When Kamala Harris touches down in Iowa on Thursday it will be for the first time in over a month.
“Oh my God, is that true?” one Democratic official in the state audibly gasped when presented with that detail. “I didn’t even notice that.”
For now, the fact that she wasn’t missed may be the California senator’s biggest benefit. Well-placed activists and party officials in the state have been so busy juggling other candidates’ trips, some say, that Harris’ absence has, at best, escaped much scrutiny.
“We’re not the only game in town,” the Democrat added. “Maybe she’s spending time in other early states.”
On Thursday morning, Harris’ campaign said Iowans are about to see a lot more of her. Campaign manager Juan Rodriguez and communications director Lily Adams said in a call with political reporters they plan to invest significantly more time and resources in Iowa, including adding 60 new paid, full-time organizers and opening up 10 new offices there. Harris is expected to be in the state every week in October.
“As someone who’s spent a year there for Hillary, I know the state well,” Adams said. “Part of winning the Iowa caucus is making sure you’re there when voters tune in.”
But some activists in the Hawkeye State caution Hillary Clinton’s campaign was not worth emulating.
“You can’t imagine anything worse than Hillary’s campaign,” a Democratic source directly familiar with both presidential campaigns’ operations said, referencing Clinton’s less than half-point victory over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) after being blindsided in the 2016 Iowa caucus. “This is worse.”
Despite the new promises, her absence—37 days since she last made a trip—has already left a mark with some prominent Iowans.
“We’re sitting in the political restaurant and we’re not getting service,” Kurt Meyer, chair of the Tri-County Democrats of Iowa, said when asked about the Harris campaign.
Harris was last in Iowa for a five-day, multi-county bus tour in early August, a trip that received the type of fanfare she typically enjoys when entering an early primary state: intrigue and excitement. Democrats from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina are quick to point out that when Harris shows up, she’s both welcomed and well-liked.
“I think I’m going to eat at a place where they’re a little more eager to have my attention,” Meyer, who represents rural Mitchell, Worth, and Howard counties, speculated voters might say as the Feb. 3 caucus grows closer.
In the past several days, Harris’ campaign has focused part of its online attention planning for and promoting her upcoming trip in a round of fundraising emails, hoping to cash in on the momentum ahead of the September 20 federal fundraising deadline.
“I’ll be back on the trail in Iowa, first in Coralville and Cedar Rapids; then, Waterloo, Cedar Falls, and Des Moines through the weekend,” Harris’ email reads. “What we do right now will be the difference in this election.”
Much of her summer has focused on fundraising more broadly. Just days before her Iowa bonanza, Harris hit up a swing of fundraisers in New York, hoping to score the kind of donations that can help restore her campaign’s earlier promise for success in the primary. Harris, who was not up for re-election in 2018, spent much of the midterm cycle campaigning and raising money for down-ballot Democrats, as opposed to her own Senate campaign, a point her campaign notes when asked about her heavier reliance on fundraisers than some other candidates.
During the Democratic primary, Harris received bursts of early momentum, first after launching her campaign in January with a roughly 20,000-person crowd in her home city of Oakland and followed by a post-debate boom after landing an attack on former Vice President Joe Biden in Miami. But those have shown visible signs of fizzling in Iowa, multiple unbound Democrats in the state said.
“A [37-day] void right now gets in the dangerous window,” John Norris, a longtime political operative, said.
Still, party strategists and activists aren’t ready to write off Harris just yet. Indeed, the direction of her campaign, according to interviews with multiple county party officials and seasoned operatives, depends largely on how effectively she’s able to make up for the recent success of rivals. Biden remains the polling frontrunner and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is widely considered to have built up the strongest grassroots organization in the state.
Despite fresh promises to focus more on organizing and retail politics five months before the first caucus, Harris’ infrequent trips and limited outreach thus far, from major metropolitan areas to rural areas of the state, several sources said, may indicate she’s already lost ground to her Democratic rivals who have become mainstays in the state.
“Kamala’s not here but Pete Buttigieg is,” one unaffiliated Democratic official said. “When you look at it like that, it wasn’t the type of race they were going to be able to put their heart and soul in Iowa.”
A new poll released by Focus on Rural America, which was conducted by her own pollster, helps bolster that perception. Harris dropped 13 points since July, earning just 5 percent—or in sixth place—well behind Biden’s 25 percent lead. In Real Clear Politics’ Iowa polling average, Harris hovers around 8.5 percent, behind Biden at 28.5 percent, Warren at 18 percent, and Sanders at 17.5 percent. Together, the results help paint a broader mosaic of her campaign’s mixed signals in the first caucus state, despite picking up some notable endorsements, including Sue Dvorsky, the former Iowa Democratic Party chairwoman, and Bob Dvorsky, a former state senator.
On Thursday, Harris is scheduled to host a meet and greet in Coralville and a town hall in Cedar Rapids. On Friday, she will participate in a town hall in Waterloo, a campus event in Cedar Falls at the University of Northern Iowa, and the LGBTQ Presidential Candidate Forum at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.
But sure to be the most publicized event will be on Saturday, where Harris will be just one of 18 2020 Democratic contenders for the season’s marquee Polk County Steak Fry in Des Moines. She purchased the third most tickets for the event, next to Biden and Buttigieg, a source familiar with the process said, which guarantees she’ll have a sizable presence alongside her. On her way, her campaign announced she’ll march alongside McDonalds workers calling for a $15 per hour minimum wage.
Campaign officials on the briefing call pointed to a “top three finish” in Iowa and stressed that their increased investment in resources and physical presence is helping lead up to that.
“I don’t think they’ve cracked the code on how to generate the sense that they are a major player in the Hawkeye State,” Meyer said. “It’s not too early to say there are some concerns.”
Beyond Iowa, some Democratic strategists cautioned her early stumbles there have already started to cripple her efforts in other states with significant importance in the early calendar.
Harris’ campaign said it plans to spend an increased investment in South Carolina, the first-in-the-South primary with a significant population of African-American voters. And while Harris is expected to return on Sept. 21, where she’s scheduled to speak to the local NAACP chapter in Charleston, among other events for her 10th trip to the state as a presidential contender, she hasn’t been there in over 70 days and has suffered in state polls.
“Her campaign’s on early life support,” one Democratic operative unattached to any campaign in the Palmetto State said. “The problem with her in South Carolina is that some of the other things in other places is bleeding down to the momentum.”