Before the first debate Kamala Harris had a name recognition problem. Vice President Joe Biden was well known and was enjoying a commanding lead in the polls. Kamala Harris had to formulate a strategy to become most competitive. She knew the power and influence of a national TV audience could make a difference. Therefore, she came to the debate very well prepared.
Kamala Harris knew that unless she is most competitive with Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, she had no chance to emerge out of 20 candidates. Thus, she applied the principle: Who influences whom, when, where and how is the essence of politics.
She was well aware that the national debate would draw a large audience and if she makes a difference she could break out. The Indian American candidate turned out to be right. The second debate drew an audience of 18 million people against 24 million for first Trump debate.
Harris knew that once she impresses such a large audience, the political equilibrium and polls would change. She was right. How did she do it? What was her strategy?
NBC had several anchors, who were not well organized. The debate was not well programmed. Different anchors were asking questions after questions giving very little time for the candidate to answer. As a result, the competition to be heard was stiff. It was not easy to break in especially when several were attempting to speak. This is where Kamala Harris emerged as a big winner. Her tactics and strategy succeeded.
Harris’s first attempt at a breakout moment in this debate was a painfully rehearsed line designed to be dropped the minute there was some cross-talk she could break into:
“Hey guys, America does not want to witness a food fight. They want us to know how we are going to put food on their table.”
It won immediate applause, sustained applause. More broadly, the line speaks to the self-defeating tendency of Democrats to imagine that their own affinity for compromise reflects the median voter’s preference for conciliatory politics. People say they have partisan conflict, yes—but they vote for people who draw sharp distinctions between themselves and their (negatively defined) opponents. It was a good line for Harris in the moment, but it was a cynical line masquerading as a plea for unity.
Harris then gave Biden a punch: “I believe you are not a racist. It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two U.S. senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the Second Class to integrate her public schools and she was bussed to school every day and that little girl was me.”
Almost immediately afterwards, a video of Kamala Harris as a child dressed for school was circulated in the social media.
Biden was flustered, caught off-guard by this unexpected expression of lived experience. Biden was not just criticized for his nostalgia play. He was confronted with the fact that his efforts as a young senator would have ended one of the country’s few attempts to make equal treatment a reality, to give black students the kind of education that white students took for granted. And while it is tempting to portray this as ancient history, it is not.
A string of recent polls suggests that Kamala Harris’s performance in the debate last week has propelled her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in July 2020. A Quinnipiac University poll of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters nationally showed Kamala Harris, whose criticism of Biden’s record on race was one of the most discussed moments of the second debate last week, gaining significant momentum in the campaign.
Other polls also show strong support for the California Democrat. A Suffolk University/USA Today poll of likely Iowa Democratic caucus goers also showed her in second place after Biden.
In a poll of Democrats and Democratic leaning independents conducted by CNN and SSRS in the days after the debate, 17% of respondents said they supported Harris, again placing her in second place to Biden. That represented a jump from 8% from the month before.
After the second debate, it is clear that both Biden and Sanders have lost their momentum to the women candidates, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Fifty-six percent of the primary voters are women. If so, it is possible that the voters may prefer to elect a woman.
Based on Kamala Harris’ performance and her competitiveness, there is no doubt in my mind that she will be able to convince the delegates at the nominating convention that she is second to none.
If Kamala Harris clinches the nomination for president from the Democratic Party, it would be a great achievement for her, and the Indian American community will be proud.
Chairman, Asian American Republican Committee