Vice President Kamala Harris looks on as President Joe Biden delivers remarks about border security policies in the Roosevelt Room in the White House on Jan. 5, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Vice President Kamala Harris’ poll numbers have stagnated at a lower level than many of her predecessors’ ratings, a daunting problem for a running mate as the 2024 presidential campaign gets underway.
Professors and political experts interviewed by States Newsroom say there are several reasons why Harris’ favorability numbers sagged after she took office. She is tied to President Joe Biden and he’s not especially popular at the moment. She’s the first woman and person of color to hold the role. Assigned intractable national issues like illegal immigration, she has been heavily criticized by Republicans for not producing solutions. And like any vice president, she can’t overshadow the president.
Experts interviewed also contend that nationwide favorability polling isn’t an especially important predictor of who voters will choose when they head to the polls in 16 months. They did argue that Harris, however she may be perceived, will play a more prominent role in the campaign than other vice presidents — due in part to Biden’s age. Now 80, he would be 86 at the end of a second term.
“As in 2008, when there were concerns about John McCain’s health, people will look at the vice presidential candidate and see whether or not they’re ready for prime time,” said Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. “And the problem with Sarah Palin in 2008 was that she didn’t look like she was ready for prime time. People are going to ask the same questions about Vice President Harris.”
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Jonathan K. Hanson, a political science professor and statistics lecturer at the University of Michigan, also said Biden’s age might lead voters to consider Harris more critically than they have other running mates in recent history.
“If we’re really looking at Biden’s strengths and weaknesses, his age has got to be one of the biggest areas of vulnerability. We’re not used to having the president quite this old,” Hanson said.
A drop in the polls
FiveThirtyEight’s polling average showed Harris with a 52% disapproval rating and a 39% approval rating in late June.
Those numbers are much lower than in April 2021, three months after Harris was sworn in as vice president, when her average approval rating was 55%. Her disapproval rating at the time was just under 32%.
Both of those numbers began moving in the opposite directions in June 2021, before leveling off about a year later.
Gillespie said there are numerous factors contributing to Harris’ low poll numbers, including that one of the key roles for a vice president is to stay in the background.
“Politically speaking, if she were to be taking a lead role on lots of key issues, there is the chance that she would end up overshadowing President Biden and that could cause friction within their own relationship,” Gillespie said. “But then in particular, given President Biden’s age, it would actually help to fuel the narrative that he’s really not fit for office.”
Another reason Harris’ poll numbers are lower than many of her predecessors, Gillespie said, is because she is the first woman of color to become a vice president and because Biden’s poll numbers are underwater.
Harris’ poll numbers are lower than those of the four vice presidents who came before her, according to an analysis of prior polling by the Los Angeles Times.
Biden began his presidency in January 2021 with a 54.7% average approval rating, but that quickly began trending downward, according to FiveThirtyEight.
By September 2021, Biden’s approval rating had dipped below his disapproval rating. He currently holds a 54.3% disapproval rating and a 40.5% average approval rating, according to FiveThirtyEight.
The Biden-Harris campaign did not offer on-the-record comments for this article.
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Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said there are multiple factors affecting Harris’ poll numbers and the public’s perception of her role. She agreed with the other experts that one is Harris’ standing as the first woman and first person of color to be a vice president.
“A challenge of being a first is that the scrutiny on you is usually much higher and the expectations for you are unset, there’s no precedent,” Dittmar said.
Harris, who gets a fraction of the news coverage of the president or congressional leaders, has been handed some of the more politically polarizing assignments during the first few years of the Biden administration, from addressing the main drivers of undocumented migration to being a leading voice on reproductive rights following the fall of Roe v. Wade.
During the first year of the Biden administration, Harris was tasked with trying to address the long-running and complex issues within a few Central American countries that lead thousands of people to migrate to the United States each year.
Harris’ first international trip as vice president in June 2021 was to Guatemala before she traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border later that month, following weeks of criticism from Republicans.
Those GOP lawmakers have repeatedly rebuked Harris for what they call a “crisis” at the Southern border and laid the blame for undocumented immigration at her feet.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last summer, Harris became one of the administration’s leading voices on reproductive rights and abortion access.
But abortion access is an area where Democrats feel they can motivate their base and the swing voters that often decide presidential contests. And while Biden has spoken out in support of reproductive rights consistently since the Supreme Court’s decision last summer, in late June he distanced himself somewhat.
“I happen to be a practicing Catholic. I’m not big on abortion,” Biden said. “But guess what? Roe v. Wade got it right.”
Harris has spoken about dozens of other issues as well, including in recent days on the cost of child care, access to transportation for people with disabilities, artificial intelligence and renewable energy.
