clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Amanda Northrop/Vox

Filed under:

Amy Klobuchar can win where Democrats need to win in 2020

Sen. Amy Klobuchar dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination on March 2. Here’s the case for her candidacy, part of a Vox series published earlier in 2020.

Vox writers are making the best case for the leading Democratic candidates. This article is the sixth in the series. Read them all here. Vox does not endorse individual candidates.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination on March 2 to endorse former Vice President Joe Biden.

The case for Sen. Amy Klobuchar comes down to three words: the Electoral College.

Any Democrat up against President Donald Trump this fall won’t be able to count on winning the most votes to take the White House — the nominee will have to beat the convoluted map that heavily favors rural areas, and thus Republicans.

Hillary Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes than Trump in 2016, but her losses in Rust Belt states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania arguably cost her the Electoral College. Whoever runs against Trump will want to put these once-blue states back in the Democratic column, and they’ll have to win over rural voters to do it.

Klobuchar, from Minnesota, has the most convincing record on this score. In Minnesota she’s not only won statewide three times (besting her Republican opponents by double digits), she’s also consistently won by wider margins than other Democrats. Clinton won Minnesota by 1.5 percentage points in 2016. Two years later, Klobuchar won statewide by 24 points. Yes, it was a good year for Democrats, but as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias wrote, she outperformed every other Democrat running statewide that year — by a lot.

And, crucially, in 2018 she won 42 counties that Trump carried in 2016, including 39 in rural areas.

“What I have done is win. I’ve won districts Trump carried by 20 points. I have won every race, every place, every time. And I’ll do it again in 2020,” Klobuchar tweeted this fall.

The secret to Klobuchar’s success seems to be that a lot of rural voters like her brand of moderate politics, pragmatism, and openness to compromise. Take my hometown, which is located in Pennington County, Minnesota, a rural, farm-based community home to a computer parts distribution company and Arctic Cat snowmobiles: Hillary Clinton lost it in 2016 by 27.6 points. Two years later, Klobuchar won it by 0.02 percent. That’s a razor-thin margin but a hell of a swing, and it’s a win in an extremely Trump-friendly area.

“If you look at 2016, the same trends that were happening in Wisconsin and Michigan were happening in Minnesota,” said Jeff Blodgett, a longtime Minnesota Democratic operative who worked on Klobuchar’s first reelection campaign in 2006 and serves as an informal adviser to her campaign. Trump made it “just over the line” in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, but fell short in Minnesota.

“In spite of that, Amy has continued to overperform. She’s the most popular politician in Minnesota by far,” Blodgett added. “She’s able to appeal broadly to the electorate. She’s been able to build a strong base vote, and able to win a state like Wisconsin.”

Klobuchar is considered a moderate, but she should still appeal to voters on the further left of the Democratic Party. She’s one of the 15 most progressive members of the US Senate per FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of Congress members’ voting records, for example.

The biggest problem for her might be name recognition. But as voters get to know her, even Democrats outside of Minnesota, they like her. She rose in the polls after a strong debate performance in New Hampshire.

Klobuchar has a strong record of running and winning. Her brand of electoral politics — coming for people in the middle and winning in local areas where Democrats haven’t been winning lately — is a lot more sustainable for Democrats than betting on record levels of voter turnout year after year to win.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar participates in town hall in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 13, 2020.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The case for Klobuchar is about looking at what worked for Democrats in 2018

One big story of the 2018 election was the emergence of a dynamic “squad” of diverse women who won safe Democratic seats. It’s an important narrative in the Democratic Party, one that carries implications for the party.

Less publicized, but perhaps more immediately significant, was the story of moderate women who won in a lot of congressional districts that Trump won in 2016 — flipping the balance of power in the House. Think of Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger, New Jersey’s Mikie Sherrill, and Michigan’s Elissa Slotkin.

It’s no longer news to say that Democrats gained the most among college-educated white voters in 2018, a group that went from leaning slightly Republican to leaning slightly Democratic. But a problem for Democrats is that they may well be at the height of their ability to activate voters who rarely vote, according to a Catalyst analysis of 2018:

2018 turnout reached 51% of the citizen voting-age population, 14 points higher than 2014. 2016 turnout was 61%. If enthusiasm continues, how high can it get? It is unreasonable to expect a 14 point boost up to 75%, but is 70% reasonable? Here we show that turnout could easily reach 155 to 160 million votes, due to a boost in the turnout rate and the steadily increasing population size, which could reach around 240 million people in 2020.

