Kamala Harris Takes Her Post-Debate Momentum to Iowa
Hundreds of prospective voters arrived early to a Fourth of July house party in Indianola, Iowa, to see Kamala Harris. They lined the dirt driveway, a stretch of the sprawling lawn, and a half mile of the surrounding street with parked cars. In the backyard, Harris supporters formed a sweaty semicircle around the deck. (The wisest brought their own folding chairs.) As the crowd grew into the hundreds and the temperature rose to ninety degrees, partygoers used umbrellas as parasols and “Kamala Harris for the People” signs as heat shields. During introductory remarks by the Iowa state representative Scott Ourth, a member of the crowd passed out. “Everything’s fine and dandy,” Ourth reassured the audience, as Harris’s campaign staff carried the wilted guest indoors. “Bring her out! Bring her out!” the crowd chanted. “Kamala’s in there talking to the person that fainted,” Ourth retorted. “What I was saying was what drives her most is the love that she shares with other people and how that love manifests itself through her service to the United States.” With that, Harris swept through the porch’s sliding glass doors, eliciting an outburst of applause that muffled her signature walkout song, “Work That,” by Mary J. Blige. “Our friend is gonna be fine,” Harris told the crowd, referring to the ailing guest. “And there are a lot of friends around her, so we’re gonna send her best wishes.”
During her three-day swing through Iowa, Harris sought to capitalize on her strong performance in the first Democratic primary debates. In the twenty-four hours that followed, her campaign raised two million dollars online. Soon after, she surged to second place in three polls of likely Democratic voters, claiming the momentum that Vice President Joe Biden had lost. (About half a million dollars for the Harris campaign over the quarter came from selling online merchandise, including T-shirts that featured the applause line of the debate: “And that little girl was me.”)
This week, at town halls in Des Moines and Sioux City, and even at the house party in Indianola, Harris continued using the prosecutorial rhetoric that defines her platform, sharpening her stump speech to include a passage where she declares Trump a “coward” whom she would hold to account. “I have prosecuted the big banks who preyed on homeowners, prosecuted pharmaceutical companies who preyed on seniors, prosecuted transnational criminal organizations that preyed on women and children. And I will tell you, we have a predator living in the White House,” she said. At one point, a voice from the crowd shouted, “We love you, forty-six.” She smiled and replied, “Not yet, though.”
In Iowa this week, her most compelling trait was not her steely composure but her relaxed and fluid stage presence, which, more than her stance on bussing or healthcare, distinguishes her from Biden. As Harris worked the crowd in Indianola, the former Vice President stood behind a lectern, over sixty miles away, reading from a teleprompter at a Best Western in Marshalltown. In Harris’s interactions with voters, she manages at once to deliver her memorized applause lines and to project an air of informality. She greets the intern seated in the front row, waves to the adorable baby, proffers a “bless you” to the unseen sneeze. In Indianola, she didn’t flinch at the sudden, unexpected reply to a rhetorical question she asked about what the nation has experienced under the current Administration. “Bullshit!” a college student shouted, to an outburst of applause. Harris calmly smiled. “Call it for what it is,” she replied. “I call it that, too.”
Ashley Raske, an African-American office manager from Des Moines, attended Harris’s event with her in-laws, who are white, and her three sons, who are biracial. She had watched Harris in the debates and marveled at “how much of a boss she was.” “I don’t think she’s scared,” Raske told me. “I don’t think she’s one who’s easily intimidated.” David Kitsis, a retired telephone technician, caucused for Hillary Clinton in 2016. This cycle, he hopes to attend as many events as possible before deciding on the candidate who has the best chance of winning the primary. Might that be Kamala? “I think Trump is scared of her,” he said. “I really do.”
In Iowa, seven months before the first caucuses, the Fourth of July events showcased the assets and liabilities of every candidate visiting the state. In Ames, Bernie Sanders indulged selfie requests with visible impatience. In Independence, Joe Biden smooched babies and jogged along the route of an annual parade, as if to show his vitality. In Des Moines, at a Cubs Game, Beto O’Rourke gravitated toward a group of young people, asked what they were drinking, and, when one of them offered him her can of Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, took a sip.
