CONWAY, New Hampshire — Moderate New Hampshire voters think Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar could beat President Donald Trump in a general election. They’re just not sure she can win the Democratic primary.
Coming off a strong December debate performance — and with fundraising and polling numbers good enough to be on the January debate stage — Klobuchar is getting a lot of interest from moderate voters in the Granite State. As she campaigns on her Midwestern appeal and ability to win over disaffected Trump voters in areas Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, voters here, especially those who are anxious about electability, are paying attention.
Klobuchar’s case to voters: She has a record of handily winning elections (and Trump counties) in her home state of Minnesota, a state she likes to point out also has a history of electing to executive office controversial figures with a penchant for drama, like former Gov. Jesse Ventura.
“I appeal to independents just based on my agenda and what I want to get done. Independent voters in New Hampshire are like people everywhere,” Klobuchar told me in a recent interview. “They want to have a check on this president, they want to make sure you have their backs, and they want to make sure that you show how you’re going to pay for things, that you get things done.”
After Klobuchar’s recent town hall in Conway, Madison resident and Joe Biden supporter Margaret Merrill told me the senator’s words turned her into an undecided voter. She’s now considering Klobuchar.
“I was Biden when I walked in here, and now I’m not,” she said. Merrill and multiple other voters described Klobuchar’s recent debate performance as commanding and impressive, and said it made them eager to see her in person. And many told me that once they did, they found they liked the senator’s message — and her personality.
“She’s feisty, and we need someone to be feisty,” undecided Sunapee voter Susan Fine told me at a recent town hall.
Waiting to see Klobuchar speak at an event in Wolfeboro, voter Susan Kucha told me she was considering both Klobuchar and Biden, even though she was hesitant about Klobuchar’s low polling.
“It’s the polls; you never know whether to trust them or not,” Kucha said, adding, “I’m rooting for her now.” But Klobuchar convinced her, Kucha told me, after she saw the Minnesota senator speak in person.
“I’m voting for her,” she said. “She just seems so authentic and rational and reasonable.”
This attraction to Klobuchar’s message and temperament means she could be the right candidate for New Hampshire voters who like former Vice President Joe Biden but are wary of his age; voters who think former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is too inexperienced; and even some voters who like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders but fear they are too progressive to appeal to moderates in a general election.
However, Klobuchar’s problem is that she’s stuck in fifth place, in both Iowa and New Hampshire. All four of those candidates are ahead of her; Biden and Sanders are currently tied for the lead with 21 percent support in New Hampshire, per the latest FiveThirtyEight polling average, while Klobuchar is closing in on 5 percent.
With Klobuchar behind the big four of Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg, she needs to show moderate New Hampshire voters she can rise in the polls — or, better yet, beat any one of these formidable candidates in Iowa.
While her top-tier rivals could arguably survive stumbles in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire — Biden, for instance, enjoys strong support in South Carolina and Nevada, states that could offset disappointing showings in the first two contests — the same isn’t true of Klobuchar. Her ability to continue in the race (and to build on poll numbers that have improved in recent weeks) depends on outperforming expectations in the first two states. Whether she can do that remains to be seen.
Pulling off such a victory won’t be easy, in large part because it hinges on overcoming a difficult paradox: A lot of moderate New Hampshire Democrats like her — but they’re worried other people don’t.
Klobuchar’s pitch: A no-nonsense moderate who can beat Trump
The core of Klobuchar’s pitch to voters is electability.
Beating Trump in a general election is at the top of many voters’ minds; multiple polls earlier this election season showed that defeating him was the most important issue for Democrat or Democratic-leaning voters. Biden, the race’s national frontrunner, has argued that his experience and record makes him the most electable candidate. Klobuchar says the same is true of her — and has suggested she is Democrats’ best chance to carry those Midwestern areas Clinton struggled with during the 2016 election.
“We have to have someone that can win. I’ve won every race down to the fourth grade,” Klobuchar told voters at a recent New Hampshire event. “When they did a poll in my state about a month ago — [the] Mason-Dixon poll — about who could beat Donald Trump in a state that knows me, I beat Donald Trump by 17 points.” Klobuchar added that she did the best with Minnesota men of any Democratic candidate.
This message of winning, especially in the Midwest, could resonate with primary voters this year. Democrats across the country are obsessed with taking back states like Michigan and Wisconsin, where they unexpectedly lost to Trump in the 2016 general election.
