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In her three elections, Kamala Harris has learned to adapt — and win

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Sen. Kamala Harris perhaps has become 2020’s most popular national candidate. Polls show she has a higher net approval rating than President Trump, Vice President Pence and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

When Biden selected the California senator and his one-time rival as his running mate — the first woman of color named to a major-party ticket — many political observers celebrated an energizing, history-making moment and noted that he made a “safe” choice among the options. Harris provides racial, gender, generational and geographic balance to the party’s ticket.

One aspect of Harris’s political resume has received scant attention — that is, how she has won elections over the years. How candidates campaign, and govern, inevitably reflects their past experience as candidates. Donald Trump, for example, in 2016 earned the Republican nomination in a crowded field by securing vote percentages of mostly 25 to 40 percent during the primaries, and then won the general election against Hillary Clinton by carrying the Electoral College but not the popular vote. 

Trump has governed with particular focus on that Republican base and this year is running a similar campaign based around this energized base in battleground states. The intense polarization and party-line votes in the Democratic-led House, meanwhile, could be said to reflect the incentives that House members face in overwhelmingly uncompetitive districts where their strongest potential challenge could be a primary from their left or right, respectively.

Harris might be one of the only major veteran national politicians who has run under a different system literally every time she has run for office. She has thrived, adapting and winning under a variety of voting methods. Although Americans sometimes think of our style of voting as being the same across the country, that’s not the case. In our quest for a more perfect union, we can, and often do, change our voting rules and adopt more modern techniques. Harris’s success demonstrates not only how many individual models we use to elect candidates, but how a new generation of candidates emerge from them.

Harris first sought public office in 2003 when she challenged the incumbent district attorney in San Francisco, Terence Hallinan. Municipal elections were then run under a runoff rule; a winning candidate needed 50 percent of the vote, or voters would return to the polls five weeks later to choose between the top two finishers.

Harris and Hallinan were joined by a third prosecutor, Bill Fazio, in the nonpartisan election. The race was thrillingly close: In the first round, Hallinan won 35.8 percent, Harris captured 33.6 percent, and Fazio finished not far behind, with 30.4 percent. But because no one earned a majority, Hallinan and Harris squared off the following month. This time, without Fazio on the ballot, it wasn’t close. Harris consolidated her support and defeated the incumbent by more than 30,000 votes and 13 percentage points. (By 2007, when Harris won reelection unopposed, San Francisco had switched to an instant runoff with ranked choice voting.)

When Harris ran for California attorney general in 2010, after Jerry Brown sought the governor’s office, the race again looked different. Harris needed to conquer a crowded field of Democratic hopefuls, seven in all, but without a runoff. In this plurality election, the nominee would be the candidate with the most votes, majority or otherwise. Things got nasty, fast. Harris was hammered in TV ads for a scandal at a San Francisco crime lab, where a technician stole cocaine and in the process tainted hundreds of cases. Harris apologized for not informing defense attorneys. But this time, a third of the vote would be enough: Harris won, with 33.1 percent. 

She entered the general election considered by many to be an underdog. Once again, the field would be crowded and the candidate with the most votes would win. With no need to look to a runoff or consolidate second-place votes, this race turned nasty, as well. Her Republican opponent, Steve Cooley, characterized her as a far-left activist who failed to seek the death penalty against a gang member who killed a police officer. Harris fought back, claiming she “will not cede my law enforcement and crime-fighting credentials to anyone,” and ended the race attacking Cooley for saying that, if he won, he would accept his Los Angeles pension and the attorney general salary.

Harris won again, but barely — and ran behind on election night. She captured the office with only 46 percent of the vote, and a cushion of fewer than 75,000 votes. 

Then when Harris ran for U.S. Senate in 2016, the electoral system shifted once again. California now elects U.S. senators with a nonpartisan “jungle” primary in which all candidates, of all parties, compete. All voters, of any party, can participate. The top-two finishers move onto the fall ballot. More than two dozen hopefuls joined the race. Harris led the way in the initial primary, but no Republican advanced to November. She defeated a fellow Democrat, then-U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, in the general election. It was the first time in the hundred-plus years of direct U.S. Senate elections that no Republican appeared on the state’s ballot.

It’s often said that elections have consequences. And while that is correct, of course, the way that we elect candidates matters as well. It also might be said that electoral innovation has consequences. Before becoming the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee, Harris sought three offices, and had to adapt to three different ways of winning elections and appealing to voters, with three distinct strategies. When Harris needed to win majority elections, she approached the races differently. But perhaps most importantly, voters received more meaningful choices. 

David Daley is a senior fellow at FairVote and the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.” Follow him on Twitter @davedaley3.

Tags 2020 presidential election Donald Trump Electoral systems Hillary Clinton Instant-runoff voting Joe Biden Loretta Sanchez Two-round system voting results

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