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NEWS Aug 17 2020

Ross Wallenstein, Vice President of Public Affairs, on why the rollout of Sen. Kamala Harris was a lesson in political communications

Last week, former vice president Joe Biden announced Senator Kamala Harris of California as his choice to run alongside him in the fall election against Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

In the midst of a global pandemic and an economic meltdown, the rollout of Harris – the first woman of color on a major party ticket – could have gone a thousand different ways. But given all of the tough circumstances, it was well-executed, well-timed, and well-received. As political communications programs go, this was about as good as anyone on the Biden team could have hoped. Here’s why.

Ever since he secured the Democratic nomination in March (just as the world began to shut down over COVID-19), Biden said he would be deliberative and thoughtful in picking his running mate. He knew firsthand, having twice run alongside former president Barack Obama, the importance of getting the selection right.

At 77 (he will be 78 before inauguration day), Biden also must know what everyone else knows – that should he win the presidency, he is at a higher actuarial risk of having his vice president succeed him than other recent candidates. Also, given that he would be 82 years old at the end of his first term, many have suspected that a President Biden would opt out of a rigorous reelection campaign and instead hand the baton to his second in command.

Lunch with Obama in the White House every week for four years and a host of concrete responsibilities compared with some previous vice presidents also convinced Biden that he not only wanted a partner who could help him govern effectively, but someone who would be a sounding board to him and who could tell truth to power.

So, despite his original assurance that he would make his selection by August 1st, Biden and his team took their time. They did their homework. They vetted every serious candidate. Biden himself spoke to the finalists for the job. Then he made his decision.

In a text to supporters on Tuesday, August 11th – a little more than a week before he will accept his party’s nomination for President – Biden announced that he had chosen Harris. Within seconds, the Biden campaign (now rebranded as “Biden Harris”) posted the same on social media and the website had been revised to reflect the ticket.

Amazingly, this was accomplished without a single reporter in America having the information in advance (perhaps as a result of people staying in their homes). The campaign announced it in its own way, on its own time. For a national political communications effort, this was a real coup. Past running mate announcements have been typically picked up in advance by a member of the media. Biden’s own selection as Obama’s running mate in 2008, for example, was announced by CNN hours before the Obama campaign was able to send out the news via text message.

Later that afternoon, a video of Biden calling Harris and offering her the job went up online. It seemed genuine and heartfelt. Supporters and surrogates began swooning on Twitter and on television. Perhaps more importantly, the Biden Harris campaign announced it had its best 24 fundraising period in months – raising more than $26 million in a single day after the announcement of a vice-presidential candidate (and more than $50 million in the days after).

Since early March, the entire country has been all-consumed by two things: COVID-19 and Donald Trump. With the announcement of Harris, the political world – which had been basically devoid of news since Biden clinched his party’s nomination – had something else to focus on for a few days.

Despite her time as California Attorney General and U.S. Senator, coupled with her brief presidential run, Harris was still mostly unknown to most Americans. Ever since the announcement, America was treated to images of Harris smiling, dancing, and laughing with family and colleagues. We heard about her story as the daughter of immigrants raised to believe she could change the world, now her party’s designated nominee for the second-highest office in the land.

In the grand story that is America, the selection of only the third woman and the first woman of color to be named as a vice-presidential candidate is a truly amazing milestone. At a time when so many feel underrepresented and underappreciated, Harris’s candidacy seems to have been a real boost not only to the Democratic ticket but to people in the country who needed a jolt of inspiration and excitement, if only for a moment.

Without ignoring the bad news of hundreds of thousands of Americans still struggling to make sense of the virus while staying safe and healthy, a few days of an only-in-America fairytale was a nice respite on the nightly news, social media, and the front page of the paper.

As for the Biden campaign, the announcement was well-done and well-received. In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll taken after the announcement, 54 percent of Americans and 86 percent of Democrats approved of Biden’s selection of Harris. While this week’s Democratic Convention may move those numbers even higher when Americans get a better look at Harris and her story, there are nearly 80 days left until the general election and anything can happen – especially in the year 2020.