Unsolicited campaign advice for Kamala Harris

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:  NuQum.com, September 13, 2017)

{ Feel free to send any comments about this essay to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

Last I checked my inbox and cell phone voice mail, California Senator Kamala Harris is not asking for my advice on how she can best become the next President of the United States.

I’m sure she’s busy right now lining up donors and manning the anti-Trump barricades in the U.S. Senate. On that assumption, I unilaterally offer some advice should she run for president in 2020.

[Note: This advice is relevant to any Democratic presidential nominee in 2020 as well.]

Presently, we are being treated to a nationwide Hillary Clinton pity party as she softens up the public for the release of her book, “What Happened.”

Predictably, Twitter and Facebook are ablaze with mean-spirited memes and vicious character attacks over Hillary’s book and her take on the 2016 presidential election.

We should all understand by now, she blames former FBI Director Jim Comey for her defeat. I would too if I were her — but I’m not, and in past essays I’ve even made the counter-argument that the Obamacare premium hikes started her electoral decline and the Comey letter simply reinforced her rapidly softening support heading into the final weeks of the 2016 campaign.

Regardless, I am willing concede Hillary has a strong argument on the Comey letter’s impact.

So my first point of advice to Senator Harris is this…


Let Hillary fight her own battle with history. As Senator Harris works to become the Democrats’ 2020 nominee, there is nothing to gain from overly effusive and public statements of confederation with the former Secretary of State.

Polite acknowledgement of Hillary’s significance to the Democratic Party is fine, but much more than that will distract attention from Harris’ own substantive accomplishments. Her demonstration of fealty to feminist ideals does not require excessive obeisance to Hillary, who has a checkered history with respect to defending women victimized by sexual assault. Senator Harris does not have that baggage and there is no reason to take on Hillary’s.

Which leads to my second point of advice…


To the point of almost being a physical law, there has long been an assumption among political pundits and consultants that the candidate that raises the most money (and endorsements), especially early in a nomination race, is most likely to win. The evidence for the power money is strong but more complex than portrayed in the mainstream media. A few recent research efforts on this question can be found: here, here and here.

Money does matter, though in 2016 we saw strong evidence that “free media” (the media promotes the term “earned media” because it makes them feel more empowered) can help overcome monetary disadvantages. Hillary outspent Trump two-to-one, even when considering Russia’s Facebook advertisement expenditures in support of the Trump candidacy. Trump’s greatest advantage in 2016 was his ability to get free coverage on MSNBC and CNN every time he had a big rally. He was a novelty that was good for ratings.

Hillary out-raised Bernie Sanders by $570 million in the 2016 nomination race ($807 million versus $238 million, respectively), but Sanders still won 43 percent of the popular vote in the primaries. I am not advocating for Senator Harris to raise less money than her fellow nominee candidates, she just doesn’t need the crushing fundraising advantage that Clinton (and Obama) acquired in their successful nomination races.

A Democratic presidential nominee can win the nomination without excessive reliance on money from banking, health care, insurance, pharmaceutical, and Hollywood executives. They will be there for the nominee in the general election.

In the nomination phase the task is to demonstrate a candidate’s deep and substantive connection to average voters (as well as party activists, of course). Hillary was never credible in that effort to connect with average people because she….I don’t think she likes average people. Seriously, it was a vibe I heard from more than a few Iowa Democrats. Hillary never connected with Iowans, who are insecure, quick to judge others and easily insulted.

Having attended a few Hillary rallies while living in Iowa, Hillary was noticeably inaccessible to the crowds. At the last Clinton rally I attended, she shook hands only with the very front row of a small group of rally attendees — mostly Iowa Democratic Party leaders).

She had an anti-charisma charisma, perhaps— but even there she was outflanked by Sanders.

And where has Hillary been since the 2016 campaign? Unless you own your own worldwide fashion label or are willing to stand in line for her latest book, the chances that you will ever meet Hillary Clinton are slim to none.

Kamala Harris is already being labelled the Democrat’s establishment’s candidate (Holding fundraisers in the Hamptons will do that). That is an image fraught with problems and destined to further divide an already divided party.

A transcendent Democratic candidate, like Barack Obama, did not embrace the neo-liberal, establishment label (though it fit him) and Kamala Harris, likewise, cannot afford to do so.

Spending too much visible time with big donors is something she can control and must in order to start shedding the establishment label. Besides, spending significant face time with George Clooney or Barbara Streisand has no proven value to a political candidate outside of the money they raise — certainly not at the presidential level. In my opinion, Kamala should play it safe and avoid the Hollywood crowd altogether.

