“I don’t think she can win. And I’m sorry to have to say that. She is a woman and she is black,” said Shantell Smith, 32, from Greenville, S.C., who is supporting Ms. Harris. “As a black woman myself, I think that as much as we would like to believe there’s been this huge shift in this country, we have seen the reality that people will fight back against change.”
In Nashville this past weekend, at a convention of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, which Ms. Harris joined as a student at Howard, some of the attendees spoke of their pride in her run so far, praising her debate performance, but also of their concerns about electability.
“It’s just — is she going to be able to do it?” said Kayla Wilson, who works at a nonprofit in Dallas. “I’ve been in America long enough to know that we’ve come a long way, but maybe not that far.”
Strategists to the female candidates say they are studying how Barack Obama overcame skepticism of his 2008 effort to become the country’s first black president. In the fall of 2007, Mr. Obama lagged far behind Mrs. Clinton, including among black voters. The campaign focused on Iowa, believing that the question “Could a black man win?” could only be answered there. His poll numbers changed rapidly after he won the Iowa caucus in January.
“In terms of electability, the best cure of that is winning,” said David Axelrod, a former top adviser to Mr. Obama.
And Democrats are focused on that cure. The obsession with predicting who will win has led to some strange dynamics at this stage of the race.
While the female candidates promote their ability to triumph in tough races, several of the male candidates, including Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, have all but promised to select a woman as their vice-presidential nominee.