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Why Klobuchar’s Strength In Minnesota May Not Translate To The Primaries

One of the strongest selling points of Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s presidential campaign is her electability. That can be a problematic term, but in this case, we’re basing the idea on more than just subjective qualities like “likability”: Klobuchar was one of the strongest Democratic Senate candidates of the 2018 cycle — winning re-election by 24 points when she was only expected to win by 14, according to a regression analysis that looked at a state’s partisan lean1 and whether an incumbent was running. She’s also extremely popular among Minnesota voters, despite Minnesota being a purple state.

Most importantly for 2020 purposes, Klobuchar did 14 points better in Minnesota than Hillary Clinton did there just two years prior (Klobuchar got 60 percent of the vote, Clinton got 46 percent) — winning several rural counties that Clinton lost. Klobuchar surely got a boost from 2018 being a better Democratic year than 2016, but that doesn’t account for the entire difference. She also outperformed Clinton by more than 20 points in 11 counties, all of them places where the population is overwhelmingly non-Hispanic white, where the median household income is lower than the statewide median ($65,699), and where less than a quarter of the residents have a bachelor’s degree.2 In other words, Klobuchar outpaced Clinton the most in areas with lots of blue-collar white voters.3

So does this mean, as many pundits — and Klobuchar herself — have implied, that she is uniquely positioned to win back Midwestern and non-college-educated white voters for the Democratic Party in 2020? Not necessarily. Clinton performed unusually poorly for a Democrat among white voters without a degree, so she may not be the best point of comparison.

In fact, Klobuchar’s dominance in areas with a lot of non-college-educated whites might just be a function of her overall electoral strength — she did well with white voters, period. When Klobuchar is compared with fellow Democratic Sen. Tina Smith, who might be a better benchmark as she ran for Minnesota’s other Senate seat at the same time Klobuchar was defending her own,4 Klobuchar outperforms Smith across the board, running 7 points ahead statewide and anywhere from 4 to 12 points ahead in individual counties. But Klobuchar didn’t just outperform Smith in counties with a large population of whites without a bachelor’s degree; the state’s senior senator also did quite well in white, upper-class suburbs (more on that in a moment). Overall, there was a weak correlation5 between how much of a county’s over-25 population is white people who didn’t graduate from college and how far Klobuchar outperformed compared with Smith. But the correlation with Klobuchar’s outperformance of Clinton was stronger,6 which might help explain why a narrative has emerged that Klobuchar can win back white voters without a degree.

Now, it is possible that both Klobuchar and Smith have special appeal with white voters who don’t have a bachelor’s. There may simply be something about Minnesota that gives Democrats there the ability to win this group of voters that national Democrats have a hard time reaching. If so, we can’t completely dismiss the idea that Klobuchar is better equipped than other (non-Minnesota) Democrats currently in the presidential race to win back these non-college-educated white voters — she just might not be uniquely equipped to do so.

Indeed, while everyone likes to talk about Klobuchar’s (perceived) electoral strength in white, working-class areas, it turns out she’s also pretty strong in white, upper-class suburbs. To provide a more granular look at Klobuchar’s performance in the Twin Cities metro area, I pushed beyond the county level and took a look at state House districts, which offer more detail. And in all 10 of the state’s wealthiest districts (by highest median household income), Klobuchar outperformed Smith by at least 8.7 points (statewide, remember, it was 7 points). For example, in one House district that includes a handful of predominantly white suburbs northwest of the Twin Cities, the median household income is $112,623, and Klobuchar outran Smith by 10 points. Klobuchar’s strong performance in high-income districts7 raises the possibility that she is at least as strong a candidate in white-collar areas as she is in blue-collar areas.

However, white voters are where Klobuchar’s sizable electoral advantage seems to stop. Klobuchar’s worst performances relative to Smith came in the most racially diverse areas of Minnesota. In the nine state House districts where less than 50 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white, Klobuchar outran Smith by an average of just under 4 points, about half of her statewide advantage. That jibes with the exit polls, which show Klobuchar doing just 4 points better than Smith (80 percent support vs. 76 percent support) with nonwhite voters statewide.

To the Democrats who believe that the party’s key to victory is pumping up minority turnout, Klobuchar must look like a pretty ordinary candidate. That raises an obvious concern for Klobuchar’s campaign: Nonwhite voters make up around 40 percent of the Democratic primary electorate, and at least in recent cycles, it’s proven very difficult to win the nomination without them. This could really hold her back in the primary, especially if her advantage among whites without a college degree isn’t as large as it looks.

From ABC News:

Sen. Amy Klobuchar opens up about her 2020 campaign


  1. 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.

  2. Educational statistics are among the population that’s age 25 or older. All demographic data in this article is from the five-year estimates in the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013-2017 American Community Survey.

  3. We should note that just because a candidate does better in counties with higher numbers of non-college-educated whites doesn’t necessarily mean that she did better among those voters themselves. However, in this case, the fact that exit polls tell a similar story makes us more confident.

  4. Minnesota hosted a rare double-barreled U.S. Senate election in 2018, meaning both of its Senate seats were on the ballot at the same time. It’s about the closest we can get in real life to being able to compare Klobuchar with a generic Democrat running for the same office at the same time, since, as an appointed incumbent, Smith did not enjoy the same advantage that an elected incumbent gets.

  5. R = 0.27.

  6. R = 0.58.

  7. The relationship between a district’s median household income and Klobuchar’s overperformance of Smith there had a correlation coefficient of 0.51. Notably, there did not appear to be a relationship between the percentage of a district’s residents with a college degree and Klobuchar’s overperformance of Smith.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.