We Need to Talk About Amy Klobuchar

Long post today, so here’s an “executive summary”:

  • The most unfairly overlooked candidate in this race is Amy Klobuchar, the owner of myriad attributes Democratic voters and the general electorate should embrace.
  • Here are those attributes, the first six of which feeds the seventh.
  • That seventh? I’d wager she’d make the field’s most effective president — which should be the top characteristic when picking our chief executive.
  • So why is she polling so poorly? Read on to get PPFA’s take.

There exists a candidate in the large Democratic field that A) has the most successful Congressional record, B) hails from a swing state, C) has the clearest connection with crossover voters, D) is not in their 70s, E) is a woman in a party that’s nearly 60 percent female, F) lives in the region Democrats must reclaim to win back the White House, and G) might have the best argument to move forward an agenda in the next Congress. Few other candidates even check a majority of those boxes, but one candidate hits them all. And yet, this candidate is somehow polling at less than two percent, a criminally small number.

This candidate is Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. Though her lack of traction in the race is not, for reasons I’ll get into, bewildering, it is certainly disappointing.


Let’s first establish that each of my premises, listed A through G above, are accurate.

A) claimed she has the most successful Congressional record, an admittedly vague category. Depending on one’s ideology, “success” can be measured in a variety of ways. I measure success by tangible accomplishments, and I don’t think any candidate in the field matches Klobuchar’s record of getting stuff done. An experienced, third-term Senator, she boasts of her ability to find common ground to pass legislation. Though she brandishes a long list of advancing Democratic causes, she is renowned for working with Republican lawmakers to help the American people, and she’s so effective at it that normally combative Republican Senators gush over her likability and strength in bringing both parties together. Indeed, by using these talents in the recent 115th Congress, no Senator passed more legislation than she did.

Meanwhile, B) unlike most Democratic contenders, she hails from a swing state. (Joe Biden’s Delaware, Bernie Sanders’s Vermont, Elizabeth Warren’s Massachusetts, Kamala Harris’s California, and Cory Booker’s New Jersey are safely blue.) In 2016, only 46.44 percent of the North Star State voted for Hillary Clinton, the smallest percentage of any blue state. Considering mammoth Minnesota contains a lot of rural area, it’s not surprising that Trump did so well, and he certainly has a chance to flip the state in 2020. A Klobuchar nomination would keep the state’s ten electoral votes safely in Democratic hands.

And I mean safely. C) Klobuchar is wildly popular in her state and has remarkable support from its non-Democratic voters. Despite Trump nearly winning Minnesota in 2016, Klobuchar was re-elected by 24 points two years later. She won 42 counties Trump had won two years earlier, and for the third time she carried all of the state’s eight Congressional districts — including the one that sent arch-conservative Michelle Bachmann to the House.

Minneapolis’s Star Tribune examined her success at a more granular level. It noted that of the approximately 3,000 Minnesota voting precincts that went to Trump, Klobuchar won 1,250, or about 40 percent. By comparison, in that same 2018 election, the Democratic candidate for governor, Tim Walz, won fewer than 500 of those precincts. That leaves about 750 pro-Trump precincts that voted Republican for governor but for the Democratic Klobuchar in the same election. The Tribune relayed her success not just in urban areas typically won by a Democrat, but also in Republican-leaning suburban and rural areas as well.

As further evidence of her broad appeal, here’s an instructive chart from FiveThirtyEight. It measures all Senators’ popularity in their states, but it crucially compares that popularity to how popular a member of their party “should” be in that state.[1] Let’s take a look at the list’s top fifth, or the 20 most popular Senators compared to their state’s “partisan lean”:

Untitled
Irrelevantly for today, shaded rows reflect who has a looming 2020 re-election.

Klobuchar ranks third of 100, but notice a few more things:

  • The only two to outrank her — Joe Manchin and Doug Jones — aren’t too popular in their states. (Admirably, however, they’re Democrats just above water in heavily Republican states.)
  • Jones and Manchin are incredibly moderate Senators — respectively ranking second and third least liberal in the party across lifetime votes — hence their political survival. Klobuchar has a much more solidly Democratic record.
  • Not factoring in partisan lean, her +32 is the best of the top 20, and in fact it ranks second of all 100. Only North Dakota’s John Hoeven has a higher approval rating. He edges her with a +33, but that’s precisely how popular a North Dakotan Republican should be, giving him a neutral score of 0. Klobuchar is +32 in a state that’s basically split in its partisan lean!
  • Finally, note that though Klobuchar ranks third on the chart, not one of the other presidential candidates from the Senate is in the top 20.[2]

She knows what she’s doing, largely by cultivating the skills of talking to, and delivering results for, broader swaths of the electorate than any other major candidate has to in their dark blue states. The degree of difficulty to be popular in a purple state is a lot higher than for Democrats to be popular in blue states and Republicans popular in red ones. Klobuchar has spent years learning to master politics at this higher degree of difficulty, and she’s therefore now more prepared with the language and tools to speak to and govern a purple country. She likely gives the Democratic Party its best chance to again be competitive with center-right voters, particularly in the Midwest, without sacrificing the party’s values. That sounds like the kind of nominee the party should run in a general election.

