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Kamala Harris drops out of 2020 presidential race

Senator Kamala Harris of California dropped out of the Democratic presidential race on Tuesday, after months of slumping poll numbers, a dramatic comedown after her campaign began with significant promise.
Demetrius Freeman/NYT
Senator Kamala Harris of California dropped out of the Democratic presidential race on Tuesday, after months of slumping poll numbers, a dramatic comedown after her campaign began with significant promise.

Senator Kamala Harris of California dropped out of the Democratic presidential race on Tuesday after months of low poll numbers and a series of missteps that crippled her campaign, a deflating comedown for a barrier-breaking candidate who was seeking to become the first black woman to win the presidency.

The decision came after weeks of upheaval among Harris’ staff, including layoffs in New Hampshire and at her headquarters in Baltimore, and disarray among her allies. She told supporters in an email on Tuesday that she lacked the money needed to fully finance a competitive campaign.

“My campaign for president simply doesn’t have the financial resources we need to continue,” Harris wrote.

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The announcement is perhaps the most surprising development to date in a fluid Democratic presidential campaign where Harris began in the top tier. Her departure removes a prominent woman of color from a field that began as the most diverse ever in a Democratic primary, and raises the prospect that this month’s debate in Los Angeles will feature no candidates who are not white.

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Harris opened her campaign on Martin Luther King’s birthday with a rousing speech in her hometown, Oakland, Calif., before an audience of 20,000 people, drawing comparisons to history-making black politicians like Barack Obama and Shirley Chisholm.

The speech was a signal of the careful balance her campaign tried to strike throughout the year: leaning on her personal story as a daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants while positioning her policy preferences outside the party’s moderate and progressive ideological wings. Harris sought to focus on incremental and deliverable change rather than the type of systemic upheaval popularized by rivals like Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

But almost immediately after her campaign began, she faced questions about her policy core that resulted in damaging news cycles. She reversed her position on single-payer health care, removing herself from the so-called Medicare for All bill sponsored by Sanders. She struggled with how to frame her record as a prosecutor, oscillating between defending it against progressive criticism and embracing it in a play for more moderate votes.

On a conference call with donors, Harris said she had conferred with her family over the Thanksgiving holiday and stayed up meeting with advisers until 2 a.m. Tuesday, before concluding she had “no path” forward in the race, a person on the call said. Harris said she would have needed to raise $5 million in two weeks, a goal she described as impossible.

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Over the weekend, after a New York Times story detailed problems within her campaign, Harris did a financial audit of her operation, according to a senior aide. One of Harris’ aides, who spoke with her about her decision to drop out, said her instinct was to keep fighting but that she was told she would have to go into debt to do so.

In her announcement Tuesday, Harris reaffirmed her commitment to her campaign’s unifying ideals.

“Although I’m no longer running for president,” she said, “I will do everything in my power to defeat Donald Trump and fight for the future of our country and the best of who we are.”

Harris’ withdrawal will set off an arms race between the presidential campaigns still in the race, as they try to lap up her top-tier roster of endorsements and staff. Some of her donors, meanwhile, have already begun to field calls from her rivals.

But it is unclear how Harris’ exit will aid any one candidate in polling, considering how her standing had declined in recent months. She and Warren were competing for many of the same voters earlier in the year, but ideological moderates like former Vice President Joe Biden and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., may seek a boost from her supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

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Throughout her candidacy, Harris faced concerns about her political strategy and her campaign’s organizational structure. She relied on a stable of California political strategists, led by the longtime political operative Averell Smith, who did not heed warnings from grassroots organizers to invest more heavily in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Instead, the campaign focused on later primaries in states with more nonwhite voters, including South Carolina and California.

They miscalculated. Biden remained popular with black voters, preventing the campaign from making significant headway in South Carolina. In California, Harris was increasingly boxed out, as progressives like Sanders and Warren excited the state’s liberal wing and Biden persisted among moderates.

Still, Harris had already qualified for the next presidential debate, scheduled for Dec. 19, the only nonwhite candidate to do so thus far. Without her, Democrats may have an all-white debate stage after beginning the primaries with the most racially diverse field in history, though candidates like Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and businessman Andrew Yang may still qualify in the coming days.

Harris’ online fundraising slowed in recent months and large donors increasingly turned toward other candidates. In the third quarter of the year, she spent more than $1.41 for every dollar she raised, burning through millions of her treasury. She stopped buying ads, both online and on television, slashed staff in New Hampshire, and retrenched to Iowa, where she spent the Thanksgiving holiday with her family.

In the days leading up to her withdrawal from the race, as her campaign grew increasingly desperate, she surprised one donor who had hosted an event for her but is not a major Democratic bundler by telephoning him to see if he could reach out to his associates who had yet to give, in hopes of finding her additional checks. Another donor recommended to her that she leave the race.

Even as she struggled, Harris had assembled a coveted list of more than 130 bundlers who had raised at least $25,000 for her campaign, more than half of whom were from her home state of California, one of the deepest wells of Democratic cash. Harris canceled a scheduled fundraiser with some of her top bundlers in New York on Tuesday just hours before the event was set to occur. On Wednesday, she had been scheduled to attend an event in Los Angeles at the home of Sean Parker, the billionaire tech entrepreneur.

A pair of California-based Democratic strategists, Dan Newman and Brian Brokaw, had just secured the money and the implicit sign off from Harris’ campaign to begin a super PAC in support of her candidacy. The group, named People Standing Strong, was to begin a $1 million ad buy in Iowa on Wednesday in hopes of boosting her chances. Her campaign itself had been unable to afford ads in the state since September.