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How Amy Klobuchar Could Win The 2020 Democratic Nomination

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar announced her candidacy for president at a rally in Minneapolis on Sunday, becoming the fifth Democratic senator1 to launch a campaign. In contrast to some of the big names — Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren — who had been expected to run for president for years, Klobuchar is a little bit more of a homespun, independent-label candidate.

But being on an indie label has its upsides and downsides. On the one hand, there’s perceived authenticity and the ability to build momentum from modest expectations. On the other hand, there’s the question of whether your product can get into the hands of consumers without having major-label marketing muscle behind it — and, if so, whether it can expand beyond a niche audience.

So this article is meant to provide a relatively comprehensive assessment of Klobuchar’s strengths and weaknesses — rather than being either a “devil’s advocate” argument or a best-case scenario. It’s informed by conversations with Klobuchar’s campaign as well as with unaffiliated Democrats, but the opinions and analysis are my own. As you’ll see, I think Klobuchar’s upsides outweigh her downsides, but there’s plenty of material in both columns.

Four potential advantages

1. Electability. Democrats really, really want to beat President Trump. A recent Monmouth University poll found that 56 percent of Democrats “prefer someone who would be a strong candidate against Trump even if they disagree with that candidate on most issues,” compared with just 33 percent who held the opposite view.

What it means to be “electable” is somewhat in the eye of the beholder — the term sometimes seems to be a euphemism for a good-looking white guy who isn’t too liberal (hello, Beto).

But Klobuchar can make some good, data-driven arguments for her electability. One of them is simply the overall electoral importance of the Midwest — particularly the Upper Midwestern states of Minnesota (which Trump came within 1.5 percentage points of winning), Wisconsin and Michigan (which Trump won). Winning those three states plus Pennsylvania (or Ohio, or Florida, or North Carolina) would have given Hillary Clinton the presidency. And if the midterm elections were any guide, they still probably represent the path of least resistance for Democrats to retake the White House.

There’s also Klobuchar’s strong performances in Minnesota to consider. She was first elected in 2006 by a 20-point margin and then re-elected in 2012 by 35 points and in 2018 by 24 points. In each case, she performed well statewide and not just in the Twin Cities, winning 79 of 87 counties in 2006 and 85 of 87 in 2012. That declined to 51 of 87 counties in 2018, but given the massive swing toward Trump and Republicans in rural counties elsewhere in the Midwest, Klobuchar still did better than many Democrats.

Class I Democratic senators such as Klobuchar have been blessed not to face election or re-election in a “red wave” cycle — 2006, 2012 and 2018 have all been blue years. Nonetheless, Klobuchar has performed strongly relative to other Democrats in the same elections. Below, for example, is the output from a regression analysis that calculates an expected result in each 2018 Senate race based on every state’s partisan lean (how much more Republican or Democratic it is than the country as a whole2) and whether either party had an elected incumbent running. According to this analysis, you’d have expected Klobuchar — a Democratic incumbent in a blue year, but in a purple state — to win re-election by 14 percentage points. Instead, she was re-elected by 24 points, beating the model’s expectations by 10 points:

Klobuchar was one of the strongest Democrats in 2018

Margins of victory or defeat for Democratic Senate candidates vs. their forecasted margins based on incumbency and the state’s partisan lean

