Senator Kamala Harris of California dropped out of the Democratic presidential race on Tuesday after months of low poll numbers, a deflating comedown for a campaign that began with significant promise.
The decision came after upheaval among staff and disarray among Ms. Harris’s own allies. She told supporters in an email on Tuesday that she lacked the money needed to fully finance a competitive campaign.
“My campaign for president simply doesn’t have the financial resources we need to continue,” Ms. Harris wrote.
The announcement is perhaps the most sudden development to date in a Democratic presidential campaign where Ms. Harris began in the top tier. She opened her campaign on Martin Luther King’s Birthday with comparisons to historic black politicians like Barack Obama and Shirley Chisholm. Her speech that day in Oakland, Calif., drew more than 20,000 people, giving credence to the idea that Ms. Harris could become the first woman of color elected president.
A pair of California-based Democratic strategists, Dan Newman and Brian Brokaw, had just secured the money and the implicit sign off from Ms. Harris’s campaign to begin a super PAC in support of her candidacy. The group, named People Standing Strong, was to begin a million-dollar ad buy in Iowa on Wednesday in hopes of boosting her chances. Her campaign itself had been unable to afford ads in the state since September.
Over the holiday weekend, after a New York Times story detailed her campaign’s unraveling, Ms. Harris did a financial audit of her operation, according to a senior aide. She also held conversations with her advisers, before deciding to drop out late Monday night, according to campaign officials.
One of Ms. Harris’s aides, who spoke with her about her decision, said her instinct was to keep fighting but that she was told she’d have to go into debt to sustain her campaign.
Ms. Harris, the barrier-breaking prosecutor and second black woman to serve in the United States Senate, had been trending downward for months. After her launch rally, she almost immediately faced questions about where she fit on the party’s ideological spectrum. She reversed her position on single-payer health care, removing herself from the Medicare for All bill sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. She struggled with how to frame her record as a prosecutor, oscillating between defending it against progressive criticism and embracing it in a play for more moderate votes.
Ms. Harris also faced questions about her political strategy and her campaign’s organizational structure. She relied on a stable of California political strategists, led by the longtime political operative Averell Smith, who did not heed warnings from grass-roots organizers to invest more heavily in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Instead, the campaign focused on later primaries in states with more nonwhite voters, including South Carolina and California.
They miscalculated. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. remained popular with black voters, preventing the campaign from making significant headway in South Carolina. In California, Ms. Harris was increasingly boxed out, as progressives like Mr. Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts excited the state’s liberal wing and Mr. Biden persisted among moderates.
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Still, Ms. Harris had already qualified for the next presidential debate, scheduled for later this month, the only non-white candidate to do so thus far. Without her, Democrats may have an all-white debate stage after beginning the primaries with the most racially diverse field in history, though candidates like Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and businessman Andrew Yang may still qualify in the coming weeks.
“No matter your candidate, you have to recognize that going from the most diverse field ever in January to a potentially all-white debate stage in December is catastrophic,” wrote Leah Greenberg, a co-executive director of Indivisible, a national progressive group, on Twitter.
It was on an earlier debate stage when Ms. Harris generated one of the most electric moments of the race so far, when she challenged Mr. Biden over his record on race and busing in June. “I do not believe you are a racist,” she began. Mr. Biden was so taken aback he cut off his own answer short. “Anyway, my time is up. I’m sorry,” he said.
Money poured into her campaign and she spiked in the polls, rocketing to second place in several and generally peaking at 20 percent support. But her poll numbers declined steadily since then, beginning when she undercut her star turn when she struggled to articulate her own position on mandated busing.
Mr. Biden’s support, however, has proved durable, and he has shown himself a challenging politician to attack. The other most frontal assault on him came from Julián Castro, the former federal housing secretary, who also dropped in the polls after their debate-stage confrontation.
In recent months, Ms. Harris had struggled financially as her online fund-raising slowed and her large donors increasingly turned away from her campaign.
And in the days leading up to her withdrawal from the race, Ms. Harris grew increasingly desperate in her search for campaign funds. She surprised one donor who had hosted an event for her but is not a major Democratic bundler by telephoning him to see if he could reach out to his associates who had yet to give in hopes of finding her additional checks for the maximum allowable amount.
On Tuesday, she had a fund-raiser scheduled with some of her top bundlers in New York City that was canceled only hours before the event was set to occur. And on Wednesday, she had been scheduled to attend an event on the other side of the country, in Los Angeles, where Sean Parker, the billionaire tech entrepreneur, was set to host her at his home.
In the third quarter of the year, she spent more than $1.41 for every dollar she raised, burning through millions of her treasury. She stopped buying ads, both online and on television, implemented layoffs, slashed staff in New Hampshire and retrenched to Iowa, where she spent the Thanksgiving holiday with her family.
But it was not enough, as her campaign determined that she did not have the financial resources needed to compete, even as a new allied super PAC began reserving ads on Tuesday. The group quickly began canceling its reservations.
“As the campaign has gone on, it’s become harder and harder to raise the money we need to compete,” Ms. Harris wrote to supporters.
Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota quickly expressed admiration for Ms. Harris, as did Mr. Castro, who called her “a lifelong fighter for opportunity and justice for all Americans.”
“Sometimes campaigns can tear friendships apart but we have grown closer,” Ms. Klobuchar tweeted. “Her good work will continue.”
“Her campaign broke barriers and did it with joy,” Mr. Booker tweeted. “Love you, sister.”
Mr. Biden, campaigning in Iowa, called Ms. Harris “a first-rate intellect, first-rate candidate, real competitor.” He walked away when a reporter asked whether he would consider Ms. Harris as a running mate.
Maggie Astor contributed reporting.