After Harris’s speech at the house party, she welcomed members of the crowd, one by one, into the shade under the roofed porch to pose for selfies. Some fans had brought copies of “The Truths We Hold,” her memoir. Ida Lewison, a seven-year-old from Kansas who had read that Harris’s mother used to make Special K cookies, handed the Senator a box of the cereal. Harris signed the back of the box in teal Sharpie, appending a note to her autograph: “Ida, thank you for your strength!” (Inevitably, on social media, both Harris’s campaign and her husband shared images of Ida.) That morning, at a parade in Independence, the same young girl had asked Beto to sign a poster and Biden to sign her jean jacket. (Both obliged, the latter after securing her mother’s permission.) “I think that Kamala and Beto both had really good answers,” Ida told me. Biden, she added, “didn’t really give me any answers. He just signed my jacket.”
Nichole Poindexter-Wilson, an Indianola local attending the house party, works as the treasurer of her family’s flooring business. “I was a Cory Booker fan, but I might be a Kamala Harris fan at the moment,” she told me, after getting a photograph. “Even my dad said that if there was anyone who could beat Trump, it would be her. And he’s a Republican.”
In Indianola, Harris’s charm worked on a former Trump supporter. Mike Kaldenberg, a retired air-force officer from Winterset, Iowa, had heard about the party from his wife, a former Hillary Clinton supporter who was out of town caring for a relative. In 2016, Kaldenberg had voted for Trump. “My military training told me that what Hillary did with her e-mails was strategically poisonous,” he said. “I just couldn’t. She should have known better.” Kaldenberg’s frustration with Trump’s tariffs, and their devastating effect on the state’s farmers, have caused him to sour on the President. “The more I learned about it, the more I thought, ‘I really screwed up.’ I didn’t have any facts at the time.” Kaldenberg now hopes the Democrats will “come out here” and “stump the heck” out of Iowa. “I think Joe probably has been around a little too long, and Bernie won’t last very long. I love Pete, but Kamala—she’s a smart woman, a very smart woman. I don’t see her as a politician. And I don’t think people want politicians anymore. They want common-sense people. People that aren’t bought. People that can’t be bought.”
Harris, for all her verve in person, stumbled a day into her Iowa tour by appearing to renege the stance on bussing that she articulated during her debate exchange with Biden. On Wednesday, she described federally mandated bussing as a “tool” to be considered rather than required. Biden, sensing an opening, argued that Harris was now articulating the same position she criticized him for during the debate. “Our positions aren’t any different,” Biden said, during a CNN interview.
A few hours later, Harris reached Sioux City for the final event of her trip, a town hall in a church. The venue for the event was too small, leaving some attendees stuck outside. Harris stepped outdoors briefly to address the overflow crowd, many of whom groused about the lack of planning before returning to their cars to leave. Delivering her stump speech inside, Harris demonstrated the knack for storytelling that aided her during the debate. When a crowd member asked about the border crisis, Harris recounted her trip to a for-profit detention center in Homestead, Florida, defying a guard who wouldn’t let her in and pantomiming her ascent up a ladder that gave her a view of the center beyond the fence. “I would not be deterred,” Harris said, laughing.
Later in the event, Harris struggled to answer a question from Crystal Petersen, a fifty-five-year old retiree from upstate New York, who had travelled to Iowa to assess as many candidates as she could. Petersen lamented the impact of the opioid epidemic on her small village, Dundee, where she, a former volunteer firefighter, and her husband, who currently volunteers, used to leave their doors unlocked and their car keys in the ignition in case of an urgent call. “So my question is about the Care Act,” she said, referring to a bill that would authorize one hundred billion dollars to address drug addiction in the U.S. “I know you like to prosecute, but I wanna talk about rehab.” Harris stepped down from the stage to address the question, atoning for the “abject failure” of the war on drugs before pivoting to a broader point about health care. “First of all, I am in favor of Medicare for all.” “O.K.,” Petersen replied. “I’m talking about the Care Act, though.” Frustrating Petersen, Harris then changed the subject.
After the event, Harris’s team issued a press release revealing their second-quarter fundraising numbers amounted to about twelve million dollars, a total that lagged well behind her top rivals in the primary. Pete Buttigieg raised more than twice that sum in the second quarter. Bernie Sanders had collected eighteen million. And Biden brought in more than twenty-one million, despite entering the race more than three weeks into the quarter.
I caught up later with Petersen, who characterized Harris’s response, in the end, as unfulfilling. “I know a lot about her. I know her role as a prosecutor—I know the good, and I know the really shitty,” she told me. Petersen, who told me that she has survived sexual abuse, attended almost every day of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, last fall, where she admired Harris’s precise, adamant questioning. She plans to “give every candidate a fair chance,” including Joe Biden, whose speech in Marshalltown she had attended the day before. For the moment, she identified Kamala as her second choice. “If it was today, I’d vote for Warren,” she said. But we’ve still got a year and a half. They have to prove themselves to me.”