The Democratic Electorate, Not Moderation, Makes Harris a Safe VP Pick for Texas

The consensus of the day-one media response to Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s vice-presidential running mate has been “historic but safe”: Historic because she is both the first black and first Asian American woman on a major party presidential ticket, and “safe” because of Harris’ more moderate profile relative to the sustained energy among Democratic activists during the Democratic primary that ultimately pitted Biden against more progressive alternatives. Whatever the adjustments required of the progressive cadres in the Democratic primary, in terms of the general election, she makes it harder for the Trump campaign’s already commenced (and sure to continue) red-baiting smears to stick among the increasingly narrow band of undecided voters. 

Biden’s selection of Harris rightly is being taken as a sign of a decisive shift in the Democratic Party that has been a long time coming. The party is majority female and majority people of color. Democrats twice elected an African American president, and nominated the first female presidential candidate of a major party in American history. Both Hillary Clinton’s nomination in 2016 and Harris’s in 2020 mark a clear and decisive trajectory. It’s hard not to take advantage of hindsight and note that Hillary Clinton’s selection of Tim Kaine four years ago reflected in part a failure to acknowledge the characteristics of the base the party needed to mobilize. Donald Trump’s inflammatory appeal to the still-large bloc of voters specifically fearful and hostile toward the changes represented by the empowerment of women and people of color in society and in political institutions was cooled not at all by Kaine’s presence on the ticket, and did nothing to inspire women and people of color to turn out for the Democratic ticket. 

To the extent that Democrats’ much-discussed efforts to hasten Texas’s transformation into a consistently competitive state rely primarily on mobilizing Democratic voters, there is a lot of Kamala Harris’ demographic profile in the Democratic electorate in Texas. According to exit polling data for top-of-ticket, statewide races, non-white voters made up 58%, 66%, and 61% of the Democratic voting coalition in the last three election cycles; whites made up only 42%, 34%, and 39% in 2014, 2016, and 2018, respectively. By contrast, whites made up 80% of the Republican vote share in 2014, 75% in 2016, and 73% in 2018. 

So the majority of Democratic voters are not white; nor are they men. According to the June University of Texas poll of registered voters in Texas, a majority of men identify with the Republican Party (51%), while the plurality of women, 48%, identify with the Democratic Party (42% identify as Republicans). This well known party ID gap between men and women understates the importance of race. Among White registered voters, 58% of men identified with the Republican Party in June, compared to 54% of women — almost indistinguishable. The Democratic Party identification gap still exists among white voters, with 38% of white women, and 26% of white men, respectively, identifying as Democrats. But among non-whites, men are nearly evenly split, with 46% identifying with the Democratic Party and 40% identifying as Republicans. Among non-white women, 61% identify with the Democratic Party compared to only 27% who say that they’re Republicans.

Exit polling tells much the same story with respect to the importance of female voters to Democratic candidates running statewide in Texas. In 2016, female voters made up 60% of the Democratic vote share and 57% in 2018, compared to 48% and 46% of the Republican vote share in those elections, respectively.

All of this is to say that Harris’ pick reflects the nature of the Democratic Party coalition, at least in Texas, to a far better extent than the party’s standard bearer does. There’s really nothing radical about the pick when considered this way; it’s one of the major reasons that Biden’s pick is the safe one from the perspective of mobilizing the Democratic vote — especially after a 2016 Election in which a slight decline in black turnout from Obama’s elections to Hillary Clinton’s attempt was widely considered a contributing factor in her failure to capture some midwestern states considered safely Democratic heading into that election.

Harris’ ethnic identity is actually the safer bet than her ideological profile among Texas Democrats. In that same June poll, 41% of Texas Democrats said that Texas’ Democratic elected officials aren’t liberal enough, in the context of an increasing share of Texas Democrats who identify as “liberal” as opposed to “moderate”, or “conservative.” Harris does little to shore up Biden’s left flank, but she is also unlikely to generate so much hostility among progressives that they fail to turn out, let alone vote for Trump. If anything, Harris’s identity shores up Biden’s reluctant acceptance by progressives. After all, racial equity is a non-trivial commitment of the progressive wing, especially in a moment of elevated anti-racism — and despite her prosecutorial history, Harris’s record is far from devoid of progressive gestures. 

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PollLiberalModerateConservative
July 200835%55%10%
October 200844%36%19%
March 200955%30%15%
June 200949%34%17%
October 200941%48%10%
February 201044%45%11%
May 201045%40%15%
September 201052%34%14%
October 201049%34%17%
February 201143%38%19%
May 201145%45%9%
October 201154%36%10%
February 201254%34%13%
May 201238%51%11%
October 201243%45%13%
February 201352%34%14%
June 201353%36%11%
October 201343%43%14%
February 201446%38%16%
June 201447%40%13%
October 201453%36%11%
February 201545%40%15%
June 201548%38%14%
October 201552%37%10%
February 201638%49%13%
June 201644%48%8%
October 201643%47%10%
February 201744%44%11%
June 201765%25%10%
October 201763%27%10%
February 201856%29%14%
June 201864%28%9%
October 201860%28%12%
February 201967%23%10%
June 201965%26%9%
October 201950%33%17%
February 202064%27%9%
April 202062%29%10%
June 202067%27%6%
October 202063%29%8%
February 202165%29%7%
March 202162%31%7%
April 202167%24%9%
June 202162%29%9%
August 202164%29%7%
October 202163%30%6%
February 202259%31%10%
April 202260%34%6%
June 202263%29%8%
August 202262%31%7%
October 202264%29%7%

Most of the ongoing discussion about how the Democratic Party might improve its chances in Texas takes one of two routes. The more common discussion emphasizes the importance of attracting moderate, suburban, white voters, often women (maybe even some former or conflicted Republicans among them), apparently leaving or turned off by the GOP as a result of Donald Trump’s conduct in office. The problem with this route for the Democratic Party is that there’s little evidence for it. While this is a topic worthy of its own treatment, at the most general level, Trump’s job approval numbers in June among Texas suburbanites were right in the middle of the range within which they have fluctuated throughout his presidency.

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PollApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't know
February 201750%40%10%
June 201745%48%7%
October 201746%48%6%
February 201849%44%7%
June 201850%44%7%
October 201850%46%4%
February 201950%45%5%
June 201951%43%5%
October 201948%47%5%
February 202044%51%6%
April 202049%46%7%
June 202048%49%4%
October 202051%46%3%

But there’s plenty of evidence that the state’s demographics are changing, and that the electorate, particularly the Democratic electorate, is changing quickly due to historically disproportionate participation rates among racial and ethnic groups. The white share of the electorate continues to decline, from 66% in 2014, to 57% in 2016, to 56% in 2018. Harris’ nomination is a safe bet based on a continuation of these trends — and while it’s fair to wonder how much it might help amidst an already polarized electorate, given these trends and the composition of the Texas electorate, this vice-presidential pick is unlikely to do any harm in a Democratic Party whose core base of support are women and people of color.