Not insignificantly, Klobuchar, who just celebrated her 59th birthday, is D) not in her 70s. I generally think it’s unfair to hold a candidate’s advanced age as a demerit against his or her candidacy.[3] People over 70 can be just as sharp as people under 60. That being said, if the Democrats want to make a sharp contrast with our septuagenarian President, the perception that he is too old or past his prime can be best conveyed with a younger candidate, particularly with polling that suggests many voters are hesitant to send someone “too old” into the Oval Office.

Klobuchar also offers another visible contrast in that she’s E) a woman. That should be a particular asset in this election cycle. In 2016, nearly 60 percent of voters in the Democratic Primary were female. They didn’t take the general election loss well. In the 2018 midterms, women again made up about 6 in 10 Democratic voters, and most analysts believe the Democratic Party had women to thank for the party’s takeover of the House of Representatives. Women made up a majority of the 2018 midterm electorate, and they voted for Democrats by 19 points over Republicans, while men tipped 4 points in favor of the GOP.  “The Year of the Woman” showed they were a group as politically mobilized as ever, evidenced by a record number of women — mostly Democrats — getting elected to Congress. Nominating a female candidate would be a great way to again get women working and voting for a Democratic victory.

Electoral math also suggests that F) Klobuchar’s home state borders a crucially important electoral region of the country — the “Rust Belt,” which partially encircles the Great Lakes from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania. Her roots there are deep; her grandfather, a Slovenian immigrant, worked as a miner in the region’s Iron Range.

In the last election, the whole area became comprised of battleground states. The President’s narrow wins in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — each of which voted for him by less than one percent — were the difference in the election. If the political climate in each battleground had been just one percent more Democratic, Hillary Clinton would have won the election. Trump’s eked-out victories mostly stemmed from his success with the region’s white working class. It makes sense that someone from the area — particularly someone as popular as Klobuchar in a neighboring, comparable state — could make one percent of difference — and probably a lot more.


All of the above combined brings me to the most important point of all: G) I think Amy Klobuchar has the best argument to advance an agenda in the next Congress.

I earlier discussed her record of bipartisan achievement — of actually passing legislation through finding common ground. One might wonder exactly how she does it.

First, it’s worth noting that actually trying to reach across the aisle — instead of being nervous about, or dependent on, a party’s ideological base, which often reacts poorly to moderating — can go a long way toward finding consensus. It’s not as sexy as die-hard progressivism or making promises that will be difficult to deliver, but it’s effective. This New York Times piece on her campaign sums up how her approach contrasts with other top contenders:

“Instead of high school gymnasiums crowded with sweaty, cheering Democrats, there have been health care round tables and tours of ethanol plants. As other candidates roll out the policies of left-wing dreams, Ms. Klobuchar has focused her early proposals on reliably bipartisan concerns like infrastructure and privacy protections for personal data.

But as her rivals promise generational change, national unity and sweeping liberal platforms, Ms. Klobuchar’s big idea is far more prosaic: a win.”

And that doesn’t just mean “win” the general election, which, for example, is generally Vice President Biden’s message. It means win in November, then find ways to win afterward. Unlike many Democrats, she knows how to talk to people who don’t like Democrats in order to build a coalition that can get things done. Legislators are usually beholden to their voters, so if their voters like President Klobuchar — and evidence suggests they will — Congress will follow.

To see how that might look in action, let’s take one important issue for Democrats — combating climate change. Democrats should appreciate that she agrees with their urgency; she calls it a “Day One” issue. Though more ardent progressives will hold her lack of full-throated support for the Green New Deal against her, she has a different perspective. Grounded in pragmatism, she sees the initiative as “aspirational,” if currently unrealistic.

More importantly, however, is that despite this position that’s so disappointing to the left wing of her party, she’s actually in better position to pass climate change legislation than candidates to her left. It should be clear by now: no one in this 2020 field has shown a better ability in the last decade or so to build consensus and pass legislation.

