How Kamala Harris' 2020 campaign plummeted
Posted December 3, 2019 6:46 p.m. EST
CNN — Kamala Harris fell as quickly as she rose.
The California senator entered the 2020 presidential race in January a top contender for the Democratic nomination, someone whose political chops after ascending from prosecutor to attorney general to senator instantly made her one of the top 2020 candidates. Less than a year later, and exactly two months before the Iowa caucuses, she exits as a candidate who failed to live up to the hype and was unable to raise enough money to keep her campaign going.
Harris' abrupt decision on Tuesday makes the senator the most high-profile candidate to date to drop out of the race to challenge President Donald Trump, and is the culmination of months of disjointed messaging, contentious infighting among top aides and severe money issues that plagued the campaign.
A host of issues sunk Harris' campaign, but the final straw, according to a number of Harris aides and advisers, was the California senator could see no path toward the nomination given her inability to gain any traction in the race or raise money to get her message out, leading her to make what she called "one of the hardest decisions of my life" and end her presidential bid.
Harris was the lone black woman to launch a bid in 2020 and aimed to coalesce a diverse coalition of voters that mirrored that of President Barack Obama. But Harris failed to cut into former Vice President Joe Biden's commanding lead with black voters, particularly in the early voting state of South Carolina, and struggled to break into the top tier of contenders in Iowa, despite polls showing voters viewed her favorably.
Harris' central reason for dropping out now was to preserve her political future, multiple people close to the senator told CNN. At 55 years old, Harris did not want to assume debt -- financial or political -- and she believes she will be better positioned to be considered as a running mate or to run for re-election in 2022 if she accepted reality and ended her candidacy now.
Harris started to take a hard look at the campaign's resources over the Thanksgiving holiday, sources told CNN, and made her final decision to get out on Monday after a full audit of the campaign's finances made clear success in Iowa and later primary contests was not possible. Harris pivoted most of her campaign to Iowa in September and all but shuttered her New Hampshire operation in November.
Harris informed her campaign staff during a conference call on Tuesday morning, with one senior aide who was on the call telling CNN that it was clear the call was a tough one for Harris to make.
The decision to end the campaign was a shock to many of Harris' top aides. Mere minutes before Harris' Iowa staffers were told the senator had an announcement and there would be an all-staff conference call, the team in Iowa, where the candidate had planned to make her final stand, was busy planning her next visit and for California Gov. Gavin Newsom to travel to Iowa as a surrogate.
Harris, in the coming days, will travel to her campaign headquarters in Baltimore and then travel to South Carolina, Iowa and Nevada to thank her team.
"In good faith, I cannot tell you my supporters and volunteers that I have a path forward if I don't believe I do," Harris said in a video announcing her withdrawal. "So, to you my supporters, my dear supporters, it is with deep regret, but also with deep gratitude that I am suspending our campaign today."
By getting out on Tuesday, Harris also avoids an embarrassing finish in her home state's March primary, as there are still weeks for her to remove her name from the ballot in California.
"The path became too narrow" for Harris to stay in the race, an aide said, despite the fact that the senator had already qualified for the December debate. "She could've waited till the end of the month to drop out then, but she isn't interested in just being a participant in the race."
A steady decline since summer
What appeared to be the high point of Harris' campaign came during the first Democratic debate in June, when she confronted Biden on his past opposition to busing as a way to desegregate schools.
"There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day," Harris told Biden. "That little girl was me. So, I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly."
The moment went viral -- to the point that Saturday Night Live parodied it -- and her campaign seized on the exchange, which helped quickly catapult Harris in post-debate polls and exposed a weakness in the vice president. Harris was touted as a possible new front runner in the days after the debate.
But -- in a sign of what was to come for Harris' campaign -- the confrontation damaged Harris nearly as quickly as it lifted her up. Harris was accused of manufacturing the exchange and struggled to respond when she was accused of having the same position as Biden on federally mandated busing.
As Harris' jump in the polls steadily gave way over the summer, senior aides within the Baltimore-based campaign began to search frantically for a message that would reinvigorate the sputtering campaign.
Instead, according to people close to Harris, the search exacerbated a series of central issues within the campaign: A lack of clear messaging from the candidate and combative infighting between some of Harris' longtime aides from California, her sister-turned-campaign chairwoman Maya Harris, and campaign manager Juan Rodriguez.