That means that Democrats may have no choice but to turn to voter persuasion in the “turnout versus persuasion” debate laid out so artfully in this explainer. The candidates who performed best with voters in the middle in 2018 look a lot like Klobuchar — running as competent, moderate women candidates who lead with their record and ability to get things done.

It’s worth taking a look at the CNN exit poll from 2018 in Minnesota and seeing how she performed with groups where Democrats have been struggling lately. Klobuchar won 52 percent of all white men and 56 percent of non-college-educated voters. She lost white non-college-educated men, but she still got 45 percent of them to vote for her. Stanching those losses can go a long way toward building a sustainable party in the long term.

All this didn’t happen by accident. Blodgett told me she spent the first six months of her reelection campaign in 2006 traveling mostly to rural areas to build up her profile there. “She’s one of the hardest-working elected officials I’ve ever encountered,” he said.

Klobuchar does not seem like the kind of candidate to take electorally important areas for granted.

In the crowded primary field, moderate voters are currently split. Klobuchar has a few advantages among these moderate choices. Voters have openly expressed skepticism about a candidate over 70, which applies to both Biden and Bloomberg, and she has outlasted the less experienced Buttigieg.

Reporters watch the broadcast of the Democratic presidential primary debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, on February 7, 2020.
Charles Krupa/AP

National head-to-head polling finds every major Democrat leading Trump. Klobuchar’s real case comes in in key states like Michigan, where she polled ahead of Trump by 6 points last year. In her home state, which Clinton won narrowly, she beats him by 17 points.

Unfortunately, the potential general election appeal of such a candidate doesn’t seem to be something many Democrats are thinking about in the primary. “When it comes to electability, there is an important regional consideration in the Upper Midwest,” Blodgett told me.

Amy Klobuchar is still a very progressive candidate

It’s in some ways a sign of how far left the Democratic Party has moved that Klobuchar is considered a moderate candidate. She’s still one of the 15 most progressive members of the US Senate. She supports a $15-an-hour minimum wage, universal pre-K for low-income families, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a public option, and expanding community college access for low-income individuals. She’s also open to some structural reforms, like automatic voter registration, as well as DC and Puerto Rico statehood.

She’s also, notably, been at the forefront of trying to do something about democracy’s Facebook problem, even if it isn’t quite as sweeping as breaking up the social media platform. She’s also supportive of some of the most progressive abortion rights ideas Democrats have floated, and in general approaches public policy through the lens of being a woman.

Finally, she’s given a lot of thought to the limitations of presidential power and has a carefully plotted first 100 days plan that focuses on executive action, which tackles everything from prescription drug prices to bolstering protections for victims of domestic violence to strengthening environmental regulations.

Amy Klobuchar came in third behind Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, beating onetime frontrunners Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, in the New Hampshire primaries.
Preston Ehrler/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Klobuchar delivered a strong performance during the televised debate leading up to the New Hampshire primaries, pledging to Americans: “If you have trouble stretching your paycheck to pay for that rent, I know you. I will fight for you.”
Preston Ehrler/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

She is, of course, big on compromise — something that she prides herself on and that is a key part of her appeal to voters in Minnesota. It’s also what may make her anathema to the most progressive voters out there, who want a candidate who will push for big ideas like Medicare-for-all. It’s understandable that voters are looking for big ideas after years of being in the wilderness, but Klobuchar approaches the conversation through the cool eyes of realism.

“I keep listening to this same debate, and it is not real,” she said at the New Hampshire debate in early February. “It is not real, Bernie, because two-thirds of the Democrats in the Senate are not on your bill and because it would kick 149 million Americans off their current health insurance in four years.”

Klobuchar knows what some Sanders allies are beginning to admit — that a complete overhaul of the US health care system is politically untenable. The best and most realistic way to expand health insurance and bring down costs is to offer a public option.

It’s not exciting, but it is reality.

No candidate is perfect

There’s no unassailable candidate, and Klobuchar is no exception.

From a nuts-and-bolts perspective, she has a big problem: name recognition. She came in third place in New Hampshire, but nationally she comes in sixth place in Morning Consult’s name recognition tracker. The good news for her: When people do know her, they like her — as was the case after her New Hampshire debate performance.

Substantively, Klobuchar has been dogged by complaints by former staffers who say she is a bad boss. As soon as she began preparing to announce her candidacy last February, stories reported by HuffPost, BuzzFeed, Yahoo, and the New York Times asserted — all off the record — that Klobuchar was at best a demanding boss and at worst a verbally abusive one.

