Posted on August 13, 2020

Kamala Harris’s Nomination Is a Turning Point for Democrats

Ronald Brownstein, The Atlantic, August 12, 2020

In the final rally Joe Biden held before COVID-19 shut down the country in March, he clasped hands on a stage in Detroit with a group of emerging Democratic stars. “I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else,” he declared a few minutes later. “There is an entire generation of leaders that you saw standing behind me. They are the future of this country.” Yesterday, Biden took a major step toward redeeming those words when he chose Senator Kamala Harris of California, one of the Democrats on that stage, as his vice-presidential nominee.By selecting Harris, Biden has positioned the Democratic Party for a profound generational and demographic transition, and he’s addressed the fundamental incongruity of his candidacy: the inherent strain of a nearly 78-year-old white man leading a political coalition that relies on big margins among young voters, people of color, and women.

Biden represents the Democratic Party of his post–World War II coming-of-age: a coalition centered on blue-collar white people who worked with their hands, mostly in smaller industrial cities such as Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he was born. From almost every angle, Harris embodies the Democratic Party of the 21st century: a biracial child of immigrants (who is herself in an interracial marriage) who rose to political prominence from a base in San Francisco, a diverse, globalized hub of the emerging information economy.

{snip} “I think Kamala Harris has the potential to activate a voter that otherwise has not seen themself reflected in the Democratic Party,” says Terrance Woodbury, an African-American Democratic consultant who studies younger voters.

Many members of the Democrats’ “coalition of transformation,” including professional women, immigrants, and African Americans, can see aspects of their experience reflected in Harris’s life. That could make her a resonant symbol of the Democrats’ embrace of a changing America {snip}Attacks from the right won’t completely muffle complaints on the left. As Woodbury and other activists note, Harris will “have some things to prove” with younger racial-justice advocates skeptical of her record as the district attorney of San Francisco and as California’s attorney general, particularly her reluctance to pursue prosecutions against law-enforcement officials involved in the killing of civilians. But no one I’ve spoken with disputes the power of Biden acknowledging that Black voters—especially Black women voters—deserve representation at the very apex of the Democratic Party’s leadership. Harris’s new role is especially meaningful because of the possibility that Biden, if he wins, might not run for reelection in 2024, which would position her as a front-runner, if not the front-runner, for the Democratic nomination that year.


This ticket always seemed to some observers (myself included) the most logical choice for Democrats in their fight against Trump. That’s because the pairing reflects the party’s promising but tenuous position as demographic shifts inexorably transform the electorate. By any measure, Harris symbolizes a Democratic future rooted in groups and places that are growing as a share of society: the well-educated and diverse voters centered in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. A massive recent compilation of survey research by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that the non-college-educated white voters Biden grew up around now constitute only about three in 10 self-identified Democrats, while white voters with a four-year college degree or more constitute nearly as many. People of color represent the plurality, at about 40 percent of Democrats.

But because of lagging turnout among some of those people of color—and also because white voters without a college degree are overrepresented in key Rust Belt states—many Democrats concluded after 2016 that they needed a nominee who could win back working-class whites. A solid majority of Democratic primary voters, including all but the youngest African American voters, in effect hired Biden to perform that very specific job.

Polls have generally found that Biden is making at least some progress on that front. But he’s continually struggled to generate much excitement among younger people, especially those who are nonwhite. Many Democrats are hopeful that Harris will provide more of the spark with younger people of color that he has not {snip}

In 2016, just 60 percent of eligible African American voters turned out, down from 67 percent in 2012, according to the Census Bureau. Kasim Reed, the African American former mayor of Atlanta, told me last night he is confident that Harris’s position—combined with antipathy toward Trump and Biden’s own connections with older Black voters—will ensure a dramatic rebound in Black participation. {snip}Others are more cautious about her potential to energize younger voters. Harris is a demographic bridge between Biden and the modern Democratic Party, but she’s not nearly as much of an ideological bridge. Though she ran sharply to the left during the early stages of her unsteady presidential bid, her record, like Biden’s, is fundamentally moderate.

Stanley B. Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster, told me that overall, he believes Harris will boost Biden. {snip}

But to the extent that lagging youth enthusiasm for Biden represents ideological suspicion of him, Greenberg said, Harris isn’t likely to solve the problem. {snip}


Biden’s inner circle has tilted heavily toward older white men, but by choosing Harris, he’s taken one significant step toward acknowledging his need to open more doors to younger and more racially diverse leaders. {snip} Even as the GOP at every level remains dominated by white men—starting with Trump and Pence—the Democrats haven’t nominated a presidential ticket of two white men since 2004. It’s difficult to imagine when they ever will again.