Margin of Victory or Defeat
State Dem. Candidate Actual Expected Actual less expected
West Virginia Manchin D+3.3 R+10.4 D+13.7
Minnesota Klobuchar D+24.1 D+14.1 D+10
Texas O’Rourke R+2.6 R+12.2 D+9.6
Vermont* Sanders D+39.9 D+30.7 D+9.2
New Mexico Heinrich D+23.6 D+18 D+5.6
Nevada Rosen D+5 R+0.4 D+5.4
Maryland Cardin D+34.5 D+29.5 D+5
New York Gillibrand D+34 D+29.1 D+4.9
Montana Tester D+3.6 R+0.7 D+4.3
Tennessee Bredesen R+10.8 R+14.6 D+3.8
Virginia Kaine D+16 D+12.6 D+3.4
Maine* King D+19.1 D+16.3 D+2.8
Arizona Sinema D+2.3 R+0.5 D+2.8
Hawaii Hirono D+42.3 D+39.6 D+2.7
Minnesota special* Smith D+10.6 D+8.1 D+2.5
California* Feinstein D+30.2 D+28.6 D+1.6
North Dakota Heitkamp R+10.8 R+12.4 D+1.6
Pennsylvania Casey D+13.1 D+11.6 D+1.5
Ohio Brown D+6.8 D+7 R+0.2
Connecticut Murphy D+20.2 D+20.7 R+0.5
Delaware Carper D+22.1 D+22.8 R+0.7
Wisconsin Baldwin D+10.8 D+11.5 R+0.7
Nebraska Raybould R+19.1 R+17.5 R+1.6
Wyoming Trauner R+36.9 R+35.1 R+1.8
Mississippi special* Espy R+7.3 R+5 R+2.2
Missouri McCaskill R+5.8 R+1.7 R+4.1
Washington Cantwell D+16.9 D+21.3 R+4.5
Indiana Donnelly R+5.9 R+0.9 R+5
Michigan Stabenow D+6.5 D+13.6 R+7.1
Mississippi Baria R+19 R+11 R+8
Florida Nelson R+0.1 D+8.5 R+8.6
Rhode Island Whitehouse D+23.1 D+31.9 R+8.8
Massachusetts Warren D+24.2 D+34.7 R+10.5
New Jersey Menendez D+11.2 D+22.6 R+11.4
Utah Wilson R+31.7 R+17 R+14.7

* In Vermont and Maine, the independent is treated as the Democrat. In California, the aggregate results for all Democratic candidates in the June 5, 2018, primary is used, since two Democrats advanced to the general election. However, in the Mississippi special election, the result of the Nov. 27 runoff is used since that race featured a Democrat against a Republican. Races with appointed incumbents — namely, the Minnesota and Mississippi special elections — are treated as open seats rather than as equivalent to races with elected incumbents. In California, Feinstein is treated as ~0.7 of an incumbent because that reflects her share of the vote relative to the other Democrats.

Source: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

That rates as the second-strongest performance for a Democratic candidate for Senate last year, slightly behind West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and slightly ahead of Texas’s Beto O’Rourke and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders.3 Among other actual or potential Democratic candidates who ran Senate races in 2018, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand also performs relatively well by this metric, whereas Ohio’s Sherrod Brown gets an average rating, and Massachusetts’s Warren a poor one.

That’s not to say you should expect Klobuchar to tout her own electability on the campaign trail, which can seem uncouth. (The first rule of electability is: Don’t talk about electability.) But it’s an argument we’re liable to hear a lot from her surrogates.

2. Potential strength in Iowa, and in the debates. As compared to candidates such as Harris and O’Rourke, who might hope to blitz their way to victory on the basis of strong fundraising and early delegate accumulation in California and Texas, Klobuchar is probably playing a long game. But doing so requires hitting two important mile markers. First, success in the debates. And then a strong performance in the Iowa caucuses.

Klobuchar’s team believes she should have two advantages in the debates. First, like Harris, Klobuchar is a former prosecutor — having been county attorney in Minneapolis’s Hennepin County — a skill that should translate well into the sharp-elbowed stage of the debates. And second, she can be candid and funny, potentially allowing her to surpass expectations among voters who expect Midwestern blandness or “Minnesota nice.” It’s a credible-enough case, but Klobuchar, who starts out with name recognition well below 50 percent, will need some big moments in the debates.

