Does Kamala Harris have what it takes to beat Trump if Biden bows out?

The vice president is now polling better against Trump than Biden — and has become the obvious choice to replace the president should he step aside, writes Andrew Feinberg

Tuesday 09 July 2024 15:40
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Kamala Harris spent the last three years building a profile on the world stage
Kamala Harris spent the last three years building a profile on the world stage (AP)

With pressure mounting for Joe Biden to stand aside after his troubling debate performance against Donald Trump, vice president Kamala Harris has emerged as a surprisingly strong potential challenger to the ex-president.

Harris – the first woman, the first African-American and the first person of Asian descent to serve in the nation’s second-highest office – has been dogged by dismal approval ratings and a policy portfolio that has seen her take on politically tricky issues, like the root causes of an immigration crisis that’s brought hundreds of thousands to the US in recent years.

But she has also spent the last three years building a profile on the world stage, most recently at last month’s Ukraine peace talks in Switzerland. She’s also become the administration’s most prominent messenger on reproductive freedom in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling, which marked the end of a half-century-old federal right to an abortion. Harris’s “reproductive freedom tour” has taken her to events across the country where she has barnstormed events packed with female and minority voters.

As a practical matter, Harris would have a built-in advantage were Biden to step aside because she would be the only person who could tap into the massive war chest already raised for her and Biden’s re-election bid. She would also be able to take advantage of the nationwide apparatus the Biden-Harris campaign has already built, making her the natural successor to Biden if he does choose to stand down.

One Democratic strategist who spoke to The Independent said Harris would enjoy broad support from young voters and other party factions that have soured on Biden.

“People who are unhappy with Trump versus Biden now get to say: ‘We got somebody else.’ Maybe it wasn’t who exactly they wanted. But everybody loves a good comeback story, and she has a great comeback story,” he said.

Harris and her husband, second gentleman Doug Emhoff, arrive for a state dinner earlier this year
Harris and her husband, second gentleman Doug Emhoff, arrive for a state dinner earlier this year (Reuters)

“Her [2020] campaign crashed and burned … she got the s***ty immigration portfolio, but she stayed quiet and kept her head down … and she defended the s*** out of Biden after the debate.”

Before last Thursday’s debate debacle, such a possibility was the stuff of fever dreams in conspiratorial right-wing swamps, rife with social media personalities predicting that Biden would resign or retire in favor of Michelle Obama or some other popular Democrat.

But now, a week after Biden shocked the nation by presenting himself as a fumbling, elderly man who struggled to recall canned talking points or deliver coherent answers in the face of Trump’s dishonest bombast, voters appear far more willing to consider Harris as an alternative.

A survey by CNN and SSRS taken immediately after the debate showed Harris in a statistical tie with Trump, 45 per cent to the ex-president’s 47 per cent, a showing that was several points better than the 43 per cent Biden garnered against Trump’s 49 per cent in the same poll.

That survey found that Harris currently outperforms Biden among two key voting blocs – women and independent voters – even though 538’s average of political surveys shows that she trails him by two points when voters are polled on their approval of each of them.

With buzz growing around the vice president, Trump and his allies are already targeting her with ads, including a digital ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee that attacks her as the nation’s “border czar”. A Trump campaign ad warns: “Vote Joe Biden today, get Kamala Harris tomorrow.”

Harris came to the vice presidency after serving four years of a six-year Senate term, during which she mounted a presidential primary bid that never made an impact with voters. Aside from a viral moment when she accused Biden of supporting school segregation during an early debate, her performances in those primary sessions were generally so shambolic that she withdrew from the 2020 race long before the first votes were cast.

Harris would come top of a hypothetical post-Biden ticket with substantial support from key Democrats
Harris would come top of a hypothetical post-Biden ticket with substantial support from key Democrats (AP)

But Harris would come top of a hypothetical post-Biden ticket with substantial support from key Democrats, including South Carolina Representative James Clyburn, whose endorsement catapulted Biden to the top of the field four years ago.

The Palmetto State congressman told MSNBC he would support Harris were Biden to “step aside” in a Tuesday interview in which he warned that the party should not attempt to bypass her in any way.

“We should do everything we can to bolster her – whether it’s in second place or at the top of the ticket,” she said.

The House minority leader, New York representative Hakeem Jeffries, has also reportedly been signalling to colleagues that he would be keen on having Harris step up were Biden to step back.

If she indeed reaches the top of the Democratic ticket, insiders say the negative spotlight she has been under since assuming office could work to her advantage because voters would be surprised by the positive, energetic figure she cuts on the campaign trail.

Moreover, the coded racial messages that have figured prominently in GOP messaging about her during her vice presidency might galvanise Black and other minority voters in her favour.

The Democratic strategist, who worked on Biden’s 2020 run and still consults with his 2024 campaign staff on an informal basis, told The Independent that a Harris candidacy would bring Black voters who’ve been wavering on Biden right back into the fold, especially after last week’s Supreme Court ruling giving presidents broad immunity for crimes committed while in office.

“I know the expectations for her are low, but Black people, in the wake of that Supreme Court decision, understand the threat. And they know they may not like her, but she’s one of us, and she will look out for us,” he said.

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