“My No. 1, 2, and 3 criteria is someone who can beat Donald Trump,” San Diego voter Dori Jaffee told me as she exited a recent event for Warren in Hanover. Jaffee’s comments encapsulate what the overwhelming majority of voters say: anyone but Trump.
“New Hampshire voters want to beat Donald Trump,” a Klobuchar aide told Vox. “Amy is certainly leaning into that message. It’s also her record of winning counties that voted for him, and why she has an electoral appeal that not everyone else has.”
As Vox’s Matt Yglesias has written, Minnesota is seen as bluer than Wisconsin because of its largest city, Minneapolis. But in 2016, Hillary Clinton won just nine of the state’s 87 counties, whereas Klobuchar won 51 of them two years later. In other words, the state is a good test case for the senator’s electability argument.
Klobuchar talks a lot about her unblemished record of winning elections in Minnesota, but the even bigger thing is how large her margins were in these elections.
Klobuchar won her Senate race for reelection in 2018 by 24 points. And as Yglesias wrote:
Back in 2012, Obama won 53 percent of the vote in Minnesota. Klobuchar won 65 percent. Back in 2006, Tim Pawlenty narrowly defeated his Democratic opponent for governor in a race that also saw a significant third-party vote. Klobuchar won 58 percent of the vote in a landslide win that was also the narrowest of her three statewide runs.
Those are enviable margins in a general election. But Klobuchar first has to navigate a crowded primary field, where she’s broken out at times but has also been overshadowed by fellow moderates, including newcomer Buttigieg and familiar entity Biden.
Klobuchar could benefit from a New Hampshire win. But she has to win Iowa first.
In many ways, a candidate like Klobuchar is a great fit for an independent-minded state like New Hampshire, where independent voters not registered with any political party make up the biggest slice of the electorate.
She has proved her ability to create a diverse base in her native Minnesota, and New Hampshire seems like it would pose an opportunity to replicate that success. But her inability to make a strong early showing in the state appears to be undercutting her potential to grow her support.
For instance, independent Hopkinton voter Tony Gilmore told me he liked Klobuchar but wasn’t willing to support her because he was worried she wasn’t gaining traction. “It’s really hard to say, she’s really got her feet on the ground,” he said, adding that rather than voting for Klobuchar, he planned to vote for Bill Weld in the Republican primary to take a vote away from Trump.
Other voters voiced similar concerns to me, suggesting that finding a way to break out of this cycle — where Klobuchar is liked but not supported because of concerns about the size of her base — is key to her winning the state. One way she could do this, political experts told me, would be to win or overperform in Iowa in a big way — coming in first, or at the very least, second.
“Klobuchar has to put up this shock-the-world number in Iowa and be the story,” said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala. “I think a lot of Biden voters would find Klobuchar a good substitute. If Biden doesn’t come through, they’d find [her] a nice, safe choice. That depends on Klobuchar being the Iowa surprise.”
Biden allies in New Hampshire told me they’re confident in the vice president’s enduring appeal here, even with younger moderates like Klobuchar and Buttigieg also in the race.
“If she surprises everybody in Iowa, she could be a factor here,” said former US Ambassador Terry Shumaker, a prominent Biden supporter in New Hampshire. “I keep coming back to this steady hand on the tiller, a lot of people just want the daily chaos to stop. If I’m assessing the electorate correctly, that candidate is Joe Biden.”
But being an Iowa surprise won’t be easy for Klobuchar. Though there’s some advantage to being the underrated candidate going into the Iowa caucuses on February 3, Klobuchar has a lot of ground to make up: Her polling average puts her in fifth place in the state, roughly 8 percentage points behind Warren.
“I don’t think anyone is counting her out, but she’s got a ways to go,” veteran Iowa pollster Ann Selzer told me. “We have seen caucuses where someone who is not leading surges in the last month, even the last week. What people don’t understand is the caucus is designed for people to keep an open mind.”
So while Klobuchar is not considered one of the frontrunners, she is close enough to the top of the pack that it isn’t inconceivable she might put up unexpectedly large numbers in Iowa and continue strong into New Hampshire.
And given the profiles of those frontrunners — the progressive Sanders and Warren and the more moderate Biden and Buttigieg — Klobuchar told me she sees herself as having an appeal that all four lack.
Independent voters in the early states are “people who are sometimes progressive, but practical,” she said. “That describes me.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura was a Republican. Ventura ran for governor as a third party candidate.