Some voters, Gillespie said, might have had unrealistic expectations about what Harris could accomplish as vice president, leading them to become frustrated with her job performance.
“I think it’s an important question to look at how much the public actually knows about what her issue portfolio is,” Gillespie said. “And then there is the other issue of whether or not Vice President Harris was potentially set up to fail.”
“There is the perception that by announcing that she would be handling these issues, that that was just inviting criticism when she was inevitably not going to be able to solve those problems in a short period of time, because these are entrenched long-term issues,” Gillespie added.
Bully pulpit and more
Harris told NPR in an interview released this month that she views her role as vice president as similar to the role of Americans who “love” the country and believe in its promises, but who also “understand we have some work yet to do to fully achieve that promise.”
“I think about my role as vice president of the United States and what that means both in terms of the bully pulpit that I have and the responsibility that comes with that to hopefully inform folks of things I might be aware of, but also to elevate public discourse and hopefully cut through the misinformation,” Harris said during the NPR interview.
Harris has traveled throughout the country on behalf of the administration this year, including to purple states like Arizona where she spoke with Native American communities, Pennsylvania for an event with the Service Employees International Union, Virginia to speak about gun violence and Georgia to discuss climate change.
Harris has also attended several Democratic fundraising events.
And in mid-July she matched the record for the most tie-breaking votes a vice president has cast in the Senate.
“When it’s mattered most, Vice President Harris has provided the decisive vote on some of the most historic bills of modern times, from the American Rescue Plan to the Inflation Reduction Act, to so many federal judges who now preside and provide balance on the federal bench,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said. “She’s carried out her duties with supreme excellence.”
Dittmar from the Center for American Women and Politics said it’s clear that many voters are evaluating Harris “in a different way than the white men who’ve come before her.”
Public perception or favorability of Harris could also be affected by how she’s been deployed by the White House, Dittmar said.
“She tends to do more of her work behind the scenes and in things that are just covered less,” Dittmar said. “So when I see she has low favorables, it leads me to believe that in the absence of information of what she is actually doing, people are going to rely on other information put out there about her.”
Even then, Dittmar said, polls won’t give an indication of whether Biden will win reelection with Harris as his running mate.
“I’m always like a broken record about this, I don’t think that favorability tells us much,” Dittmar said.
Polling has also been broadly criticized for inaccurate numbers heading into the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.
The American Association for Public Opinion Research wrote in a report that the “2020 polls featured polling error of an unusual magnitude: It was the highest in 40 years for the national popular vote and the highest in at least 20 years for state-level estimates of the vote in presidential, senatorial, and gubernatorial contests.”
“Among polls conducted in the final two weeks, the average error on the margin in either direction was 4.5 points for national popular vote polls and 5.1 points for state-level presidential polls,” the report said.
A president above the fray
Kathryn Tenpas, a nonresident senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said that vice presidents often take a leading role criticizing opponents during a reelection campaign because presidents tend to follow the “Rose Garden” strategy.
That includes the president appearing above the fray, she said, while trying to project as a natural for a second term in office.
In addition to that, vice presidents, she said, often act like lightning rods, drawing volatile issues away from the president.
But Tenpas said national polling numbers aren’t particularly important because the campaign will likely focus on specific areas of the country that could decide presidential elections.
“I would contend that her national polling numbers are not super relevant when it comes to campaigning because they probably want to focus on certain counties within those swing states,” Tenpas said.
The University of Michigan’s Hanson said Biden’s somewhat low approval rating could affect Harris.
But, he added, because Harris is the first woman and first person of color to hold the role of vice president, that creates other dynamics.
Media attention on previous vice presidents, all of whom have been white men, didn’t focus on their race or ethnic background in the way it’s factored into Harris’ public image as a politician, he said.
Those vice presidents, he said, would talk about policy or other aspects of their background.
“But of course, when the nominee is a woman, or when a woman of color, then those features enter very prominently into the news coverage, and it kind of activates, you know, prejudices that voters have,” Hanson said. “So to the extent that there was prejudice against a Black woman or a woman of color, or, in this case, a person of mixed ethnic background, those prejudices can manifest themselves, depending on who is reading that story.”
Moving Harris to the forefront and trying to reassure voters that she could step into the role of president, should anything happen to Biden, might be a crucial benchmark for the 2024 Biden-Harris campaign, he said.
“I think it’s fair to say Republicans so far have had the upper hand as being pretty successful as trading in an image of incompetence, or that voters just don’t have very warm feelings or very positive feelings towards Harris,” Hanson said.
“So Democrats, of course, will want to flip that narrative and I think there is a possibility … that her relative youth and intelligence will be selling points and assets that will reassure voters that if something were to happen to Biden that she’s ready,” Hanson added. “But that’s going to have to be the result of an intentional campaign to create that perception.”
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