winnowing Works

Jonathan Bernstein

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If a few candidates entering late raised the possibility that winnowing wasn’t working properly in the Democratic presidential contest, the end of Kamala Harris’s campaign on Tuesday shows that the pressure to end losing campaigns is, if anything, stronger than ever.

Harris is the first candidate to quit despite having considerable support from Democratic Party actors. She is also the first to quit without being nudged out by failing to qualify for debates. She wasn’t even without some financial resources; she had canceled a big fundraiser in New York scheduled for Monday night, and was about to receive support from a new super PAC. Yet she apparently decided it was better to leave gracefully now rather than risk being an asterisk in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, 2020.

First, the immediate effects: With Harris out, only six candidates remain who have qualified for the Dec. 19 debate. They are Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer and Elizabeth Warren. Of those, Steyer — with negligible support from party actors — isn’t really a plausible nominee; neither are Tulsi Gabbard or Andrew Yang, both of whom need just one more good poll to join the December debate.

Cory Booker and Julian Castro would count as plausible nominees if they were still in the debates. But neither has even a single qualifying poll for December, and there’s very little time remaining and little sign that they will have one by the Dec. 12 deadline. Since exclusion from the debates has been a death sentence for candidates so far, that would mean there are probably only five plausible nominees going forward.

Harris was at only about 4% in national polls and faring even worse in Iowa, so there aren’t a lot of voters committed to her to help any other candidate. She did, however, have a lot of support from Democratic party actors. Endorsements aren’t a perfect measure of that, but they’ll do, and Harris leaves while being second overall in the FiveThirtyEight tracker. If this support was transferred en masse, it would be a huge boost for anyone. That’s unlikely, but even a fraction of her endorsements could help one or two candidates quite a bit.

Each remaining Democratic candidate will be able to spin the case that Harris’s exit is win for him or her. My guess is that the candidate whose chances are helped the most is Senator Klobuchar. She had picked up a bit of momentum in October, but may have stalled recently, in part because the late entrance of Michael Bloomberg took up valuable media space for any candidate still seeking attention. (Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Opinion.) For Klobuchar, the opportunity to be one of only eight, seven or six on the debate stage in December is very good news.

Harris is probably the most prominent Democrat to leave the presidential nomination contest before Iowa and New Hampshire in the modern history of the process, which dates back to 1972. I don’t think there’s been another conventionally qualified candidate with orthodox policy positions who ran a full-out campaign and had considerable support of party actors who couldn’t make it up to the calendar year of the election. That’s happened on the Republican side, with Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty in 2012 and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in 2016, but not really for Democrats before this year.

One thing that these early exits tell us is that the unrepresentative nature of Iowa and New Hampshire is simply not a major problem. Whatever went wrong with the Harris campaign happened nationally. Yes, it’s possible that as a black candidate, the California senator might have been helped had the first state on the calendar had a more diverse Democratic electorate. But she wasn’t doing much better in the polls in South Carolina. Nor was she polling well among black Democrats nationally. Indeed, it’s likely that her failure to attract those voters in South Carolina and nationally was a big part of why her campaign ended now.

This doesn’t mean candidates can skip those early states, as Michael Bloomberg is trying to do. Doing so still risks dropping out of the national picture right before the bulk of the voters go to the polls on Super Tuesday. It just means that the particular biases of those states are relatively less important, especially since both party actors and the media will likely assess the results of those states based on their demographic peculiarities.

The one note of caution is that no one should assume that the order in which candidates drop out is a good indication of how close they would have come to winning the nomination. Fifteen candidates remain, but that hardly means that those 15 are the most likely winners. Marianne Williamson can stay an active candidate until the convention if she chooses to do so, but that wouldn’t mean she was closer to being the nominee than Harris, Steve Bullock, Jay Inslee, Kirsten Gillibrand or John Hickenlooper. Certainly, the ability and will to keep going against the odds is an asset to any campaign. It’s what makes Bernie Sanders a plausible nominee despite being a factional candidate with little broad party appeal. But carrying on without any realistic chance isn’t a sign of much of anything.

The biggest lesson from the Harris campaign about the process is a point that the authors of “The Party Decides” have been making: Things are happening earlier and earlier in the nomination process. Now, entire major campaigns can begin, surge and fail long before anyone casts a vote.(1)

That didn’t happen in the 1980s; now it’s standard. It means that the process is more national, and that Iowa and New Hampshire are relatively less important. But, as always, changes in the process risk weakening the ability of party actors to compete and coordinate over the nomination, and in doing so make it more likely that media decisions or just plain luck will affect who gets nominated. What’s less clear so far is how party actors are responding to important things happening earlier and on a more national level. Whether the early drop-outs are a consequence of the party’s resilience in the face of changes in the process or a sign of party weakness is one of the biggest questions to ask right now about the 2020 nomination.

(1) Indeed, one could argue that Jay Inslee, Kirsten Gillibrand, and John Hickenlooper all were more prominent early drop-outs than any other pre-Iowa exit from 1972 through 2016, although unlike Harris, none of them surged before ending their campaigns. Beto O'Rourke did have a bit of polling success early on, but as a losing Senate candidate he didn't have the qualifications that Harris had.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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