The third piece of advice is this…


I could fill up a hundred feet of blog space with articles and essays arguing that the Democratic Party needs to move to the left. It is a careless and even dishonest argument predicated almost entirely on survey-based opinion data that are more appropriate for descriptive and retrospective analyses than for prediction.

The data point Harris needs to internalize is the value and status of the Democratic brand within the U.S. electorate. According to a recent YouGov.com poll, 48 percent of registered voters have an unfavorable view of congressional Democrats compared to 36 percent with a favorable view. That is good news only in relationship to congressional Republicans who get a favorable review from only 22 percent of registered voters. No surprise: The ongoing health care debacle is  weighing negatively on the Republicans. If the Republicans fail on tax reform as well, that pretty much hard codes the outcome for the 2018 midterm elections in the Democrats’ favor.

As for 2020, one voter group Harris needs are the 16 percent of registered voters that are “unsure” about the Democrats. And drilling down even farther, I would target the 30 percent of self-described “moderates” who are “unsure” about the Democrats. While they are not a large percentage of the electorate in the aggregate — only around 10 percent in the YouGov.com poll — they are still large enough to change an election outcome in key battleground states. Lets put it this way — if I’m the Russians in 2020, my money is best spent targeting those folks’ Facebook pages with fake news stories.

The idea of standing against your own party’s ideological wing is hardly new. Bill Clinton mastered the art in 1992, highlighted by a still remarkably relevant argument he had with American writer Sister Souljah concerning violence within the African-American community.

Not to open a old wound, but the following exchange in 1992 between Sister Souljah and a Washington Post reporter regarding the 1992 Los Angeles riots sparked the controversy.

WaPo Reporter: “Even the people themselves who were perpetrating that violence, did they think that was wise? Was that a wise reasoned action?”

Souljah: “Yeah, it was wise. I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”

Yeah, that’s gonna get a rise out of a few opportunistic politicians. Enter Bill Clinton.

More seriously, Kamala Harris (or any Democratic nominee) will need to demonstrate independence from the party’s ideologues. It is true for the Republicans as well, but I don’t think it is as important for them.

For Democrats, however, the near constant din from political pundit about how out-of-touch Democrats are with the American voter (whether true or not) can overwhelm an otherwise strong Democratic presidential candidate

I recommend the book, “What it Takes: The Way to the White House,” by Richard Ben Cramer, about the 1988 presidential campaign between Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush. The book digs deep into the the success of Bush’s chief campaign strategist, Lee Atwater, in soaking Dukakis with the image of being “too liberal” and “out-of-touch.”

In the 1992 presidential election, employing many of the same Atwater techniques, Bill Clinton returned the favor on the Republicans. [I am a fierce critic of both Clintons, but if God told me I can manage one candidate from American political history to run for president, I pick Bill Clinton. No hesitation. Over Obama. Over JFK. Over FDR. Over Reagan.]

So, in my view, Harris needs to give voters the opportunity to say, “Kamala Harris is no liberal — she believes [insert non-liberal viewpoint on some key issue].”

Of course any pivot to the center has to be genuine (voters are good at smelling fakes) and even then it won’t necessarily change many votes. And it probably won’t bring many new people to the polls. But the effort helps set the table for bigger, more electorally critical arguments…and that represents my fourth piece of advice…


Hillary Clinton had no big ideas in 2016.  She still doesn’t. Clinton’s website redux — hillaryclinton.com — says it provides a “comprehensive progressive vision” for America’s challenges, but its endless laundry list of policy proposals is straight off of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign website.

That many figures from the Democrat’s establishment (Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, Cory Booker, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand) have embraced key elements of Sanders’ progressive agenda — most notably, universal health care — should send chills down every progressive Democrats’ spine.  What the establishment couldn’t kill overtly from from the outside, they may be trying to kill covertly from within.

A tendency towards unnecessary equivocation has already become one of the narratives describing Harris’ political career. While I believe her tenure as California’s AG more than overcomes that argument, as it is impossible to be an active California AG — as Harris was — without taking substantive policy positions. Still, Harris’ critics will rightfully challenge her for not going far enough in holding mortgage banks accountable for the housing crisis, just as an example.

Is Harris cautious? Most good politicians are. But is she Hillary Clinton-level cautious? That is the question Harris needs to answer for the American people and one way to start is by offering big ideas early in her presidential campaign.

