Why Kamala Harris is flailing with California voters

Kamala Harris
Sen. Kamala Harris speaks after opening her presidential campaign office in Oakland this year.
(John G. Mabanglo / EPA/Shutterstock)

When Kamala Harris launched her presidential bid, she counted California as a major asset. Her home state offers not only the most delegates to the Democratic nominating convention but also an early primary that could provide a timely boost.

But rather than serving as a foundation, California is exposing the cracks in her troubled campaign.

Recent polling shows Harris mired in a distant fourth place, with support from fewer than 1 in 10 of those surveyed. Statistically, she was tied with Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., a community of about 100,000 that would not even make the list of California’s 50 most-populous cities.


In part, the poor standing reflects problems that have plagued Harris nationwide: uneven debate performances, a shifting stance on issues and, perhaps above all, the lack of a clear and compelling message.

But part of the explanation is California itself.

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The state is physically immense, its population enormous and attention span short when it comes to politics. It’s also astronomically expensive to advertise, and that makes it exceedingly difficult for a politician — even one elected three times to statewide office like Harris — to become well known, much less revered.

In short, as other presidential hopefuls have painfully learned, there is no such thing in California as a home-state advantage.

“People cling to the notion that no matter how goes the rest of the country, California will be there for them,” said Don Sipple, a strategist for former Gov. Pete Wilson’s disastrous 1996 presidential run. “It’s not. Unless a candidate proves their bona fides on the national stage, California will abandon you. There’s no loyalty.”

San Francisco Democrat Ryan Mortensen is typical, having only the faintest impression of Harris.

The 42-year-old computer programmer likes the senator and may even have voted for her in 2016, when she was elected, and twice before that when she ran for state attorney general. He can’t recall, he said during a cigarette break in the city’s Financial District. But when it comes to the presidential contest, Mortensen is leaning toward Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

“I really feel like she addresses the issues in the right way,” he said, referring to a heavy focus on the gap between rich and poor. “In this climate, the broader base we can get the better. There’s a problem with the middle class, and, to me, that should be the main focus, and I’m not really seeing that with Kamala Harris the way I am with Warren.”

Ryan Mortensen
San Francisco Democrat Ryan Mortensen believes he may have voted for Kamala Harris in the past but is now supporting Elizabeth Warren for president.
(Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times )

About 350 miles south, in Los Angeles, Vince Beiser said much the same thing.

He, too, believes he may have voted for Harris in the past, seeing as how she’s a Democrat and so is he. Beyond that, said the 54-year-old author and freelance journalist, “I don’t know that much about her.”

Beiser, who was grabbing coffee in Silver Lake, is leaning toward Warren because “she’s been speaking up for a long time on the most important things” — healthcare, education and what Beiser called excessive corporate power. He also likes the fact Warren is a former Republican, which Beiser suggested might help lure some crossover voters to her side.

It is too early to count Harris out, even as polls nationwide and in key states mirror her feeble California showing. The first presidential votes won’t be cast for several more months, starting in Iowa on Feb. 3.

It may just be a matter of winning over more people in person, like she did with Lissa Reynolds.

“I thought she was so impressive, so articulate,” Reynolds, 64, said as she stood in the merchandise line after a recent Harris fundraiser at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theatre. “I really was on the fence, and now I’m getting my T-shirt.”


Jackie Dugas, a 58-year-old Manhattan Beach Democrat, believes Harris has an empathy other candidates lack. “I feel like she’s in touch with people,” Dugas said as she prepared to meet a friend for a seaside happy hour. “She doesn’t seem money-hungry. She just seems down-home.”

Harris has no lack of pizzazz. To succeed, however, she will have to shift her strategy, something she has begun by placing greater emphasis on Iowa, and change her media-centric campaign style.

Voter Jackie Dugas supports Kamala Harris.
Jackie Dugas, a Democrat from Manhattan Beach, said she believes Kamala Harris shows an empathy that other candidates lack.
(Seema Mehta / Los Angeles Times)

Like other California politicians, Harris is accustomed to a kind of campaigning that focuses more on pulling in cash than posing for selfies. Statewide elections are all about raising tens of millions of dollars to pour into costly television ads, the only way to become even somewhat familiar to an audience of 20 million voters. (While vowing to go all-in in Iowa, Harris had 10 California fundraisers squeezed onto her recent schedule.)

Grabbing the public’s attention is tough. Californians tend to be more attuned to Washington than Sacramento, especially on issues that don’t involve the governor, and many rely more on national media than local coverage, which stints on political news — especially on TV.

Though a Californian would be the last to admit it, many are guided by perceptions that are formed in Iowa and New Hampshire, comparatively small states that have the benefit of going first in the presidential contest, thus drawing inordinate time and candidate attention.


“It’s not as though they’re making speeches at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco about what’s going on in California,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the recent Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll conducted for the Los Angeles Times, which found Warren leading in the state, followed by former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

And even if White House hopefuls were speaking before the venerable public affairs organization, that’s still a limited audience. Unlike states where residents get to know their elected leaders on a first-name basis — in Montana they say it’s one small town with a really long main street — voters can spend a lifetime in California and never set foot in the same ZIP Code as their governor or U.S. senators.

Surveys, including a poll released this week by the Public Policy Institute of California, have shown nearly a quarter of California voters have no opinion of Harris’ job performance, suggesting after more than two years they do not know enough to form an opinion. The PPIC poll also showed Warren, Biden and Sanders bunched closely together at the top of the presidential field, with Harris trailing far behind with 8% support and Buttigieg at 6%.

‘Unless a candidate proves their bona fides on the national stage, California will abandon you. There’s no loyalty.’

— political strategist Don Sipple

Though it may be small consolation, Harris is not the first California candidate struggling at home as she attempts the leap from the West Coast to the White House.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown lost the state in two of his three presidential runs. After poor showings in 1984 and 1995, respectively, the late Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston and former Republican Gov. Wilson abandoned their presidential campaigns before the contest even reached California.


The 1980 success of Ronald Reagan, the last Californian to become president, is instructive, growing largely out of his national stature. No mere governor, he was a former Hollywood star and celebrity pitchman, who honed his political message and gained a devoted following across the country by delivering scores of speeches on behalf of General Electric.

“No one who’s run since then was that kind of figure,” said Bill Carrick, a longtime Democratic strategist in Los Angeles.

If history is a guide, Harris will have to survive Iowa and New Hampshire if she hopes to win over Californians.

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Adrian Eyre, 46, a public relations executive in San Francisco, backed Harris in her 2016 Senate election and said he might vote for her in the state’s March 3 primary, though if the election were held today, he would probably support Biden, given his lengthy experience.

Harris, he said, gets no leg up just for being California’s senator.

“That’s not where my mind is at,” Eyre said as he awaited the Larkspur ferry for the trip home across San Francisco Bay. “My mind’s at how do we get rid of clown boy” — a reference to Trump — “and then how do we turn the ship around for the long term. Is she the one that’s going to do that? I just don’t know.”

Times staff writers Michael Finnegan, Melanie Mason and Seema Mehta in Los Angeles contributed to this report.