Government & Politics

Why Elizabeth Warren’s biggest 2020 competition might be Kamala Harris

The battle for 2020: Possible Democratic presidential nominees

The pressure is ramping up for Democratic presidential hopefuls who hope to take on President Donald Trump next year. Here's a brief look at who is battling for the nomination in the 2020 election.
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The pressure is ramping up for Democratic presidential hopefuls who hope to take on President Donald Trump next year. Here's a brief look at who is battling for the nomination in the 2020 election.

Stephanie Ellis-Smith is one of many well-educated, female Democrats facing a new dilemma: She’s having trouble deciding between Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.

The philanthropic adviser from Seattle has long been impressed by Warren’s detailed policy agenda, but was also struck by Harris’s commanding performance in the first Democratic debate. She’s among hundreds of donors who wrote checks to both candidates in the last fundraising period.

“My heart so far has been with Elizabeth Warren, but after the debate I’ve been giving Kamala Harris a second look,” Ellis-Smith said.

As they rise to the top of 2020 Democratic presidential field, Harris and Warren are increasingly in direct competition for many of the same voters and donors, according to polls and fundraising data, with each drawing support from the party’s more affluent, college-educated wing — particularly women.

The overlap between their supporters might be a surprise, especially for Warren, who is usually portrayed as being in direct competition with fellow liberal stalwart Bernie Sanders. But Warren’s strongest support so far has come from the same group of voters that is critical to Harris’ path to the nomination.

“A lot of people handicapped the race with Warren competing for voters in the Bernie wing of the party,” said Brian Fallon, a Democratic strategist and former Hillary Clinton campaign aide. “And it turns out that a lot of Clinton voters like Warren too, and she’s competing for voters in both lanes.

“And that lane definitely puts her in competition with Harris for some of those center-left college-educated women,” Fallon added. “Both of them have higher ceilings than others with those voters.”

Recent polls have underscored just how much support Warren and Harris each receive from white, college-educated voters — and how much room to grow they still have with this group.

In polling results shared with McClatchy, Quinnipiac University found that 24 percent of white, college-educated voters backed Warren earlier this month, compared to 21 percent for Harris.

Joe Biden placed third among those voters at 18 percent, despite having the top overall standing in the poll.

Harris and Warren also have the highest favorability scores among white, college-educated voters in many polls. A CNN survey this month showed that 83 percent of these voters had a favorable view of Warren, compared to 79 percent for Harris.

“People look at Harris and Warren as something new and refreshing,” said Bakari Sellers, a former Democratic state lawmaker from South Carolina who has endorsed Harris. “It’s not necessarily to do with their sex, but with their refreshing worldview and the way they look at politics and policy.”

Warren and Harris are increasingly competing for the same sources of money, too. More than 800 donors gave to both candidates between April and July, the highest overlap between any two Democratic presidential candidates during that period, according to a McClatchy analysis of the most recent fundraising reports.

“I admire and like what I’m hearing from both of those candidates,” said Houston attorney and major Democratic donor Amber Mostyn, who has contributed to both Harris and Warren. “The debates showed that both women have what it takes.”

A Morning Consult poll also found that a plurality of Warren and Harris supporters considered the other candidate as their second choice.

Even similar types of progressive activists are stuck picking from between the two candidates: When the liberal group Indivisible asked its mostly female membership after the debate which candidates they preferred, Warren and Harris each received more than 30 percent of the vote while the next closest, Biden, received just 10 percent of the vote.

Of the more than 18,000 members who responded, 86 percent said they were considering voting for Warren while 83 percent said the same for Harris. Pete Buttigieg was third, with just 61 percent of the group’s membership saying it would consider voting for him.

“Not just when you look at the horse race but when you look at net favorability, no matter how you cut it, Warren and Harris always rank in the top two across our movement,” said Maria Urbina, Indivisible’s national political director.

The coalitions each candidate is building don’t perfectly overlap. Harris still has more support among African-Americans, though Warren has worked diligently to court leaders and activists in the community.

Some pollsters also say that Harris’s support within the party extends broadly to many key demographic groups, making her a natural rival for several of the top candidates.

“You can do a story about Harris’s crossover with almost any other candidate in the field,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, which has extensively polled the Democratic presidential primary.

And Warren still draws heavy support from the wing of the party that supports Sanders. She and Sanders shared roughly 700 donors in common during the most fundraising period, compared to about 100 for Harris and Sanders.

Democratic strategists say Harris and Warren’s appeal has as much to do with style as substance.

“Voters don’t necessarily view all candidates strictly in terms of ideology,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist. “There’s an old adage: ‘Who would you rather have a beer with?’ Voters want to like who they vote for. And they want someone who is authentic.”

Adam Wollner contributed reporting.

Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He’s been a campaigns reporter in Washington since 2010, after covering politics and state government in Pennsylvania during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term.
Ben Wieder is a data reporter in McClatchy’s Washington bureau. He worked previously at the Center for Public Integrity and Stateline. His work has been honored by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, National Press Foundation, Online News Association and Association of Health Care Journalists.
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