Kamala Harris' last stand: Struggling 2020 campaign plans to pour resources into Iowa digital ad blitz

Key Points
  • Sen. Kamala Harris tells donors that she plans a major digital outreach effort as she moves her campaign to Iowa.
  • At private meetings with donors and supporters, Harris' team said it plans to invest more in digital ads and outreach, including through Facebook.
  • Her campaign's Facebook ad spending has been behind most of the primary front-runners, including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg.
Senator Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California and 2020 presidential candidate, speaks during an event on the sidelines of the Iowa Democratic Party Liberty & Justice Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Sen. Kamala Harris has told supporters that her campaign plans a spending blitz on a digital outreach effort as she puts most of her resources into Iowa, home of the first nominating contest of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

Harris, in discussions with members of her finance committee, has said her campaign is going to invest in a number of new strategies with the aim to improve its outreach to voters online, including through Facebook.

The new strategy comes after Harris' campaign announced layoffs and said it would focus its resources on Iowa. Harris has seen a dip in support since her battle with former Vice President Joe Biden during June's debate. The following month, Biden's support within the party dropped and Harris surged into second place. Yet since then, she has slowly dropped into fifth.

Her campaign's Facebook ad spending has been behind most of the primary front-runners, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Data compiled by The New York Times shows Harris spent at least $1.7 million on Facebook ads since March. Throughout the summer, most of those ads have been targeting Iowa and South Carolina, which will hold its primary Feb. 29.

"I think they are certainly ramping up strategies that they believe will pay off and digital is part of it," said Dita Bhargava, a fundraiser for Harris and chief operating officer of a Connecticut-based software company.

Bhargava, along with other donors and campaign workers, met with Harris in Iowa before her speech earlier this month at the Liberty and Justice dinner, where a dozen other Democratic candidates for president tried to make their pitch to caucusgoers.

It was at that huddle prior to her speech when supporters got a preview of Harris' new overall strategy in focusing her efforts on Iowa and how she's looking to boost her campaign's presence online, Bhargava said.

Supporters left the gathering impressed with the plan, she noted. The Harris campaign announced in a memo just prior to the state dinner that it will be making across-the-board cuts to staff and deploy most of its aides to Iowa.

"We will deploy many field staff from New Hampshire, Nevada and California and some staff from headquarters to Iowa for the home stretch of the caucus campaign," campaign manager Juan Rodriguez said at the time.

Many of Harris' other bundlers have heard similar ideas from the California senator on focusing spending, in part, on improving digital efforts as a way to save money, according to people familiar with the matter. Digital ads are often less expensive, and sometimes seen as more effective, than TV ads.

Harris' fundraising efforts have also been behind most of the other top contenders, despite having the backing of many wealthy financiers on Wall Street and in the film industry. In the second quarter, she brought in $12 million and in the third quarter raised $11.6 million. Harris had $10 million on hand going into the pivotal fourth quarter.

"We are going to have a big digital outreach in the coming weeks," an attorney helping Harris with fundraising said on condition of anonymity. "Getting all the content out to people is a priority for them because commercials are so expensive," this person added.

Representatives for Harris did not return requests for comment.

The move comes as polls show Harris is struggling both nationally and in Iowa, which holds its nominating caucuses Feb. 3. Candidates often believe that success in early states – including New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada – gives momentum heading into the critical Super Tuesday primary day, when at least 40% of delegates are up for grabs.

Super Tuesday, which includes the Texas and California primaries, is March 3.

A Real Clear Politics poling average shows Harris with just over 3% of the vote in Iowa, putting her at sixth place in the state, behind Sanders, Biden, Buttigieg, Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Nationally, Biden leads the field while Harris is in fifth with 5.5% of support within the Democratic primary.

People close to Harris said South Carolina is also another primary where she believes she can make inroads and possibly finish as one of the top three candidates. Biden, Warren and Sanders currently lead in that state.

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