Harris’ job is to make Biden look good. It’s working.

Essential Politics

In 2016, with considerable help from their de facto allies in Moscow, Donald Trump’s campaign aggressively tried to push down Black voting in key states.

The effort focused on alienating Black voters by reminding them of Hillary Clinton’s support for policies of her husband’s administration that helped drive up the number of Black men in prison. It succeeded just well enough to help Trump eke out narrow victories in the three big industrial states that delivered him the presidency: 46,765 votes in Pennsylvania, 22,177 in Wisconsin, just 10,704 in Michigan.

The clearest way to think about Sen. Kamala Harris’ mission for the next 81 days as Joe Biden’s running mate is that she’s there to ensure that doesn’t happen again.

Yes, Harris brings other strengths to the Democratic ticket and, potentially, to a Biden administration. And, by the accounts of people involved in the process, Biden had several reasons to choose Harris over other candidates like Susan Rice, the former national security advisor; Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan’s governor; or Rep. Karen Bass of Los Angeles.

None of those other strengths will matter, however, if the ticket doesn’t win, and for Democrats, winning means getting the sort of large Black turnouts in places like Detroit and Milwaukee that eluded Clinton four years ago.

What running mates do and don’t accomplish

Running mates don’t win elections.

In the past century, only one vice presidential candidate, Lyndon B. Johnson, can stake a strong claim to having swung the outcome: In 1960, one of the closest elections in U.S. history, then-Sen. Johnson of Texas almost surely was crucial to securing his home state for John F. Kennedy. Other than that, the record of either successes or failures is empty. Sarah Palin, for example, probably hurt Sen. John McCain’s campaign in 2008, but that election wasn’t close enough for her role to matter.

But there’s reason to think Harris’ role could be more consequential.


Biden made his pick from a position of relative strength. Since entering the race more than a year ago, he has consistently led Trump in polls, and that lead widened this spring as voters rejected Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, which remains the country’s singular, dominant issue.

Four well-regarded, nonpartisan national surveys released this week, from Monmouth University, the Pew Research Center, Fox News and Marist College for NPR and PBS, showed Biden leading by margins of 10, 8, 7 and 11 percentage points, respectively. In Wisconsin, the state’s leading survey, from Marquette University, found Biden leading in that key swing state by 5 points.

The significance of those surveys is not just Biden’s lead, but its consistency. Unlike 2016, when voters had two candidates that many disliked and polls bounced around a lot, the numbers this summer have stayed stable. Few voters say they’re undecided and, also in contrast to 2016, few are looking to third parties.

In 2016, 41% of voters told Pew the presidential choice was hard because neither candidate would make a good president — the highest share to say that since the poll started asking the question in 2000. Today, half that many say so — the lowest share the poll has found.

Biden’s voters express less fervent support than Trump’s do, but they’re equally firm in their voting intention, Pew found. And their main motivation is clear. Asked why they support Biden, 56% of his voters gave a simple answer: “He’s not Trump.”

All that is good news for the Democrats. But it’s also true that Biden’s lead, although steady, isn’t overwhelming. If the coronavirus appears to be subsiding in the fall — not a certainty by any means, but a possibility — and if the economy seems to be recovering a bit, those polls could tighten considerably.

Having Harris on the ticket could help Biden solidify his position if that happens.

So far, a significant number of voters say they don’t know enough about her to have an opinion — 30% of Democrats and 60% of independents in the large-scale Nationscape surveys being run by UCLA and the Democracy Fund. But among party activists, whose opinions ultimately have a strong influence on voters, the choice landed well. The party has largely unified behind the ticket. With a few exceptions, even those on the left who wanted a more progressive choice have largely expressed support.

The choice of a running mate matters, not because they shift votes on their own, but because they help shape how voters perceive the person at the top of the ticket.

In the aftermath of Biden’s announcement of Harris, both campaigns have tried to influence that perception. The Trump campaign pointed to Harris’ attack on Biden during the first primary debate a year ago in which she spotlighted his willingness to work closely with segregationist Southern senators in the early years of his career.

Their unsubtle message, aimed primarily at Black voters, is that Biden can’t truly be trusted to keep their interests in mind. Trump’s campaign has been pushing that line of attack all along, stressing Biden’s role in passing the 1994 crime bill which helped drive up incarceration rates.

