WILMINGTON, Del. — Even as Joe Biden took a commanding lead in polls over the summer, Democrats feared his campaign still lacked the vigor it would take to inspire younger voters and people of color to turn out this fall.
In less than a week as his running mate, Kamala Harris is showing signs she can act as an accelerant to his bid — and give the campaign a new dimension to excite voters heading into the Democratic convention this week.
In the few days since Harris joined the ticket, Biden has seen surging fundraising, promising polls and the rare sight of a hometown crowd — despite not being able to hold a rally.
“I think she brings with her the energy of every Black woman in the country,” said former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, the first Black woman elected to the chamber, and only one besides Harris.
When Biden spoke on a campus here earlier this summer, the parking lot was near-empty, and the only activity was a few reporters waiting to have their temperature taken. But a day after Harris was announced, the same high school parking lot was jammed with cars. Supporters with custom signs and Biden and Harris t-shirts ringed the sidewalk with iPhone cameras to catch their first glances of the tandem that will take on Donald Trump.
In interviews, more than a dozen people close to the Biden and Harris operations, as well as elected officials and campaign aides sketched out how the ticket is coming together and how it will be deployed in the final 79-day sprint to the election. Much of the early focus has been on preparing and integrating the candidates and reintroducing Harris at events alongside Biden.
In the days after this week’s convention, the two are expected to sit down for their first extended TV interview together. People close to the campaign said they are planning for Harris to keep to a similar travel scheduled as Biden, though it hinges on whether the coronavirus abates.
The campaign is confident she can help with a number of constituencies, including African Americans, suburban women and, given her history in California, Latinos in states like Arizona, Florida and Texas.
The first signs of what they’ve gained came in Harris’ debut speech as Biden’s running mate on Wednesday. Demonstrating the range that made her an early contender for the nomination, she weaved together a methodical prosecution of the Trump administration with a personal tribute to Biden’s late son Beau. The Biden campaign announced raising nearly $50 million in the two days after she joined the ticket, a stunning sum after he spent months narrowing Trump’s cash advance. Snap polls now show Democrats more likely to cast their ballots for the ticket.
“I tried to image some of the other vice-presidential candidates who haven’t done much campaigning pulling it off, and it would have been tough,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a longtime Democratic strategist in California, noting the difficulty of connecting with a TV audience without the benefit of applause lines and the energy of a rally crowd.
Harris in the speech assailed Trump for squandering the economy that Biden helped revive with Barack Obama. But, Kapolczynski added, just as dramatic was the contrast between Harris and Biden, both visually and in tone.
“He’s a 70-something white male establishment figure and that is comforting to many moderate Democrats. Now, he has a ticket that looks like America and looks to the future,” she said. “It’s an invitation to younger and other occasional voters to get out and vote this time. Kamala Harris looks like change.”
While Harris has been an early boon to Biden, some are already focusing on how the benefits go the other way, too. Harris see-sawed on issues and stumbled in the primary before dropping out in December. Several people close to the campaign said after watching her last week that they now believe Harris, whose strong outings as a candidate last year were overshadowed by consistent miscues and a crowded field of challengers, will bring more to the table than they previously imagined. They also expect Biden’s infrastructure and apparatus, which has largely kept to a disciplined message and avoided embarrassing leaks, to keep her focused and encourage her full potential as a campaigner.
Harris’ selection followed months of intense work to burnish her reputation with the public and the Biden camp after her candidacy also exposed her shortcomings as a manager. With her eye on the vice presidency, Harris brought in new advisers and cut ties with aides who had clashed with each other — and also managed to enrage some on Biden’s team during their bruising primary. Once the interview process began, Harris closed ranks behind a small group of aides while consulting with others on a need-to-know basis.
Harris is now surrounded by a new staff handpicked by Biden’s campaign, though aides said it was assembled before they were sure he’d pick Harris. Karine Jean-Pierre, a Biden senior adviser, is Harris’ new chief of staff and Sheila Nix is a senior adviser to Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff. Liz Allen is the communications director.
As is customary, she is expected to bring only a handful of her staffers to the campaign. Rohini Kosoglu, Harris’ former chief of staff on the campaign and in the Senate, will advise her in a senior role, a person familiar with the move said. Sabrina Singh, a newer addition to Harris’ staff who spent time on the campaigns of Cory Booker and Mike Bloomberg, will work in communications under Allen.
