Did a lack of clarity on health care doom Kamala Harris’s campaign?

Today marked the end of Senator Kamala Harris’s once promising bid for the presidency. In a video addressed to her supporters, Harris announced that she was suspending her campaign due to a lack of financial resources. 

The announcement came as a surprise even to some of her closest followers. Harris had already qualified for the next presidential debate and a “super PAC’” affiliated with the campaign had been scheduled to begin a begin a million-dollar ad buy in Iowa on Wednesday. Nevertheless, Harris ultimately concluded that she did have the capital to mount a campaign that could scale to compete with her rivals. 

While a depleted war chest lies at the root of the campaign’s demise, there might be evidence to suggest that a lack of ideological clarity on health care accelerated its fund-raising operation’s downward slide, both from online donors and top party bundlers.  

 

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After drawing a crowd of more than 20,000 people at the campaign’s kickoff rally in January, Harris garnered a slew of party endorsements, trailing only Vice President Biden according to FiveThirtyEight’s point scale.

After delivering a lacerating attack on Biden’s record on race and busing at the first debate, Harris rocketed to the top of some polls. But any momentum Harris seemed to gain was stunted by her equivocation on health care. 

The ideological contours of the primary field have been drawn most notably around health care, with the party’s moderate wing arguing for a public option against the progressive wing’s goal of a single-payer system, or “Medicare for All”.

In the race’s top tier, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren advocated for single-payer while Biden and, more recently, Mayor Pete Buttigieg embraced the public option route. Harris’s stance was rendered unclear due to the campaign’s unwillingness to pick a side.

In the Senate, Harris co-sponsored Sanders’s Medicare for All Act. Harris seemed to reaffirm her support for the progressive stance at the first debate as she was the only candidate on stage, in addition to Sanders, to raise her hand in support of “abolishing private insurance in favor of a government run plan.” 

That notion, however, was quickly dispelled after Harris later claimed to have misheard the question. After the debate, she said “No,” on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” when asked if she’d replace private health insurance with Medicare for All if elected president.

To onlookers, it signaled a conscious effort to avoid selecting an ideological “lane” in the primary field a perception that defined Harris’s campaign from the beginning. Reversing her position on single-payer only further trapped Harris in murky political terrain, caught squarely between the zeal of firebrand progressives and the cautious appeal of Midwestern moderates. 

Harris’s polling plunged rapidly after her initial post-debate surge. By the end of the summer, she found herself moored in the single-digits in both early state and national polls. Harris’s downward spiral in the polls also spelled trouble for her fund-raising. In the third quarter, she brought in $11.6 million, dwarfed by the $24.6 and $25.3 million hauls of Warren and Sanders. Buttigieg also raised nearly $8 million more than her.  

As the primary wore on and moderates ratcheted up their attacks on single-payer, a dynamic still ongoing, Medicare for All seemed to lose steam. While polling still suggests that support for Medicare for All is high, the numbers vary based on different wording across polls. 

With health care continuing to take center stage in each debate, the electorate has forked in two directions. In a CNN/SSRS poll released last week, Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg accounted for 70% of total support. 

Any singular diagnosis of the Harris campaign’s downfall is likely oversimplified. In a historically large field where voters are prizing “electability” above all else, it’s not necessarily clear whether another candidate would have suffered as intensely for waffling on health care.

Buttigieg is 37 years old and has never held a statewide office. He won his last mayoral election with just over 8000 votes. Notwithstanding, he has weathered the storm over questions about his own apparent change of heart regarding Medicare for All.

Even still, it is worth noting that Warren’s numbers nosedived in a recent poll, right after she backtracked on Medicare for All. Sanders and Biden have yet to change their stance on health care, and their support has been the steadiest in the field thus far.

Myriad theories have been and will continue to be offered for explaining the early exit of leading presidential candidates. Is a firm stance on health care critically important to the viability of a campaign in the eyes of voters and donors? Kamala Harris might have an idea.