Of the numerous Democratic presidential candidates who ran on an “I can beat Trump” message, Sen. Amy Klobuchar made perhaps the best case on paper. Lots of voters are basically looking for someone who can win the Midwestern states that are likely to prove pivotal in a general election — Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania — and Klobuchar seemed like a logical choice. In 2018, she cruised to reelection in Minnesota, a state very much like those other three — i.e. Midwestern with a large population of the white voters without college degrees who broke from the Democrats in 2016. She has plenty of experience (13 years in the Senate), but isn’t that old (59). And she has a fairly liberal record, but she’s not as far to the left as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (she’s never embraced positions like Medicare for All, for example).
But Klobuchar, who suspended her campaign on Monday, was never able to translate a strong theoretical case into reality. Her high-water mark was a surprising third-place finish in New Hampshire. She finished fifth in Nevada, with around 10 percent of the initial popular vote. She finished sixth in South Carolina, with just 3 percent of the vote. And although she had a chance to win her home state of Minnesota, she looked unlikely to win any delegates in most other Super Tuesday states. Like former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg — who exited the race on Sunday — Klobuchar appears to be heeding the advice of Democratic Party elites who wanted to clear the center-left section of the 2020 field to help former Vice President Joe Biden consolidate the votes of more moderate Democrats and prevent Sanders from gaining too big a delegate lead on Super Tuesday. Buttigieg and Klobuchar are reportedly endorsing Biden tonight.
So what went wrong for Klobuchar’s campaign?
First and foremost: Biden. The most obvious reason Klobuchar struggled is simply that Biden was in the race. Both candidates were running on experience, electability and a liberal-but-not-too-liberal record. But Biden started the campaign with a much bigger national profile than Klobuchar has. He led in national polls for most of 2019. And Klobuchar, like many other center-left candidates, simply couldn’t dislodge him from that position.
Gender also likely played a substantial role in Klobuchar’s failure to catch on. Biden last won an election on his own — as opposed to running as vice president — in 2008, and that was in always-blue Delaware. Sanders is a democratic socialist who has only ever run in always-blue Vermont. Neither can really make a great case for their electability at the national level. But Democratic voters consistently rated Biden and Sanders as the most electable candidates, which probably reflects their strong performance in head-to-head polls against Trump and the fact that both are white men. It’s not totally clear that any woman running in 2020 — four years after Trump defeated Hillary Clinton — could have won the nomination by running on an electability-focused message.
If you take a “lanes” view of the primary, Klobuchar was also getting squeezed out by Buttigieg. There may have been room for one Midwestern, moderate alternative to Biden, but it seems like there wasn’t room for two. Klobuchar lost that mini-primary to the former mayor. Buttigieg surged to the top of the polls in Iowa in November and although he dropped back into the pack after a while, he went on to, essentially, tie for first there, then finish ahead of Klobuchar again in the other three states that have voted so far. Why did Buttigieg outperform Klobuchar? Maybe gender was a factor here too — perhaps some voters saw Buttigieg as electable because he is a man. But I also think that Buttigieg presented his biography (veteran, small-town mayor) in a compelling way, while Klobuchar struggled to distinguish herself from the other candidates running.
Finally, Klobuchar’s campaign lacked support among black and Latino Democrats. The flip side of being from a state with a lot of white voters, particularly white voters without degrees, is she also comes from a state that has few black (7 percent) or Latino residents (6 percent), and those groups make up an essential part of the Democratic primary electorate. Klobuchar, like Buttigieg, polled terribly among black and Latino voters throughout the primary season and struggled with both groups in Nevada and South Carolina. (She was the first choice of just 2 percent of black voters and 4 percent of Latino voters in Nevada, according to entrance polls. She won 1 percent of the black vote in South Carolina, according to the exit polls.1)
Part of Klobuchar’s weakness among those groups was probably because of Biden — he has been dominant among older black voters, for example, a group that Klobuchar could have plausibly appealed to if the former vice president weren’t in the race. We don’t have great data on the views of younger black voters vs. older black voters, but it’s likely that older black voters are more moderate, so that’s the bloc where Klobuchar was probably best positioned to make gains. Younger black voters have leaned toward Sanders.
Another way of saying all this, of course, is that the Democratic presidential field in 2020 was really big. A lot of candidates who looked good on paper — most notably, Klobuchar’s Senate colleagues Cory Booker and Kamala Harris — won’t win the nomination either. In a field that numbered more than 20 serious candidates, everyone, individually, was a long shot, and Klobuchar never caught the breaks she needed.
That said, Klobuchar still may get to the White House. She’s almost certain to be on the short list for vice president, particularly if Biden wins the nomination. She has the Washington experience that Georgia’s Stacey Abrams lacks, plus a long record campaigning in the Midwest that distinguishes her from Harris. (It’s very likely that a male Democratic nominee will pick a female running mate.) So Klobuchar could still get a chance to show that she can win the Midwest for her party — just not at the top of the ticket.