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The abortion debate is giving Kamala Harris a moment. But voters still aren't sold

Noah Bierman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Women

PHOENIX — When a group of crossover voters was asked during a focus group about Vice President Kamala Harris, their assessments were brutal: If she is helping Biden, you don't see it. She rubs me the wrong way. She was picked because she is a demographic. The big things she had, she failed.

The comments, fair or not, represent a problem for President Joe Biden and for Harris, echoed in interviews with voters here in Arizona, a key swing state where Harris spoke on Friday. More than three years into the oldest president in history's first term, his understudy has failed to win over a majority of voters or convince them that she is ready to step in if Biden falters, according to polls.

"Swing voters don't like her," said Gunner Ramer, political director for a group called Republican Voters Against Trump, which allowed the Los Angeles Times to view videos from three focus groups, including the crossover group that featured people who voted for former President Donald Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020.

It wasn't just former Trump voters who were negative about Harris. In a focus group of Black voters who were disappointed with Biden, none raised their hand in support of Harris, with one participant calling her "the bad news bear." A focus group of California Democrats, while they liked Harris, had to be prompted to discuss her and said she needed more influence and exposure.

Many of Harris' allies and supporters say the judgments are influenced by racism and sexism, pointing out that other vice presidents stayed in the background with less scrutiny and saw their popularity tied to the top of the ticket. Some people in focus groups criticized her clothes or compared her to Hillary Clinton in comments that seemed to validate those concerns.

But her low popularity could pose a political problem that her predecessors have not faced, given the focus on Trump's and Biden's ages, 77 and 81 respectively. More than half of voters, 54%, said she is not qualified to serve as president in a March USA Today/Suffolk poll, compared with 38% who said she is.

"If there was a health event for either nominee, the VP is front and center in terms of people who may be on the fence, people who may dislike both candidates," said David Paleologos, who conducted a USA Today/Suffolk poll that asked voters their assessment of Harris. "And there are a lot whose decision may hinge on a comfort level with the vice presidential choice."

Harris has heard the criticism since she entered the White House to historic triumph in 2021. While she seldom responds directly, she has stepped up her appearances with core Democratic groups, often keeping a more robust campaign and travel schedule than Biden. Many allies believe her role as the administration's leading voice on abortion rights will boost her and the Democratic ticket on an issue that helped carry the party to unexpected success in the 2022 midterm elections.

She spoke Friday in Tucson, three days after the state's Supreme Court ruled that a 1864 ban on abortion can be enforced in the coming weeks. She framed the Democrats' case against Trump, who has claimed credit for shifting the Supreme Court against abortion rights and last week said each state should decide on the issue.

"Just like he did in Arizona, he basically wants to take America back to the 1800s," Harris said.

Several voters said in interviews in Phoenix on Monday that they were not aware Harris was in their state just a few days ago, underscoring the challenge of getting attention as a vice president in an era of information overload.

"If she is coming for us, she doesn't show it," said Tracey Sayles, a 52-year-old Black Democrat.

Sayles voted in prior elections for Democrats Hillary Clinton and Biden but now says her choice is 50-50 in the coming election, despite calling Trump "vulgar," because Biden "looks like he's ill." She would have driven to see Harris in Tucson if she'd known she was in the state, she said, but feels the vice president has been hiding.

Another voter who dislikes both Trump and Biden, Jeff Garland, said he has not seen much of Harris either.

"But from what I have seen of her, she doesn't look like someone I want running my country," said Garland, a 57-year-old retired member of the military who said he voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020 and planned to sit out 2024.

Kellie Hoverson, a 31-year-old Democrat, said she "was not thrilled about Biden" but was more bullish on Harris, despite hearing concerns from younger friends and relatives about her history as a prosecutor in California.

"I just want a woman president," she said. "I just want to see it in my lifetime."

Studies by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which works to advance women's equality in politics, suggest women face an "imagination barrier" when they run for the highest executive offices, because voters have a harder time picturing them in the job than they do white men, who have historically held the posts.

 

"Men can tell and women have to show," said Amanda Hunter, the foundation's executive director.

Polls suggest Harris, who dropped out early in the 2020 presidential primary, has made strides with the Democratic base. Three quarters of Democrats had a favorable view of her in the USA Today/Suffolk poll, which showed a little more than a quarter of independents view her favorably.

Brian Fallon, who serves as her campaign communications director, said she "has proven to be a highly effective messenger on issues from reproductive freedom to gun violence prevention" and said she is "uniquely positioned to mobilize critical groups across the Biden-Harris coalition, including both progressives and independents."

The fact that many voters say they remain unfamiliar with Harris is something her allies and advisors see as an opening, because it leaves room for persuasion when more voters focus in on the race in the early fall.

"This is not a one-speech or two-speech thing, this is four or five months of just putting in the work," said Cornell Belcher, who served as one of former President Obama's pollsters.

Belcher argued that the small slice of persuadable voters who give Harris her lowest marks won't decide the race; it will instead be a question of whether Democrats can rebuild their coalition of young voters, women and people of color that delivered Obama his 2012 reelection and formed the backbone of Biden's 2020 victory.

"I'm more worried about these younger voters taking the off-ramp, like they did in 2016," he said, crediting Harris with her work reaching them in college campus tours and other outreach.

But there are questions there, too, with inconsistencies in polls of voters age 18-29, given the small sample sizes of subgroups. One poll conducted in early April by Emerson College showed Harris with pretty high favorable marks among those younger voters, nearly 49%, while another poll by the Economist taken a few days later showed only 34% of that age group viewed her favorably.

It's unclear whether Trump, who has not targeted the vice president often, will pick up his attacks on Harris, who is unsurprisingly toxic among Republican base voters. "If they cheat on the election, it might be Kamala," Trump said during a March rally in North Carolina, echoing his false claims of widespread election fraud.

He fairly quickly pivoted back to Biden: "We got enough problems with this guy."

A senior advisor to the Trump campaign, Danielle Alvarez, called Harris irrelevant. "Political reality is that Biden's under water and he is a failed president," she said. "She is certainly probably equal to him in those failures, but he is the target."

Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster, agrees that running mates do not generally impact votes but points to Sarah Palin in 2008 as an exception, in large part because polls showed dual concerns about John McCain's health and Palin's fitness for office. He argues that Harris, whom he characterizes as a walking gaffe, presents a similar problem.

"There may be plenty of time, but if you don't have the ability to be more articulate and look like you're ready to be leader of the free world, it's going to be difficult to accomplish that," Ayres said.

Harris is counting on that time. She is fairly busy with public events, but vice presidents, by design, don't tend to draw much attention compared with the president.

As the campaign heats up, and Trump picks a running mate, they are likely to see more of her, and, potentially, in a different light.

"For people who have misgivings about her, ultimately the question for them is going to be how does she look as opposed to X?" said Joel Goldstein, a historian who studies the vice presidency. "Now, she's measured against an ideal figure."

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©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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