Her potential to succeed in Iowa is more obvious. She will probably be the only major candidate in the race from a state that borders Iowa and one of relatively few Midwesterners in the field. And in her statewide races in Minnesota, she relied heavily on a retail approach to politics, something that should translate well to Iowa. Looking at past results from the Iowa caucuses makes it pretty clear that there’s a regional advantage in this contest, although other politicians who are not from the region but have strong retail skills (a description that might fit Booker and O’Rourke, for example) can also perform well there.

Beyond Iowa, Klobuchar’s path is less clear. In New Hampshire’s open primary, voters typically favor liberal New Englanders such as Sanders and Warren.4 And the electorates get much less white after Iowa and New Hampshire, whereas Klobuchar’s strengths with nonwhite voters are less than obvious. So she’d be hoping for a polling bounce out of Iowa, something that used to occur regularly but has been more fleeting in recent years.

3. The beer track … without the baggage? Klobuchar’s campaign is likely to emphasize her working-class Midwestern roots, her staff said; you’ll hear stuff about how her grandfather worked as an iron-ore miner, for instance. It will also pitch her to voters on candor, honesty, pragmatism, an ability to “get stuff done,” work ethic and so forth. It’s going to lean pretty heavily into her Midwesternness, in other words.

The idea is to draw a contrast — probably softly at first, and maybe more explicitly if the campaign grows more combative — between Klobuchar and more left-wing candidates from the coasts, particularly Harris, Warren, Sanders and perhaps Booker. In some ways, this will recall the old distinction between “beer-track” (“flyover-state” moderates) and “wine-track” (coastal liberals) Democrats. However, Klobuchar isn’t likely to have the beer track to herself; Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown could be playing in the same lane, and, more significantly, so could former Vice President Joe Biden. There’s also what you might call a “craft-beer track,” consistenting of candidates who are from the middle of the country but whose appeal might be stronger among college-educated voters, such as O’Rourke and (craft brewery founder!) John Hickenlooper, a former governor of Colorado.

Does that mean Klobuchar is liable to run explicitly as a moderate — campaigning, for instance, against policies such as “Medicare-for-all”? Her campaign wouldn’t quite say as much, instead describing her as a pragmatist and a realist — but that’s a fussy distinction at best.

But there is an interesting twist to Klobuchar’s triangulation: Although she has a relatively moderate voting record, it’s fairly liberal relative to Minnesota, which (despite its reputation as a bastion of liberalism) is a purple state. Of the 13 Democrats who are either already running for president or are clearly telegraphing a run and who served in Congress during President Trump’s tenure, Klobuchar has the 12th-highest Trump score, meaning she’s voted with Trump comparatively often (31.5 percent of the time, trailing only former Maryland Rep. John Delaney among the presidential contenders). But she has the 10th-lowest Trump plus-minus rating, meaning that she’s voted with Trump much less often than you’d expect from someone from a purple state or district. Only Oregon’s Jeff Merkley, and Brown and Rep. Tim Ryan from increasingly red Ohio have a lower Trump plus-minus among the potential presidential candidates. By contrast, O’Rourke, although he voted with Trump slightly less often than Klobuchar, has the highest Trump plus-minus in the field because he represents an extremely blue district in El Paso.

All of that is to say: Klobuchar may well try to finesse the distinction between being a moderate and a realist, however meaningful that distinction might or might not be to Democratic voters. And she’s likely to express support for at least some decidedly liberal goals, having signaled support for the Green New Deal, for instance.5

Klobuchar looks moderate in the Democratic primary field

Trump score, predicted Trump score and Trump plus-minus for likely and declared Democratic candidates for president who have served in Congress under Trump. Klobuchar’s voting record is moderate relative to other Demoratic candidates for president but liberal relative to a purple state.