Harris' campaign soon became a hotbed of drama and backbiting, with many staffers feeling torn between the rival factions.
Some aides and advisers questioned why Maya Harris, who previously worked as a policy adviser for Hillary Clinton in 2016, was playing such a central role in the operation. Some accused her of exerting so much control in the campaign that she slowed the decision-making process and muddied the message.
But, according to some close to Harris, her sister's negative impact on the campaign was overblown and overshadowed the senator's inability to land on a coherent message.
"Sure, it was Maya, but it was also the candidate who could have taken steps to fix that and more," one person close to Harris told CNN, saying it would be incorrect to assign more blame to Maya than Kamala.
Others accused Rodriguez of overseeing a campaign rife with mismanagement, an assertion that centered on the fact that Harris had over $35 million to spend but still struggled to fund a successful campaign.
That, according to sources, is a lingering question that has infuriated Harris and top officials: How could the campaign spend so much money, without being able to place TV ads when they count?
"That will be the central question to examine: Where did the $35 million go? Why was the campaign structured like this?" said a person close to Harris.
The campaign's financial situation was also more dire than widely known, said one former aide. For example, the campaign has only reserved less than $10,000 for a digital ad that they had touted with much fanfare earlier this week. The ad was ultimately never released online and the buy was canceled Monday.
Infighting takes a toll on fundraising
All of the infighting took a toll on Harris' staff, who grew demoralized by the day as poll after poll showed Harris losing ground both nationally and in key states like Iowa. This problem was made worse when -- even after Harris fired dozens of staffers, closed her New Hampshire operation and moved people from Nevada and California in November -- her polls failed to budge in the key state.
But possibly the most damaging aspect of the infighting was the impact it had on top-dollar fundraising. As stories of discord inside Harris' campaign came to light in the press, multiple donors told CNN that they complained to the campaign about how they didn't want to keep funding an effort where there was little direction and no one person was in charge.
The best encapsulation of this was a fundraiser Harris was slated to headline in New York in Tuesday.
The event, which included a number of top Harris donors like Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry, was struggling to raise significant money despite the big-name hosts, said a top Democratic donor, a sign that Harris -- once a darling of monied Democratic donors -- was falling out of favor.
"No one is going to pay for a wake," the donor said. "The high dollar fundraising was just tanking."
Harris canceled the event shortly before announcing she was dropping out.
The lack of money became a particular issue because of billionaires like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and businessman Tom Steyer spending millions of their own fortune to fund their campaigns.
Bakari Sellers, a prominent Harris supporter in South Carolina and CNN contributor, said that the inability to keep up with campaigns like that eventually put too much pressure on Harris' campaign.
"I didn't think that it would be this stark, but I knew that she would never run a shoestring campaign," Sellers said. "I think that there was a thought that more money would be coming in more freely, but I think all the candidates across the board are realizing that's simply not the case."
Sellers also pointed to Harris' race as a reason she failed to catch on.
"This country is ready for a lot and has made a lot of progress," he said, "but we still got a way to go and I don't think we're ready for black women to be President of the United States."
Harris to play central role in Trump impeachment
Harris has no immediate plans to support one of her Democratic rivals, people close to her said, even though she would be seen as one of the party's top outstanding endorsements.
While Harris is not ruling out an endorsement before the voting begins in Iowa, she is more likely to make a decision by Super Tuesday, when she will be voting in California.
Harris remains close with the handful of Democratic senators still running for President and, despite their prominent clash over the summer, her relationship with Biden has improved considerably over the course of the campaign, sources said.
After visiting her campaign aides across the country to thank them for their time, Harris plans to turn her focus to one issue: the impeachment of Donald Trump.
Harris plans to play a visible role in the Senate trial, sources said, and also in the Department of Justice inspector general's report that is slated to be released later this month.
This work will return Harris to a key role she played before her presidential run as a constant check of the Trump administration. Widely watched moments between Harris and a number of Trump appointees, including now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, helped propel Harris to stardom before her campaign.
And more of that work, her aides believe, will accelerate the process of rebuilding her brand, which has undoubtedly been damaged by the campaign that failed to reach its promise.