A day after the rollout speech, Harris joined Biden for a briefing on health and the coronavirus. Florida Rep. Donna Shalala said the new ticket provided an early example for how they could continue to complement one another to drive “a very simple message.”
That day, it was “everybody’s got to wear a mask. Nothing complicated about it,” Shalala said. “Then they went on the attack, calling out Trump for the lack of leadership.”
Another challenge last week arrived when Trump refused to repudiate a groundless theory that Harris is ineligible for the vice presidency. Though her parents weren’t U.S. citizens at the time of her birth, Harris was born in Oakland, Calif., making her a citizen under the Constitution.
Biden’s team responded with a statement calling Trump grotesque, accusing him of trying to fan racism with a ploy that comes from a place of weakness. Since then, the campaign has adopted a strategy of letting it go, though some aides have individually continued to point to it being rooted in racism. The calculation is that voters who would be persuaded by the attack are unlikely to come into the Biden-Harris fold.
“They’re desperate, I think that’s how we feel about it,” said one adviser, adding the Biden campaign would continue to monitor whether the claims gain traction and act accordingly.
Harris and Emhoff flew back to Washington Saturday evening after spending four days with the Bidens in Wilmington. Biden at one point called Emhoff’s children as well as his mother. “There was definitely a deepening of the relationship,” an adviser said of the Bidens and Harris and Emhoff, who has developed a following of his own on social media. Biden and Harris also spent some time one-on-one.
After the convention, campaign events are expected to remain largely virtual. The Biden campaign is looking for more creative ways for the two of them to interact with the public and reporters. They see her connection not only to communities of color, but are encouraged by polling they say demonstrates her appeal among suburban women. And they are looking to build virtual events to expand on that strength.
Harris’ first big test as Biden’s running mate will come when she delivers her convention speech Wednesday. The text was described as a collaboration between Biden and Harris aides, and the senator herself. Some Harris advisers and close allies are urging her to add more depth to the retelling of her own story, with some noting that she needs to move beyond the limited personal anecdotes she’s comfortably retold for many years.
Others suggested she ground her biography in the moment. Harris’ parents, immigrants from Jamaica and India, were active in the civil rights movement. Her late mother was a cancer research scientist. Shalala said the best way to showcase Harris is to allow “her personality, her charisma, her attractiveness as a candidate” to shine.
“They need to allow the senator to be the senator,” she said. “They don’t need to mold her in a way where she looks like Biden. But she does need to look like a partner.”
Harris’ precise role in the campaign is still being defined, though officials and aides to the senator noted that she’s spent months as a top Biden surrogate and fundraiser and is already familiar with several of his policies. One obvious approach for her, given her legal experience and history of interrogating Republican witnesses in the Senate, is to go on the attack.
“As a campaigner, I think she can prosecute the heck out of the Trump administration in terms of the many ways they have taken this country backwards,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, the first of several Congressional Black Caucus members to endorse Harris last year.
But some allies and strategists, mindful of the critiques that followed Harris’ debates, said they were worried about typecasting her and driving down her own popularity in the process.
Tracy Sefl, a former Hillary Clinton adviser, said the Biden campaign would be wise to deploy Harris virtually to host smaller, more intimate conversations — a format she said would help Harris stand out and forge a more intimate connection with voters.
“Tens of thousands joined a Zoom with President Obama and George Clooney, trading jokes about their barking dogs while also making the case for Joe Biden. I’d welcome much more of this, but now with Kamala,” Sefl said. “Hearing from her and seeing her in action, close-up will play to her many advantages. … It may seem counterintuitive, but the virtual format adds intimacy and when done well, can truly create a sense of community.”
While Harris polled far behind Biden with Black voters (she dropped out before voting started), Moseley Braun stressed her appeal among Black women and cited her ties to Black sororities. Harris, a Howard graduate, was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, which Moseley Braun predicted would bring out hundreds of thousands of people alone to vote for Harris and Biden.
“There are a lot of people putting a lot of hope that she represents hope and represents progress for our country,” Moseley Braun said.