Democrats wrestle with whether Harris would be stronger than Biden

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Democrats wrestle with whether Harris would be stronger than Biden

Democrats are wrestling over the question of whether Vice President Harris would be a stronger candidate than President Biden to head the Democratic ticket after last week’s race-altering debate.

Harris has made it clear in recent days that she fully supports Biden’s continued bid for a second term and is not angling to replace him.

But Democratic aides and strategists say privately that Biden’s fate could depend on what polls show over the next few weeks, and they warn that if he falls substantially further behind former President Trump, it could prompt widespread calls among Democrats for the president to drop his reelection bid.

Democrats have generally stuck with Biden, but cracks emerged Tuesday, with Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) becoming the first sitting House member to call on the president to step aside.

Harris is the most likely substitute for Biden, though several sources said there would likely be competition.

“We just have to win, and it’s probably easier with someone other than Joe Biden,” said one Senate Democratic aide.

A CNN poll of registered voters conducted by SSRS in the days after the debate showed Trump now beating Biden nationwide by 6 points, 49 percent support to 43 percent. The same poll showed Trump leading Harris by a narrower margin, 47 percent support to 45 percent.

The poll also showed that 56 percent of Democratic voters and Democratic-leaning independent voters think their party would have a better chance of winning the White House with someone other than Biden. Only 43 percent of these voters said they think Biden is their best option. 

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), one of Biden’s strongest allies, has twice said he’d support Harris if Biden opted out of the race, even as he’s offered confidence for the president.

Other officeholders also have underscored their confidence in Harris, even as they make it clear that Biden is their candidate.

“I think she’s done an incredible job being a partner to the president and leading the party and leading the country, and I think that she will continue to do that,” Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-Calif.) told reporters Tuesday when asked whether Harris would be a viable general election candidate.

“Everyone is in the spirit of continuing to fight for the American people and win this election,” said Butler, who traveled with Harris in California last week and saw her “a number of times” since the debate.

“What the vice president indicated to me is that she’s ready to continue to be out and travel the country, communicate with voters and do the work to win this election.”

Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons, who served as Harris’s communications director until last year, said Harris would have the inside track to win the nomination if Biden drops out of the race.

“I think she wins the open convention,” Simmons said, pointing to the fact that Harris already has name ID and is the closest advocate and ally to the president. “Institutionally, there’s no one in a better position than Kamala Harris … She’s very competent, and with the exception of the 2019 presidential contest, she has won every political contest she has been in, even when people bet against her. And hopefully the 2019 process taught her lessons that would make her a better candidate in 2024.”

Harris has had a turbulent record as vice president and has been saddled with a number of difficult issues, including the border. Her own weak approval numbers have led Democrats during Biden’s term to question whether she’d be a strong general election candidate.

Yet Harris would clearly have advantages if Biden stepped aside, including the potential access to the Biden-Harris campaign war chest. 

“That’s not insignificant,” Simmons said. “Her name is on the documents. It’s a strong card to play with the delegates.” 

“If Biden already has 90 percent of the delegates, assume she gets half, that’s already 45 percent. She can start the whole contest with that. On the first ballot she would get 45 percent if she did nothing else,” he said.

If Biden did step down, Harris would almost certainly have competition for the Democratic nomination, including possibly from California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Simmons said an open convention would help Harris.

“It will air out the dirty laundry. Everybody is familiar with the vice president’s flaws. They’re not as familiar with the flaws of the other candidates. And once that process begins, voters can make more informed choices about who they want to be the nominee,” he said.  

A Democratic fundraising strategist said the prevailing sentiment among big party donors is to stick with Biden but cautioned that Harris shouldn’t be underestimated as a serious candidate. 

The strategist noted Harris was elected as the first woman and first African American to serve as California’s attorney general.

“She ran for president [in 2020] knowing that she could and would be able to do the job, and Biden selected her with the intention that she could and would do the job,” the strategist said. 

“This is not a Dan Quayle situation,” the source added, referring to President George H.W. Bush’s vice president.

Whether Harris would actually be a stronger candidate than Biden remains a subject of deep debate among Democratic strategists. CNN’s postdebate polls showed that Harris has a 29 percent favorable rating, a few points below Biden, who has a 34 percent favorable rating. 

Trump was viewed more favorably compared to both of them, with 39 percent of respondents reporting a favorable opinion of the former president.  

“I like Kamala a lot, but I don’t think she’s ready for prime time,” said one Democratic operative who has known Harris for years. “I think she has a lot of weaknesses that we’ve observed in her time as vice president. Am I saying she could never be president? No. But I don’t think this is her moment.” 

One donor who is a longtime ally of Harris predicted the coming weeks will prove if Harris is tested.

“I think she handled herself and the response [to the debate] in a pitch-perfect way, and I think if she continues to show that side of her, she’ll win over a lot of Democrats very quickly,” the donor said.

Al Weaver contributed.