Kamala Harris’s Biggest Mistake: She Isn’t Stupidly Rich

The California senator is dropping out while less qualified candidates stay in simply because they're billionaires.
December 3, 2019, 8:57pm
Kamala Harris in front of microphones.
Photo of Kamala Harris in 2018 by Zach Gibson/Getty

Kamala Harris is no longer running for president because she ran out of money. The California senator announced as much on Tuesday in a Medium post that read in part, "I’m not a billionaire. I can’t fund my own campaign. And as the campaign has gone on, it’s become harder and harder to raise the money we need to compete." According to the New York Times, she took a hard look at her campaign's finances over the weekend and realized that to continue running, she'd have to go into debt. That she had to face that choice months before the first 2020 primaries is a reminder of the impossibly high wall money has built around politics.


Harris’s campaign was far from a scrappy grassroots operation. As of November 21, it had taken in more than $36 million, according to OpenSecrets, most of it from large contributors; she raised a lot from employees of big law firms, Disney, and Alphabet, Google's parent company. Though she raised less than some of her fellow candidates, her bigger problem was that she struggled to distinguish herself in a crowded Democratic field. According to a recent Times expose, she wasn't helped by a campaign operation that was a dysfunctional mess behind the scenes.

As a progressive black woman from California and the daughter of immigrants, she seemed like a top contender when she announced in early 2019, but she simply hasn't caught on among voters, with polling numbers hovering around 3 percent nationally. That's Andrew Yang territory, which is another way of saying she had little chance of actually winning the nomination, much less beating Donald Trump.

But even if you take a skeptical view of Harris and think her campaign was badly run, there are people who deserve to be in the race even less than she does but are propped up by huge quantities of cash. Namely there's Tom Steyer, a billionaire who has never held public office but who has spent millions on ads, a strategy that has bumped up his poll numbers to the point where he's consistently qualifying for debates. Steyer doesn't have a particularly unique message, and yet he can hang around the 2020 field until he gets bored thanks to his billions. Harris may not be the most electrifying candidate, but as a senator who is outpolling Steyer, she unquestionably deserves to be on that stage more than he does.

The cost of running for office has been climbing for years, and that price tag pressures presidential candidates to declare themselves early so they can start fundraising—one reason that the 2020 campaign has hideously stretched back into the first months of 2019. Billionaires like Steyer and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg can self-fund a presidential run, but there has been a less-noticed trend of rich people funding their own campaigns for lower offices as well. Meanwhile, young people often struggle to raise the cash needed to run, and women and people of color are at a fundraising disadvantage relative to their white male counterparts, according to a report from the Center for Responsive Politics. The difficulties candidates of color and women face when it comes to getting donations is one reason Congress remains less diverse than the country it rules.

Harris doesn't face the same fundraising difficulties as a first-time candidate, of course. But at a time when progressives are trying to emphasize diversity and historically marginalized voices, the next Democratic debate might be all white—Cory Booker, Andrew Yang, and Tulsi Gabbard, the most prominent candidates of color remaining, have yet to qualify. That would mean there would be more billionaires than minorities represented on stage, sending a bleak message: It's hard to build a viable presidential campaign, but relatively easy to buy one.

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