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Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

Dec. 04 2019

In June 1987, a 44-year-old senator named Joe Biden entered the 1988 race for president. He had more than two terms of experience, exuberance to burn, and centrist appeal. Plus, he was a tireless fundraiser. Shortly after he entered the fray, however, Biden’s campaign team was dogged by infighting. And due to mixed messaging, he never found a path forward in the polls.

History appears to have just repeated, though this time for Biden’s chief antagonist, Senator Kamala Harris.

Harris, as had been widely expected, suspended her 2020 presidential bid in early December after reports of — you guessed it — infighting and mixed messaging. And just as Biden had his attention divided 32 years ago between the campaign and the controversial nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, Harris would have no doubt struggled to balance the campaign trail with an impeachment trial (just as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are soon to learn).

Harris’s departure from the race comes as no surprise in terms of the polls, but also her performance in our Strategic Storytelling Index. In the debates we evaluated with Democrat, Republican and independent voters, Harris never neatly packaged her message into story form with a beginning, middle, and end.

There were bright spots, certainly. In the third, fourth, and fifth debates, Harris scored extremely well among non-white voters — second in each of those debates only to Bernie Sanders. What’s more, voters never questioned her understanding of issues (wisdom). But she typically fell short on offering wonder and delight — despite having plenty of opportunity.

After all, Harris was a renowned prosecutor. A political consultant told us that her reputation was the stuff of legends, even far beyond the walls of the Oakland criminal courthouse (which is known for two things: the most heinous crimes and a notoriously low conviction rate). Yet Harris made defense attorneys and defendants alike quiver uncomfortably. Imagine the stories she could have told on the trail or in the debates.

While we won’t hear them in this campaign, we just might one day soon.

Joe Biden spent 36 years in the Senate before his ascendance to the office of vice president. Harris has been in the Senate for a mere three. Her record shows she’s not the type to wait 30 years to seek high office again. And when she does, she’ll be more prepared to tell her story in a way that resonates across the ideological spectrum, as well as age and ethnic groups.

The only question: Will she be ready for whoever steps into her role as antagonist?