Should it be universal health care?

Hillary Clinton’s experience on the issue serves as Harris’ Cassandra. Recall that Clinton’s first significant executive role in national political life was to lead the 1993 Task Force on National Health Care Reform. I will skip to the conclusion: The Task Force effort blew up in her face. Was she to blame? Probably some. Excessive secrecy didn’t help. But this country didn’t hate Hillary Clinton in 1993. We were all hopeful that this holy grail issue for progressive post-FDR Democrats, a national universal health care system, was finally going to happen.

For me, the Task Force’s failure represents the biggest legislative disappointment in my lifetime. That’s not hyperbole. There is a reason Obama pushed so hard on his own administration’s Affordable Care Act. It was always going to be the keystone achievement of his administration (along with getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan).

As Bernie Sanders is offering his universal health care bill to the U.S. Senate for a universal health care plan. As mentioned, along with Harris, Senators Franken, Gillibrand, Booker, and Elizabeth Warren are co-sponsoring the bill. I expect all five (plus Bernie Sanders) to contend for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 and their credibility with the party’s progressive (liberal) wing rides largely on their position with respect to universal health care.

Needless to say, Bernie already has the street cred on this issue.

My own research using 2016 American National Election Study data shows that health care is one three broad issues, along with climate change and the activist role of government in addressing economic inequalities, where the Left currently holds a strategic advantage over the Right (see chart below).

[How to read chart below: The more shading — blue for the Left and red for the Right — indicates higher degrees of disagreement between ideological activists and the average American voter. For example, on immigration, the activist Left is outside mainstream opinion while the activist Right is closer to that norm. Both ideological groups are relatively close to mainstream policy stances related to terrorism and internal (domestic) security.]

When Democrats talk about health care, economic inequality and investment, and climate change, most Americans side with the political Left. That doesn’t mean most Americans are Leftists or that they will agree with the Left on these issues in the future. But, as of today, those issues are strategic opportunities for the Democrats.

Health care is one big issue to consider, but it may not be the issue right for Kamala Harris. Perhaps climate change? Or tax middle-class tax cuts coupled with tax increases on the wealthy? That is a decision for the Kamala Harris campaign to hash out internally.

My advice is to Kamala Harris is to avoid Hillary Clinton’s most glaring mistake in 2016. She didn’t have ANY big ideas and voters were forced to decide whether they distrusted Donald Trump more than they distrusted Clinton. It was an ugly election that the Democrats should not try to repeat.

My final suggestion for Senator Harris is perhaps most difficult to follow…


This advice rubs against every  living cell in a politician’s body. There is nothing a politician loves more than going unchallenged in an election. Typically, only the most entrenched incumbents get that privilege.

Democrats need to allow this prediction to start settling in now: The 2020 Democratic nomination race will be an intramural shit storm filled with baseless accusations, misrepresentations, borderline slander, all mixed in with a few tactical dog whistle attacks to activate and divide the party’s many identity group warriors.

As Hyman Roth might say, “That’s the business we’ve chosen.”

Senator Harris needs to do what few politicians do well — including Bill Clinton. Seek and encourage competition. The stronger Harris’ competitors in the 2020 nomination race, the more likely she wins in the general election.

Barack Obama would not have won as decisively in 2008 if Hillary Clinton hadn’t run for the nomination. Joe Biden is tough, but he’s not Hillary Clinton tough. John Edwards brought his deep ties to organized labor to the discussion. Bill Richardson had foreign policy credentials. Together, they all made Barack Obama, a genuinely inexperienced politician, a far better candidate in the fall campaign.

Crushing your primary opponents may seem like the best approach to winning a party’s nomination, but it is potentially the midwife to the harmful narrative of the party nominee being the predetermined handiwork of party elites.

Consider the last three Democrats to win the presidency: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. All were arguably “outsider” candidates, even if they had a few establishment benefactors along their path.

Harris will need to have a credible answer to this question if she is the nominee: Is she the establishment candidate who won only because the party elders rigged the nomination in her favor (if even just subtlety)?

Harris cannot afford to be viewed as simply Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama 2.0. If she wins in 2020 (against, I still assume, Donald Trump), it will be historic on a level perhaps surpassing even Barack Obama’s 2008 win.

To get to that moment, Harris needs to win the nomination in a big, crowded and substantively contentious family brawl that ends with a party nominee ready to take on the dirtiest fighter in American political history.

That’s my advice to Senator Harris.  Good luck.


About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.