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One viral moment can set a 2020 candidate apart — but they’re hard to come by

Senator Kamala Harris (second from right) is in the middle of arguably the biggest moment of the campaign so far after a standout performance at the first set of Democratic debates rocketed her into the top tier of polling.
Senator Kamala Harris (second from right) is in the middle of arguably the biggest moment of the campaign so far after a standout performance at the first set of Democratic debates rocketed her into the top tier of polling. (Doug Mills/New York Times/File)

WASHINGTON — In a Democratic field that’s more crowded than a dorm party, presidential candidates are in fierce competition for the spotlight, searching for that elusive something that will set them apart and change the course of the campaign.

Their moment.

Modern campaigns are increasingly shaped by lightning-in-a-bottle turns of political fortune and momentum that are hard to define and impossible to predict, but they are undeniably real.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg had one in March when a strong CNN town hall performance led to weeks of glowing magazine profiles full of soft-focus details about his language skills and love of literature. Until that time, he was just a small-city mayor with no national profile and a hard-to-pronounce name.

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Senator Elizabeth Warren, too, stepped into the spotlight last month after her “I have a plan for that” refrain began to break through on social media and a wave of admiring coverage followed. A candidacy that had seemed bottled up in the middle of the pack was suddenly, in the moment, upward bound.

And now, Senator Kamala Harris is in the middle of arguably the biggest moment of the campaign so far after a standout performance at the first set of Democratic debates rocketed her into the top tier of polling.

Her challenge now is perhaps as difficult as gaining the advantage: capitalizing on it. With attention come pressure and scrutiny. It can be hard to build momentum, as Buttigieg and Warren did but former representative Beto O’Rourke failed to do when his golden opportunity arose this spring.

Harris’s breakthrough debate performance was that rare phenomenon in politics, a carefully planned maneuver that played out exactly according to script. There are antecedents, but not many: Think Ronald Reagan shedding the age issue in 1984 (“I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience”) or Carly Fiorina’s stoic response in a 2015 debate to a Donald Trump putdown of her physical appearance (“Women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said”). The risk for all was that the line of attack would seem contrived; the reward, as Harris and the others found, was considerable.

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In the social media age, almost anything can yield a moment. Candidates are acutely aware that any emotional interaction with a voter, passionate line in a speech, or jab during a debate could catch fire online and quickly rocket them into an entirely new phase of their campaign. They hungrily grasp for these moments of transcendence in cable TV hits and on rope lines. But they know that for a moment to gain traction it has to at least seem authentic.

Many of the pivotal and defining moments from recent campaigns — such as Hillary Clinton choking up when talking to a New Hampshire voter in 2008 — were unplanned and drew their power from their unexpected spontaneity.

“It’s really hard to plan a viral moment,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who worked on Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential run. “The best thing you can do is plan for a good line in a debate or in a speech and hope that the public thinks it’s as good as you do.”

That’s exactly what Harris managed to do in the first Democratic debate last month, when her powerful attack on former vice president Joe Biden’s record on race instantly went viral, with a helping hand from her team.

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Her campaign quickly seized on the moment, sending out a photo of Harris as a child on social media while the debate was still ongoing. Within hours, the campaign was selling “That little girl was me” T-shirts screen-printed with the childhood photo at about $30 a pop. (They eventually sold 1,400 of them.)

Harris’s careful planning and execution risked a backfire, if voters had concluded that her words were canned or too plainly calculated. Some Biden allies grumbled exactly that, even as Harris jumped in the polls and enjoyed a fund-raising surge.

“You could argue it was a little too much to all of a sudden have these T-shirts magically appear; however, it was the end of the quarter, she had to raise money,” said Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist and former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. “I think it was a smart, planned moment.”

To make the most of a breakthrough event, candidates must quickly seize on the burst of attention and money to build their e-mail lists and fire up their core supporters, without turning off people by overdoing it.

“These moments are fleeting, and if you miss them, it’s as if they never even happened,” warned Laura Olin, a digital strategist who worked on former president Barack Obama’s reelection.

But the harder task for candidates basking in a moment is to sustain that attention and avoid making mistakes while enduring the newfound scrutiny from the press, voters, and other candidates. The flip side of the spotlight is the microscope.

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“You have a good moment, scrutiny is inevitably going to increase,” said Mark Longabaugh, a former top adviser to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders who is now unaffiliated in the race. “The key thing when you get a moment is you’ve got to figure out how do you sustain it.”

