Harris betting big on going small in Iowa

Campaign makes changes after low poll numbers, dwindling cash

Harris
JACK KURTZ/ZUMA PRESS/TNS
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a candidate for president, speaks on Nov. 1 at the Liberty and Justice Celebration in the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.

BY MELANIE MASON
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

NEWTON, Iowa — In better times, Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign was full of flash: a launch rally that drew more than 20,000 people to Oakland, a five-day summer tour of Iowa on a luxury bus with her name blazing from the side in colorful capital letters, a robust multi-state operation headquartered in Baltimore. 

Now, the bus has been swapped for a nondescript black SUV. The campaign stops are more intimate than immense — a few dozen people in a pastoral red barn, several hundred in a pub. And her efforts have narrowed to a single make-or-break prize: Iowa. 

To revive her flagging campaign, Harris is betting big on going small. It is a marked tonal shift and a strategy born of necessity, reflecting her dwindling cash and limp poll numbers. 

A personal approach 

The California senator proved she can still deliver a high-wattage performance, earning glowing reviews for a recent energetic speech at a major gathering of Iowa Democrats. 

But her October blitz in Iowa largely focused on humbler settings — making dinner in supporters’ homes and dropping in on small businesses, in hopes that one-on-one encounters can help close the deal with caucusgoers who will make or break her presidential aspirations. 

“The obvious risk is you’re not speaking to large crowds,” said Dan Callahan, a 57-year old contractor from Independence who attended the Harris town hall in a Winthrop barn. But he pronounced the personal approach a “good thing.” 

“It’s what Iowa expects,” he said. “It’s what we’re used to.” 

Strategists’ plan 

Iowa’s Feb. 3 caucus wasn’t always so central to Harris’ plan. Her strategists’ hopes had initially hinged on Western and Southern states. 

They presumed she would have a geographic advantage in Nevada’s Feb. 22 caucus and a demographic edge Feb. 29 in South Carolina, where Black voters dominate the Democratic primary electorate. 

From there, they predicted a Super Tuesday jackpot March 3, seeing friendly territory in her home state of California and large African American populations in places such as Alabama. 

‘Moving to Iowa’

The freshman senator catapulted into top-tier status after a commanding performance in the first debate. But subsequent mediocre debate showings, along with a murky ideological message, particularly on health care and her seesawing embrace of her prosecutorial past, hobbled her.

By September, her campaign was forced to reboot, directing more attention on Iowa, home of the first Democratic nominating contest. 

“I’m f — ing moving to Iowa,” Harris was overheard telling a fellow senator in September. Her campaign embraced the declaration, which ended up on a T-shirt sold by Des Moines retailer Raygun, known for its cheeky political merchandise. 

Laid off staff 

The Hawkeye State became even more important after her campaign acknowledged last week it was laying off staff and slashing spending. Her team has fired employees at her Baltimore headquarters, all but pulled out of New Hampshire and moved workers from Nevada and California into Iowa.

In addition to ramping up its ground game, the Iowa campaign is planning a seven-figure television ad buy in the weeks before the caucus. Her South Carolina team will stay in place.

“We have made a decision — a difficult decision — but made a decision of what we need to do to win,” Harris told reporters last week. 

Low in polls 

It was a move her most ardent fans wished she’d made months ago. 

“I was disappointed when she listened to people and stayed away from Iowa for a while,” said Doug Cameron, 71, a retired principal from Grinnell who backed Harris early on, drawn by her teacher pay proposal. “She needed to be here sooner than she was, make her presence known.” 

But Cameron was optimistic that the redoubled efforts were moving the needle. “It may not be immediately obvious,” he said, “but the people I talk to are starting to come around.” 

So far, Harris’ poll numbers in Iowa haven’t shown much improvement. 

A New York Times/Siena College poll released Nov. 1 showed her mired in the low single-digits, a world away from the upper echelon of candidates: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and former Vice President Joe Biden. 

When a reporter noted that Harris had said in the past she considered herself a top-tier candidate, the California senator interrupted to firmly insist: “I still do.” 

Voters up for grabs 

Perhaps her biggest challenge is that voters can be fickle. 

Dani Goedken, 18, was already a Harris supporter in September when she met the senator at the University of Northern Iowa, where she is a freshman studying pre-law and political communications. After the encounter, Goedken told a television reporter that she was even more sure she’d caucus for Harris.

But a few weeks later, her loyalties were torn. Warren had just held a rally on the campus in Cedar Falls, and Goedken found herself drawn to the Massachusetts senator’s ability to connect with younger voters. Her caucus plans, once certain, had become hazier. 

“I can see myself being up for grabs,” Goedken said, “because I’ve gone back and forth with them so many times.”

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