11 August 2020

Kamala Harris could be exactly what Biden needs to secure the White House.

Joe Biden has pulled away from Donald Trump and is now the favourite to win the US presidential election in November, leading nationally by around eight percentage points in most polls.

While we are still almost three months away from polling day in possibly the most unpredictable of election years (and we should all remember what happened to Hillary Clinton), that is a sizeable gap.

Biden’s team would probably argue that he’s currently leading the polls because he offers what many believe Trump doesn’t: a sensible and steady approach to government that is less divisive and polarising than the last four whirlwind years.

But it’s far more likely that he’s winning because the majority of Americans are outraged at President Trump’s shambolic handling of the Covid-19 crisis, and may also believe that he’s botched his response to the anti-racism protests across America.

In other words, Trump’s approval rating has plummeted, rather than Biden’s likeability ratings rising.

This makes Biden’s campaign planning slightly tricky, especially as he isn’t the usual “challenger brand” taking on the incumbent. Everyone knows vice president Biden already.  Refreshing his image isn’t easy.

So while watching Trump implode, Biden would be wise to consider his campaign and his brand, looking at his potential weaknesses in the knowledge that future events before November may change public opinion again, and some form of economic recovery may give his Republican rival a real boost. Anything can still happen.

Even the most passionate of mainstream Democrats must realise that their nominee is not the perfect candidate for 2020. At 78, he’d be the oldest ever President to enter the White House, and, understandably, he doesn’t seem as energetic as he used to be. He’s prone to the odd gaff, and there are also questions about his relevance and popularity among the youthful and energetic liberal wing of the party, best symbolised by the meteoric rise of New York congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that swept the country.

In marketing terms, Biden seems a rational choice, but not an emotional or exciting one.

So while his brand is built from a solid base and has many positive “average joe”, “soul of the nation” and “Obama legacy” attributes, there are definitely weak spots, especially if Trump picks up momentum.

That’s why the reaction to Biden’s vice president pick and running mate, California senator Kamala Harris, which he announced yesterday, will be so fascinating to watch — and potentially so important in this election.

As a former vice president himself, you’d expect Biden to understand the impact of this selection better than anyone. It was a hard decision to make for the frontrunner — to stick or to twist?

Ultimately, the question was: how could the right choice make his brand stronger? Could it add a challenger mentality into the mix with more emotional charged enthusiasm? And who could best improve and refresh his brand and help secure him the White House?

Biden had already confirmed that he would pick a woman to run on the ticket with him, but it’s still important to note the history of this selection. Harris is the first black woman and the first Asian American (her mother came from India) to be a general election candidate for President or vice president for either of the two main political parties. Putting her on the ticket is a big deal.

Biden hopes that Harris can inject serious energy and passion into his campaign. Many Democrats were screaming for the party to better harness the momentum of the BLM movement, and as someone who speaks so personally about racial issues, she has great potential to do this.

Critics of Harris on the left of the Democratic party may view her record as a prosecutor with suspicion, especially given protesters’ calls to “defund the police”. But as a former state attorney general, she could also help to push back on Trump’s law and order campaign messaging, mitigating accusations from the Republicans that Biden is “weak on crime”.

On the flip side, Trump now has a fresh target to aim at, and we all know he loves that. The launch of the nickname took about an hour — “Phony Kamala”. Trump may see this selection as his best chance to change the campaign narrative, by framing Harris as a scary liberal who will control the White House should Biden win.

Biden had some strong options for his VP pick. He could have cemented his link with Barack Obama by picking Susan Rice, the legacy option. He could have chosen the person best qualified for actually standing in for him if the worst ever happened, who most people felt was Elizabeth Warren. And who knows, maybe he could have tried to create a “dream ticket”, by persuading Michael Obama to be his running mate (a non-starter, apparently, as she says she has no interest in going into politics).

But Biden has looked at what his brand needs the most: a sharp-thinking, capable figure, who offers something different to him and can engage a younger audience, add energy and passion, and tap into the cultural movements and energy of the moment.

Kamala Harris could prove a very smart pick come November.

Written by Jamie Williams, originally published in City A.M.