Trump score
Member Actual Predicted Trump Plus-Minus
Sherrod Brown 29.5% 67.7% -38.2
Tim Ryan 20.6 49.6 -29.0
Jeff Merkley 13.5 34.9 -21.4
Amy Klobuchar 31.5 50.0 -18.5
Cory Booker 15.7 31.4 -15.7
Michael Bennet 29.2 43.9 -14.7
Kirsten Gillibrand 12.4 25.1 -12.8
Elizabeth Warren 13.5 22.8 -9.3
Bernie Sanders 14.8 23.4 -8.6
John Delaney 34.4 38.5 -4.1
Kamala Harris 18.0 21.7 -3.7
Tulsi Gabbard 22.8 20.5 +2.3
Beto O’Rourke 30.1 18.8 +11.3

Trump score indicates the share of votes for which the member voted in line with Trump’s position. The predicted score is what we expect that member’s score would be based on Trump’s 2016 margin in that member’s state or district. The Trump plus-minus is the difference between the actual and expected scores.

Klobuchar also has some other arguments to make against the rest of the beer-track candidates. Or at least, she arguably has less baggage than the rest of them. Her credentials — 20 years in public office — are sound by presidential standards (unlike O’Rourke’s). She isn’t 76 years old, as Biden is, and she doesn’t represent a state that is heavily invested in the financial industry, which is a problem for Biden and for all of the New York and New Jersey Democrats. The beer track will likely also be dominated by men — including possible candidates Biden, O’Rourke, Brown, Hickenlooper, Ryan and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock — so Klobuchar could have a lot of strength with working-class women, an overlooked and important part of the Democratic base.

Of course, it’s also possible that the beer track is a road to nowhere. Democratic delegate allocations are based on the number of Democratic votes for president in each state, which means they’re deliberately biased toward blue states. And an increasing number of Democrats view themselves as liberal rather than moderate.

4. A reasonably clear contrast to Trump. Before I started researching and reporting out this story, I thought one Klobuchar strength was that she could formulate one of the clearest contrasts to Trump. It’s almost always helpful for candidates in the primaries to draw stylistic and substantive contrasts against the other party’s president, as Trump did against Barack Obama, as Obama did against George W. Bush, and as Bill Clinton did against George H.W. Bush. My thinking was that Klobuchar’s mild-mannered Minnesota-niceness and long career as a public servant — and the fact that she’s a woman — would look to Democratic voters like the antidote to Trump’s bombast and braggadocio.

I still think that theory is mostly true and that Klobuchar is an above-average Democrat in her degree of not-Trumpness. But I want to hedge against it a little bit. The version of Klobuchar we see in debates and on the campaign trail may be scrappier, blunter, more sarcastic and more emotive than people are expecting (and reports of angry and abusive behavior toward staffers may facilitate those perceptions). Moreover, to the extent that her campaign is drawing distinctions between her beer-track persona and the wine-track elites from the coasts, she’ll in some ways be echoing arguments that Trump might make about Democrats.

Overall, this is an impressive list of strengths, even if some of them are quite hedged. They’re why Klobuchar has a considerably better chance of winning the nomination than you might guess given her relatively low profile. But she also has a couple of significant weaknesses.

Two potential problems

1. Lack of a clear path with nonwhite voters. Minnesota is not quite as white as you might think. It’s home to several immigrant groups, including some relatively smaller ones such as Somalians and Laotians. And its nonwhite population has grown significantly since 2000. Nonetheless, as of 2017, about 80 percent of Minnesota’s population was non-Hispanic white, compared with 61 percent for the U.S. as a whole. And since many of those nonwhite Minnesotans are recent immigrants, the share of whites among the electorate is even higher, at about 89 percent.

That’s not to say that white politicians can never find appeal with nonwhite voters. John Kerry did quite well with African-Americans, for instance, and O’Rourke was elected to Congress three times from one of the most Hispanic congressional districts in the country. This year’s Democratic field features several people of color, however, and Klobuchar doesn’t have any obvious strategy to appeal to black, Hispanic and Asian voters, which together will make up around 40 percent of the Democratic primary electorate. Instead, several of her likely strategic choices — running on the beer track, heavily investing in Iowa and (perhaps) New Hampshire — would emphasize trying to capture as much of the white vote as possible before turning to minorities.