That message, parallel to the one that proved effective in 2016 against Clinton, is just one prong in the overall Republican effort to keep down Black turnout — impediments to voting, such as voter ID laws that disproportionately hit low-income voters, also play a role. So does the tragicomic effort by Republican operatives to help Kanye West get on the ballot in key states in the probably vain hope that a significant number of voters would cast ballots for him.

Democrats pointed to the same primary-debate clash to highlight a different lesson: They’re wagering that Biden’s willingness to choose a running mate who once publicly rebuked him will remind voters that he is willing to tolerate dissent, is secure about his own standing and doesn’t have a problem with strong women.

That obvious contrast with Trump could help Biden. In Pew’s poll, a quarter of Trump’s own voters said they worry about his narcissism and temperament.

But to specifically reassure Black voters, Harris delivered another message — one that she verbally underlined during her speech at the ticket’s first joint appearance on Tuesday:

Biden, she said was “the only — the only, the only — person who served alongside the first Black president, and has chosen the first Black woman as his running mate.”

That line connects to a theme that surfaced repeatedly during the primary campaign when Black voters were asked why they supported Biden: His willingness to act as the understudy to President Obama, to set aside his privilege as a white man and serve under a Black man, spoke volumes about his character, Black supporters said.

Expect to see Harris carry that message repeatedly into the battleground states of the Midwest, as well as Florida, Arizona and, perhaps, Texas — all states where Democratic hopes ride on a large turnout of Black and Latino voters.

How Biden resembles Jerry Brown — really

Jerry Brown in 2010 ran as a wise, old hand who could return California to what worked after the chaos of the Arnold Schwarzenegger years. Biden and Brown are about as different as two Irish American politicians can be, but Biden’s campaign is following Brown’s playbook, as Evan Halper writes. The analogy is interesting, and so are the former governor’s thoughts on the subject.

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Lost in the mail

Trump has vowed to block money for the the Postal Service, appointed a former campaign fundraiser to head the organization and, this week, admitted he’s trying to undercut voting by mail, as Eli Stokols wrote.

Democrats are trying to maneuver around him and get the beleaguered agency s more money, but in the meantime, cuts have created “chaos and confusion,” Arit John wrote.

What Trump is not doing is laying out much of a detailed second-term agenda. Instead, as Stokols and Noah Bierman wrote, he’s been making grandiose but vague promises to accomplish complex goals like repealing the payroll tax, forging a nuclear deal with Iran and coming up with a new healthcare plan.

He’s also been taking some executive actions, which are more reality TV than governing, Doyle McManus writes.

The Harris pick: What it means

As Janet Hook writes, in picking Harris, Biden put his stamp on Democrats’ future. In his mind, it’s a future that involves a multi-racial coalition and center-left policies, rather than the more far-reaching proposals put forward by the party’s left.

The choice of Harris is sending Trump back to one of his favorite pastimes — bashing California, Bierman wrote. The president has long enjoyed campaigning against California, which many of his conservative, rural supporters see as the exemplar of the changes in America they find threatening.

But her presence on the ticket has brought an outpouring of pride among Indian Americans, Michael Finnegan writes. That’s one of the few immigrant groups that Trump has made an effort to appeal to, including a joint appearance in Texas last year with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

For a lot of Black Americans, Harris’ unique American story was deeply meaningful, Matt Pearce wrote. That was particularly true for graduates of historically black colleges, as Tyrone Beason and Kurtis Lee wrote. For many of them, Harris is family.

The pick elicited some very different reactions on the other side of the political divide, including a revamped birther attack which Trump helped publicize, as Melanie Mason and Michael Finnegan wrote.

No checks anytime soon

Stimulus checks and jobless aid are unlikely for several more weeks as Democrats and the White House dug in their heels in negotiations over a new aid package, Jennifer Haberkorn wrote.

The White House appears to want to see how the executive actions that Trump has announced play out before deciding whether to try to reach a compromise with Democrats. But as Lila Seidman wrote, Trump’s promised $400 unemployment extension is unlikely to arrive soon, if at all. The plan relies on states that are already having trouble coping with overburdened unemployment systems and broken budgets.

The Treasury Department and Congress are working on a revised PPP coronavirus loan program for small business. As Sarah Wire wrote, it’s designed to reach a lot of the businesses that were shut out of the loan program this spring.

Speeches to an empty room

Politicians, like stage actors, get used to speaking to a live audience. With this year’s political conventions going virtual, Biden, Harris and others will have to learn from film actors how to speak to a screen, theater critic Charles McNulty wrote.

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