Harris has already stumbled a bit in the glare of that spotlight. In an interview the morning after her breakthrough debate performance, she equivocated on whether she believes people could still have private insurance under her Medicare for All proposal, after appearing to rule it out the night before. And last week in Iowa, Harris appeared to muddy her position on busing — the core of her attack on Biden — when pressed by reporters.

In a passionate exchange during the debate, Harris had recounted how Biden’s past opposition to busing as a means of integrating schools felt personal to her as someone who was bused to school as a child. “That little girl was me,” she told the former vice president.

Harris told reporters on the Fourth of July, however, that she does not believe busing should be federally mandated to desegregate schools today, saying school districts could opt for such a policy if they wanted. It sounded very much like a departure from her stance in the debate, when Harris criticized Biden for being an outspoken critic of federally mandated busing to desegregate schools in the 1970s and ’80s.

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Harris knows better than anyone how fleeting a political moment can be. After her impressive January campaign launch event in Oakland, featuring a massive crowd of 20,000 people, she was unable to capitalize on the attention. She struggled to find her footing, appearing wishy-washy on key policy questions and campaigning less than some of her rivals.

This 2020 field is littered with the remains of breakthrough moments that didn’t pan out. Among them: the unplanned viral moment in 2018 that launched O’Rourke from a struggling Senate candidate to a serious presidential contender. His eloquent answer to a voter’s question about the NFL national anthem protests last August was watched by tens of millions of people. Suddenly, O’Rourke was joking around on daytime TV with Ellen DeGeneres and raising stunning amounts of money.

“It broke his whole campaign outside the Texas context and made his presidential campaign possible,” Olin said. “There’s a recognition that it could literally be any moment that could really change an entire campaign.”

But when O’Rourke decided to run for president, a different sort of virality stalked his candidacy.

He appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine standing next to his truck and dog, with his words — “Man, I’m just born to be in it” — emblazoned beside him. The March article, coming as O’Rourke launched his campaign, was his moment in the media glare. And it didn’t turn out as he had hoped.

Some, including one of his fellow candidates, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, criticized what seemed like presumption or a sense of entitlement in his words, coming as they did from a youthful, out-of-work politician. O’Rourke’s response to the blowback was to look past the national picture and focus on making inroads with local voters, driving himself around to stops in Iowa and New Hampshire and delivering speeches while standing on tables. As damage control, it proved ineffective.

“He was going local like he was still running a Senate race in Texas,” Longabaugh said.

The burst of fund-raising success and attention the candidate attracted in his moment fizzled out in the wake of these early mistakes, as voters wondered whether O’Rourke was out of his depth on the national stage.

Not all candidates will be able to create a blockbuster moment for themselves, such as O’Rourke with the NFL answer or Harris during the first debate, but there’s a case to be made that smaller bursts of attention are more sustainable over the long haul.

Warren has slowly built her profile with a steady stream of detailed policy plans and a canny sense of timing — as when she became the first major candidate in the field to back President Trump’s impeachment. She’s also created a few humanizing moments online, like when she told comedian Ashley Nicole Black to contact her after Black asked on Twitter if Warren had a “plan” to fix her love life.

Harris’s team has done a particularly good job sharing candid moments of her interacting with voters that occasionally go viral, like an exchange with a shy little girl whom Harris encouraged to “always hold that chin up.”

But candidates can also capitalize on embarrassing or negative moments, proving that in today’s media climate, almost any attention is better than no attention. Obama raised money off his poor debate performance against Mitt Romney in 2012, firing up concerned supporters, and also sold mugs with his birth certificate printed on them after he released it to silence protests by the so-called birthers led by Trump. And Rubio found a novel way to raise money after he was mocked for thirstily downing a bottle of water during a Republican response he gave to the State of the Union address in 2013.

“We started selling water bottles on our website and sold like $100,000 in water bottles,” Conant said. “It was a gaffe, but we owned it and it ended up being a very funny and humanizing moment.”

The lesson? Any moment — even an embarrassing one — can be better than taking no chances and disappearing into the pack.

“If you continue to talk like a message-tested politician robot, it’s just not going to break through in any meaningful sense,” Olin said.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in creating a moment for oneself isn’t thinking of a clever speech or finding a way to drown out the other candidates but finding a way to stand out compared with President Trump, who consistently grabs the spotlight with his provocative tweets and flair for showmanship honed over decades interacting with New York’s tabloids.

“In some ways, Trump’s entire premise is driving these viral moments and media moments,” said Ben LaBolt, who worked on Obama’s 2012 reelection. “He is starting the campaign as the viral candidate.”


Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com and on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.