Klobuchar also isn’t likely to have a lot of initial appeal to the left. She may subtly and selectively push back against some left-wing policy proposals while embracing others — or she may run more explicitly toward the center, depending on who else enters the race. (Biden’s decision about whether to run could significantly affect her calculus.) But either way, the left will have candidates such as Sanders, Warren and Brown as their first choices. That means Klobuchar doesn’t perform well according to our “five corners” heuristic, which regards black voters, Hispanics and The Left as three of the five major constituencies within the Democratic Party:

The five corners don’t capture everything. In particular, they don’t account for voters’ gender, even though around three-fifths of the Democratic electorate will be women.

But it does mean that Klobuchar’s campaign will need to proceed in stages, without necessarily having a lot of margin for error. First, she’ll have to perform well in debates and town halls to boost her name recognition. Second, she’ll need to win Iowa — or at least beat expectations there — to vault herself ahead of the other beer-track candidates. Third, she’ll need to heavily emphasize electability to win the slugfest against the wine-track candidates. Each stage holds risks for Klobuchar, and she doesn’t have a lot of shortcuts or detours at any point along the route if she gets knocked off track.

2. Staffing a campaign and building support among insiders. Articles published by HuffPost and BuzzFeed News have included allegations of abusive behavior by Klobuchar toward her staff, citing both statistics showing her high turnover and heretofore largely anonymous accounts of bad behavior from former staffers.

These rumors have been widespread for a long time. (To insert myself as a barometer here, as someone who doesn’t live in Washington and who is sort of ambivalent to political gossip, I’d heard about them several times.) In some ways, the HuffPost and BuzzFeed stories are relatively gentle in that they don’t contain that many details and are largely anonymous. Furthermore, this criticism can be gendered: A woman who exhibits the same behavior as “tough” or “demanding” male boss might be typecast as as “b—-.”

They also reek of inside-baseballness. Having a reputation as a bad boss can be problematic within your industry. But without salacious details, it’s not the sort of scandal that voters are liable to care all that much about.

At the same time, the nomination process is to some extent an inside game. If, as the HuffPost story claims, Klobuchar has trouble recruiting the layers of highly talented staffers that the other candidates have because of a reputation (well-earned or not) for being an abusive boss, that will hurt her. It will hurt her more if it signifies a general wariness about Klobuchar among Washington insiders, which could yield fewer endorsements and less willingness by “party elites” to rally around her if the field has been winnowed down to two or three candidates.

So I’ll be looking to whether Klobuchar is able to gather a few endorsements in the early stages of her campaign, especially from outside of Minnesota. There’s an extent to which a measured amount of pushback from Beltway elites could play into Klobuchar’s brand as a tough, no-BS outsider. But it’s really hard to go it completely alone in the primary, especially when your strategy involves winning over one faction of the party first (the beer track) and then building bridges to the other factions later on.

CORRECTION (June 7, 2019, 6:15 p.m.): A previous version of the table in this article included an incorrect margin of victory for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. That has been fixed. As a result, all the expected margins for 2018 Democratic Senate candidates (and therefore also the actual less expected column) changed slightly. The table and text have been updated to reflect those changes.


From ABC News:

Footnotes

  1. And roughly the 11th Democrat overall, depending on who you’re counting.

  2. In FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric, 2016 presidential election results are weighted 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results are weighted 25 percent and results from elections for the state legislature are weighted 25 percent.

  3. An independent who we’re treating as a Democrat for purposes of this analysis.

  4. However, Klobuchar’s campaign believes she could perform well among independents and Republicans who cross over to vote in Democratic primary.

  5. Her campaign said Klobuchar supported the aims of a Green New Deal, but that her messaging to voters would focus on what it would take to move it beyond broad concepts and into reality.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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