Editor’s Note: David Axelrod, a CNN commentator, was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Kamala Harris has a theory of the case about the Democratic presidential nominating process. If she’s right, she could well be standing on a debate platform with Donald Trump in 2020.

Plainly, her announcement and effective rollout on Martin Luther King Jr. Day wasn’t a casual scheduling decision. Nor was her decision to visit South Carolina even before her highly produced kickoff rally Sunday in Oakland, California.

While not explicitly capitalizing on her status as the only woman of color in the race, the symbolic timing of her declaration and the nature of these events were impossible to ignore.

Too little attention has been paid to the way the nominating process unfolds, first in mostly white Iowa and New Hampshire but then moving quickly to more diverse states where African-Americans play a much larger role.

Hillary Clinton was able to shake off Bernie Sanders in 2016 primarily because of her advantage among black voters. That same edge helped Barack Obama prevail over Clinton in 2008.

African-American voters are a strong part of the Democratic base. And under party rules, congressional districts with overwhelming Democratic performance receive additional delegates, multiplying the value of black support.

Harris’ challenge is to be a top finisher in the early states that traditionally narrow the field, to get to those contests that start with the crucial South Carolina primary, where she may have a decided advantage. She’ll be in Iowa tonight for a CNN Town Hall hosted by Jake Tapper. (It airs at 10 pm on CNN.)

There are many reasons to believe Harris could break through.

The daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, an economist and a medical researcher, she is a smart, charismatic and contemporary candidate with broad and diverse appeal.

The power of women on the ballot was manifest in 2018.

In a race that may require more than $100 million just to do well in the early states, Harris has a solid fundraising base in California and through social media. She raised an impressive $1.5 million online in just the first 24 hours after announcing her candidacy.

Her California supporters have built in an additional advantage, moving the date of the state’s presidential primary from June to March, with early voting beginning the day of the Iowa caucuses. The nation’s largest state will send 11 percent of the delegates to next year’s Democratic National Convention.

Harris’ profile, as a potentially barrier-breaking candidate, has drawn comparisons to another first-term senator who went on to win the presidency. But glib comparisons to Obama mostly miss the mark.