Barack Obama’s candidacy followed a very different path. Obama could easily have been a mostly elite phenomenon, a “wine-track” candidate of high-minded centrist reform like Bill Bradley or Gary Hart who excites interest but doesn’t win. While he had certainly attracted attention from African-American voters from the beginning of his campaign, he drew limited black support until after he won the Iowa caucuses — a decisive victory in an overwhelmingly white state. Once he had demonstrated his electability, Obama was able to attract greater institutional support from party leaders, and the overwhelming majority of votes from African Americans.
The tenor of Harris’ candidacy to date suggests that her goal is to follow in Obama’s footsteps, albeit in a manner updated for the Trump era. She will seek to unite moderate voters appalled by Trump’s corruption and incompetence with progressives excited to support an African-American (and South Asian-American) woman. She will woo business leaders looking for stability, but also liberal activists looking for a champion to protect reproductive rights and the most economically-vulnerable citizens.
Can Warren, or another left-wing populist candidate, compete with that pitch? It depends, to a considerable extent, on the degree to which she can win over African-American voters on the basis of her economic populism.