It’s almost impossible to get a full reading on this without knowing more details on the record, but Vox’s Laura McGann wrote about how the specific allegations against her reek of double standards. After all, when you look at the list of 10 “worst bosses” in the Senate that Klobuchar made at the time, six of them were women.

This is certainly a liability, whatever you think of the specific allegations. There’s no doubt conservatives have been itching to use the Me Too movement against Democrats, and those off-the-record comments could quickly become individuals with names and faces whose allegations come back to haunt Klobuchar.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar celebrates with her supporters in Concord after a strong third-place finish in the New Hampshire primary.
Preston Ehrler/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

But as much of a risk as that is, it’s simply not clear to me that the things the extremely online liberals complain about with Klobuchar actually matter much to voters. The New Republic’s Libby Watson called Klobuchar’s staff problem something elite media has a “blind spot” about. It’s worth reading her argument in full, but it seems like it has gotten extensive coverage in so-called elite media outlets — yet has been something many voters don’t care much about.

When Vox’s Ella Nilsen spent weeks reporting on voters’ concerns in New Hampshire, they seemed far more interested in how Klobuchar would fare against Trump in a debate than what her ex-staffers might have to say. “She’s feisty, and we need someone to be feisty,” New Hampshire voter Susan Fine recently told Nilsen.

More important, Cook Political Report editor David Wasserman argues, is that she has a poor track record with young voters and voters of color, key Democratic constituencies that could be a real problem for her as the primary turns to more diverse states.

“Her problem is nonwhite Democrats,” Wasserman told me. “The other problem is young people. She has not been winning support among voters born after 1975.”

Her awkward remark in Nevada about her “fourth-grade Spanish” name makes it glaringly obvious she’s from a predominantly white state. As the party becomes more reliant on voters of color, problems like her history as a prosecutor — an Associated Press investigation discovered she likely got an innocent man convicted, and she has a record of prosecuting Somali immigrants on drug charges — could make it difficult for her to gain credibility with these communities. It’s a problem that Sen. Kamala Harris, also a former prosecutor, faced.

For all the benefits Klobuchar has as a general election candidate, winning the nomination requires a lot of voters of color to get on board, and it’s not clear she has the time or the name recognition to get them.

Klobuchar has a pretty good case to make as a woman

The big way Klobuchar can differentiate herself among the remaining candidates in the field is that she’s, yes, more moderate, but she’s also a woman. It’s something both she and Warren have deployed to their advantage during the debates.

As my colleague Anna North wrote for Vox, this could be extremely effective against Trump: “treating debate as a literal dick-measuring contest doesn’t work when your opponent is a woman.”

Klobuchar has also made competency part of her brand, and that’s no accident.

Klobuchar announced her presidential bid during a snowstorm in Minneapolis on February 10, 2019.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

“Klobuchar is navigating the gender dynamics in a way that’s more consistent with what we’ve seen from candidates before,” said Kelly Dittmar at Rutgers University’s Center for Women and Politics. “She’s doing what strategists say she needs to do: lead with your record, qualifications, and ability to get things done.”

A poll over the summer also showed Klobuchar could activate enthusiasm simply by running as a woman. An AP/NORC poll released last summer showed 73 percent of Democratic voters valued experience in a candidate and about half of Democratic women said they’d be excited to vote for a woman candidate. Klobuchar meets both criteria.

Trump’s “strategy is always to emasculate everyone, women, or men,” Dittmar said. Having a woman next to him on the debate stage to draw that contrast “would be helpful for energizing a Democratic base, and maybe other women.”

In the Washington Post, Sam Luks and Brian Schaffner looked at how sexism interplays with voter attitudes:

[S]exist attitudes cost Republicans more votes than it gained them in the most recent midterm elections, as experiencing the first two years of Trump’s presidency pushed less sexist Americans toward the Democratic Party in 2018. So while sexism may be a hurdle for candidates ... as they compete for the Democratic Party’s nomination, it could help them win a general election campaign against Trump.

The reality is that no matter which Democrat faces Trump will face a barrage of attacks. It’s simply a matter of picking your poison. For now, this is the best Trump has against Klobuchar:

Additional reporting by Cameron Peters.

Read the rest of the Case For series: The case for Bernie Sanders; The case for Elizabeth Warren; the case for Joe Biden; the case for Pete Buttigieg; the case for Mike Bloomberg. Vox does not endorse individual candidates.


The Israel-Hamas war is tearing American cultural institutions apart

Supreme Court

Billionaires had a surprisingly bad day in the Supreme Court today


Vox podcasts tackle the Israel-Hamas war

View all stories in Politics