As VP Debate Nears, Experts View Kamala Harris's Personality
Profiling, but also sociology, autobiography and journalism may offer clues.
Posted Oct 05, 2020
Kamala Harris is the first African-American woman and the first South Asian-American to be nominated for vice president, not to mention the second African-American woman ever to serve in the United States Senate. She has already made history.
On the day after she was sworn in as a senator in 2016, Harris addressed the Women's March. Looking out at a sea of enthusiastic faces, she said: "Even if you're not sitting in the White House, even if you are not a member of the United States Congress, you have the power! And we the people have the power!"
In the vice-presidential debate on October 5, Harris will go up against sitting vice president Mike Pence.
In her autobiography, Harris presents herself as a fighter and as a speaker of truth to power. She describes her fight against white supremacy, homophobia, and crime, not to mention the Trump administration. She describes her fight for the DACA program, women's rights, and human rights. Two of her most famous moments were her grilling of attorney general William Barr in 2019, over the Mueller report and investigations, and her confrontation of candidate Joe Biden over his busing record in the 1970s.
In the aftermath of her selection, an article on Harris as vice presidential pick said that she was, in theory, "a dynamite political talent." But, said Intelligencer, in practice, she ran an "underwhelming" presidential campaign, and her political skills and instincts may be questionable.
At that same time, sociologist Kate Choi reviewed evidence on people of mixed racial identity (of whom she counts herself one). She noted the complexity of the issue and cited a Pew Research Center survey showing that "only 60 percent of individuals of mixed-race heritage identified as multiracial."
Harris, she noted, chose to identify primarily as African-American. In part, this was because her South Asian mother knew Harris "would be perceived as an African American woman." And Harris, Choi reminded readers, chose to attend a historically African-American university. Harris herself recalled that at Howard University, every "signal told students that we could be anything, that we were young, gifted, and black, and we shouldn't let anything get in the way of our success."
Harris remembered that at Howard she "dove in with gusto."
According to Choi, the literature on self-identification among people of mixed heritage shows that identity may depend on social context. Multicultural persons "may report a different racial background at school and at home," for example, and their self-identification may change over time.
Such research, concludes Choi, shows that complex individuals should not be pigeonholed into a "single racial category."
In the world of personality assessment, psychologist Aubrey Immelman of the College of St. Benedict has been researching and rating candidates for decades. Drawing on the work of Theodore Millon, Immelman and his group have developed a personality metric that uses open sources and empirical ratings to assess, at a distance, the personality of major presidential candidates, "as publicly perceived."
Immelman's assessment tool is not perfect. It relies on trained undergraduates, not seasoned clinicians, to select open sources and to conduct ratings. Its interrater reliability has not been well studied. When Immelman views Harris, let us note that a white man is assessing a woman of mixed heritage, seldom an ideal situation. And there is a still unresolved controversy about the ethics of comment from a distance.
But Immelman's experience and systematic approach allow him to compare political personalities and try to predict their performance in office. And he has successfully predicted the winner of each presidential election since 1996. At the very least, his work is careful, evidence-based, and thought-provoking.
How does Harris look to Immelman?
In her empirical ratings, Harris scored highly on the traits of "dominant," "narcissistic/confident," and "outgoing." This assertive and charismatic pattern, Immelman predicted last year, made Harris, with Biden, one of the top two most electable candidates then running in the Democratic primary. (Outgoing, dominant candidates often do better than conscientious/dutiful ones, who may have trouble "reading" others and are less happy while working the room.)
As Biden's ratings show, he too is outgoing. But he emerges as more of an accommodator or conciliator than Harris. How would the two get along in office?
In a recent e-mail interview, Immelman told me that if Harris is elected as vice president, Harris might well outshine Biden. More ambitious than he is, Harris "may play a prominent role" in any Biden administration. Indeed, Immelman ventures to suggest that the "cooperative and loyal" Biden is better suited to being vice president than president.
What about the upcoming vice presidential debate between Harris and Mike Pence? Immelman cautions that he had less information to work with in assessing Pence. But the vice president's ratings show high scores on conscientiousness.
Pence’s major asset in the debate, Immelman predicts, "will be his attention to detail" in articulating and supporting Trump's positions.
A conscientious style may be helpful in office, Immelman said, especially in the executive branch. But it is not so helpful in campaigning. A conscientious personality can come across as rigid, preachy, and even boring—a potential hazard for the vice president on October 5.
"I think Harris will have the edge," Immelman told me. In his view, Harris's gregarious personality, confidence, and dominance are likely to throw the cautious Pence off guard. This will be especially true if the debate is "free-wheeling" and "less structured" in format.
Despite his findings, Immelman acknowledges some uncertainty. "The area that gives me the most pause," said Immelman, is that Harris "is somewhat lacking in 'gravitas'–a shortcoming not evident in Pence. Harris sometimes has a slightly unserious tone, even when addressing serious matters." For Immelman, this makes for incongruence between the content of what Harris says and the facial expression and body language she employs when she says it.
Where else can a voter turn for clues to Harris's style?
Thoughtful, long-form journalism has many advantages for the psychologically curious reader. As one example, The New York Times published a page-one profile of Harris at the time of her selection in August 2020. The article's take resonated with the points made by Choi and Immelman. Its title? "Kamala Harris, a Political Fighter Shaped by Life in Two Worlds."
Until we have a searching, deeply researched biography of Harris and a full-length study of her psychology (and it is hard to imagine that they are not underway even as we speak), voters will have to make do with the data and the predictions that are available now.
Perhaps Harris's own motto for her 2016 Senate election offers some kind of guide: "I Say We Fight."
Choi, Kate H. (2020). Kamala Harris and Racial Identity. Psychology Today. Posted on August 18, 2020. Accessed on October 3, 2020 at https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/social-fabric/202008/kamala-harris-and-racial-identity.
Flegenheimer, Matt, and Lisa Lerer (2020). Kamala Harris, a Political Fighter Shaped by Life in Two Worlds. New York Times. August 12, 2020. Accessed on October 3, 2020 at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/12/us/politics/kamala-harris-biden-vp.html#:~:text=Kamala%20Harris%2C%20a%20Political%20Fighter%20Shaped%20by%20Life,the%20Democratic%20establishment.%20Erin%20Schaff%2FThe%20New%20York%20Times.
Griebie, Anne Marie, and Aubrey Immelman (2020). The Political Personality of 2020 Democratic Nominee Joe Biden. Working Paper, Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics. August 2020. Accessed on October 3, 2020 at https://digitalcommons.csbsju.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1131&context=psychology_pubs.
Griebie, Anne Marie, Aubrey Immelman, and Yitao Zhang (2020). The Political Personality of Democratic Vice Presidential Nominee Kamala Harris. Working Paper, Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics. September 2020. Accessed on October 3, 2020 at https://digitalcommons.csbsju.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1132&context=psychology_pubs.
Harris, Kamala D. (2019). The Truths We Hold: An American Journey. New York: Penguin.
Immelman, Aubrey (2017). The Political Personality of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. Working Paper, Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics. May 22, 2017. Accessed on October 3, 2020 at https://digitalcommons.csbsju.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1119&context=psychology_pubs.
Immelman, Aubrey (2020). E-mails to the author, September 29, September 30, and October 1, 2020. Quoted with permission.
Levitz, Eric (2020). The Pros and Cons of Kamala Harris as Biden's VP. Intelligencer. Posted on August 11, 2020. Accessed on October 3, 2020 at https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/08/kamala-harris-joe-biden-vp-running-mate-announcement-pros-cons.html.