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There's still time to put Kamala Harris front and center

The Hill logo The Hill 10/30/2020 Roshni Nedungadi, opinion contributor
Kamala Harris holding a sign: There's still time to put Kamala Harris front and center © Getty Images There's still time to put Kamala Harris front and center

When the name Kamala Harris surfaces in focus groups, a perplexing theme consistently emerges.

"I really don't know that much about Kamala Harris, but I truly don't like Kamala Harris at all," a black woman from North Carolina quipped in late September.

"I was a bit iffy because of her track record as attorney general. It doesn't seem like she's really for black people all the way," said another 18-year-old woman from South Carolina just a week ago.

It's not surprising or unexpected to find such sentiments of distrust towards female politicians. What concerns me is not the frequency of ambivalence and disdain for Sen. Harris (D-Calif.) - who is also Joe Biden's vice presidential pick - that emerges in our focus groups with voters across the country, but the caveat, "I don't know her, but..." With little or no information about her, the default is distrust or dislike.

According to an October survey of voters of color in battleground states conducted by HIT Strategies, where I am a partner, only 64 percent of Gen-Z and Millennials (18 to 39 years of age) of color had either heard, read or seen something about Harris recently. Most concerning, 31 percent of those young voters of color were less likely to support her based on what they read or heard.

How could this be? Putting a young woman of color on a ballot otherwise composed of older white men makes some young people of color less likely to vote for Biden? In part, the Biden campaign selected Harris because of a perceived ability to appeal to younger people of color. Thus far, polls show this narrative isn't playing out as planned.

Harris's tenure in politics extends three decades, but her presence on the national stage has been relatively brief. Californians and people who pay close attention to national politics know Harris intimately as a fighter. They rave of her Senate hearing performances and tout her record as attorney general. But now, Harris, the biggest asset to the Biden Campaign, is unknown to much of the country. That means there is much work to do.


Video: Historic numbers of women of color are nominees for the House and Senate in the 2020 elections (CBS News)

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With such a vacuum, Republicans (and bad foreign actors) have seized a grand opportunity to shape her narrative and national political perception. Their digital advertising fills the Harris-void with misinformation and negative attack ads aimed at black voters, particularly young and male voters. With around 50 percent of young voters of color hearing about Harris on Facebook or YouTube over the past couple of weeks, the attacks' damaging content have left an impression. More than a third - 36 percent of voters of color under 25 - say they are anti-Harris. In fact, she has a -4 net-favorability among this group.

The good news is - it is easy to turn this around.

Voters need to be educated about Harris. Democrats' reluctance to actively define Harris's national profile paved a pathway for Republicans to muddy her image with demographics who, in theory, should show some favorability. This image building requires time, resources and planning. It needed to start months ago, but Democrats must continue to build her story and narrative in the coming months and years since we can't turn back the clock.

A historic career precedes Harris's historic selection.Harris was the first African American and first woman elected as district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California. She is the first African American to represent California in the U.S. Senate, only the second Black woman to ever serve in this body. Now, she is the first African American woman to be nominated for vice president by a major political party. For some black voters, this is an important background that bolsters her image.

Although much has been said of Harris's career as a prosecutor, much of the framing is negative. In some cases, valid criticisms are muddied with false information. To combat this perception, Harris must be out front addressing her record and discussing her progressive criminal justice vision for the country. Most of these voters dismissing her don't know she was the first attorney general in the country to require a statewide policing agency to wear body cameras or mandate implicit bias training for police officers - well before the #BlackLivesMatter movement urged these reforms. As district attorney she started a "Back on Track" (BOT) program giving first-time drug offenders the chance to earn a high school diploma and find employment.

Talking to younger voters about Harris's history-making biography and record on criminal justice can change their attitudes. Thirty-eight percent of young voters of color say they are much more favorable toward her after hearing about her record on body cameras and implicit bias training. Thirty-nine percent of young voters say they are much more favorable toward her after hearing about her BOT program. Most importantly, the same group of under 25 voters of color who initially say they are anti-Harris swing to favoring her by a whopping 44 points after hearing her criminal justice reform record. Where she started with a -4 net-favorability among this group, she ends with a +39 net-favorability.

Biden may be leading in polls, but here's why this matters. Whenever someone is the first, she is also an example. First impressions matter. It would be a disservice to Harris's historic candidacy to let misinformation define her record - because she may be the first, but she won't be the last. We need to provide an example to the women who will come after her (and learn from the lessons of those before) about defining your narrative on your own terms.

I know people don't vote for vice president. But Democrats are missing an opportunity to increase enthusiasm and favorability among young people of color. Harris's biography, record and vision can hold the key.

With Biden outspending his opponent by a $178 million margin, it's clear this is not a matter of resources but priorities. And defending our women of color trailblazers should be one of them. In a cycle dominated by calls for America's racial reckoning, Democrats would do well to lean into Harris as the one to help take back the White House "for the people."

Roshni Nedungadi is a partner at HIT Strategies. She conducts public opinion research and moderates focus groups for clients looking to improve outcomes for under examined and marginalized communities. Follow her on Twitter @RoshniNedungadi.

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