Interviews with more than 50 people inside and around her campaign—including current and former aides, personal confidants and strategists, and Democratic officials who have watched Harris up close for nearly a decade—reveal how a candidate with so much promise, range and charisma has slid so far. Many of her dilemmas are self-creations. Harris undermined her national introduction with costly flubs on health care, feeding a critique that she lacks a strong ideological core and plays to opinion polls and the desires of rich donors. She was vague or noncommittal on question after question from voters at campaign stops. She leaned on verbal crutches instead of hammering her main points in high-profile TV moments. The deliberate, evidence-intensive way she arrives at decisions—one of her potential strengths in a matchup with Trump—often made her look wobbly and unprepared…

Harris, who is prone to questioning her first instincts—and who assembled a cadre of top advisers without instituting a clear chain of command—grew nervous about how her positions were playing to a Democratic primary electorate that had moved left on criminal justice reform, according to people who have spoken directly with her. Her aversion to risk on some major issues as attorney general, which earned her a reputation as “Cautious Kamala” in California, cropped up throughout the early stages of the race. The structural dynamic of having her sister, Maya Harris, serve as the campaign chair created internal confusion, and, in the minds of some aides and close allies, reinforced the candidate’s worst habits. Activists and wealthy donors in her ear all seemed to have something to say. Seldom was it helpful in connecting her with the zeitgeist of the party. Nor did it allow her to stay consistent with her message. Often, it did the opposite. But she listened and nodded and second-guessed herself even more. Her forceful personality and strong demographic appeal were replaced with faintness.

With what one longtime Harris associate called “the badass prosecutor” motif sidelined by her own apprehensions, she pivoted to themes that she’d later come to see as having little connection to her personally or professionally, beginning with a sporadically delivered appeal to voters on pocketbook issues.