How will she do it? By convincing non-Democratic voters that climate change affects them just as much as it does the liberals on the coasts. She notes that climate change…

“isn’t just rising sea levels. . . . [I’m] a voice from the heartland. We all know we have rising sea levels and melting ice sheet in Greenland, but what people don’t always talk about are those raging wildfires in Colorado, losing the firefighters in Arizona, the tornadoes, and the hail storms. . . . 

“So those stories and the levees we’ve seen breaking down, and the problems with the locks and dams, and the problems of not having good public transportation. Those are the stories that have to be told to capture the imaginations of people in the Midwest to get them behind the momentum that we need to pass sweeping climate change legislation.”

It makes sense, right?

And that’s just climate change. Though she’s certainly best qualified to connect with Midwesterners on that particular issue, any number of issues could be better tackled if “the heartland” feels more included by the Democratic Party. I have little doubt the race’s most progressive candidates can rally the coasts to their agenda, but can they rally a majority in the Senate, to say nothing of a filibuster-proof 60 votes? I just don’t see it. Certainly not in modern politics, where Republicans currently frustrated by Democratic obstructionism would be eager to apply the political equivalent of Newton’s Third Law if Democrats over-correct after President Trump.

Democrats should therefore consider voting for someone who has a proven ability to win the center and even segments of the right, someone who can build a coalition of voters, and someone who can use her Midwestern experiences to speak to a region of the country that feels forgotten by the Democratic Party. Such a nomination should even elect more down-ballot Democrats in the region as well, further helping the party win a strong Congressional majority.

But they won’t do that.


Add A through G up, and I think it’s a pretty convincing case that Amy Klobuchar is among the Democratic Party’s best nominees and almost certainly its most effective potential president. Though some readers may disagree with my analysis — and I imagine those who lean far left do disagree — I hope we can all agree on at least one thing. Considering all of the above, isn’t it a shame that someone of her caliber and experience has a national polling average of (checks again because it feels impossible) 1.3 percent?

It certainly is. And yet, for a couple of reasons, in today’s politics it’s not terribly surprising. For one, there’s the thorny “electability” question — chiefly, many Democrats seem to feel like they need to nominate a white man to compete against Trump over white male voters. We’ve seen Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders dominate Democratic polling (with disproportionate media attention given to Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg) despite it being a mostly female party, and they also compete strongest in hypothetical head-to-head polls against the President. The problem, of course, is seeing these polls as “evidence” of electability, which then causes more people to support those two candidates. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle that might not ultimately give us an accurate picture of true head-to-head potency. Klobuchar, quite obviously not a white man, actually has a more real case for crossover appeal, but the post-2016 perception that a woman would struggle against Trump dogs her campaign, as it did Warren’s for some time.

A second major reason why she’s struggling in Democratic polls is the recent pattern I lamented last year when I wrote “The Slow Death of the Partisan Moderate.” It relayed the troubling trend of Congress and voters steadily dividing into two progressively entrenched and acrimonious camps. Propelled by partisan cable news, divisive social media, and increasingly ideological primaries, it has become more politically advantageous to be deeply partisan than show any kind of moderate streak. Both parties, especially their loudest voters and angriest social media users, have never been more partisan, and so candidates for elected office find themselves following suit. Easy ideological declarations are preferred over the more difficult and valuable grind of working with members of both parties to help the nation.

A sad effect of the above is a steep rise in “negative partisanship” — supporting a party in part because it is the best chance to block the other one. Among the terrible effects of this approach is not only partisan gridlock in Washington, but how we’re being taught to view fellow Americans of the opposing party — that they’re some combination of greedy, ignorant, or unpatriotic.

Klobuchar rarely uses that kind of language to describe Republicans. She also votes with Republicans more than the purer progressive candidates in this race. (Her record suggests she’s “just” the 29th most progressive Senator.) Indeed, the fact that Republicans compliment her might work against Klobuchar in the Democratic Primary.[4] The base of the party will hold these characteristics against her.

But I will not. Does anyone think politics are working better and better the more partisan we get? Is someone really willing to make that case? If not, I also don’t see the case for electing a deeply partisan president, one who will have risen to power by insulting the other side and promising that a narcissistic vision of We Are Right and They Are Wrong will help deliver real results. I don’t see how that thinking will help fix our politics. Frankly, it feels like a part of the problem right now.

So I hope 98.7% of Democrats will reconsider a candidate like Amy Klobuchar before it’s too late.


FOOTNOTES:

[1]For example, Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen has a seemingly impressive net approval rating of +25, but Maryland is so Democratic that a Maryland Senator should be at +23, so he’s actually just +2 more popular than he should be, suggesting an average Senatorial tenure. Similarly, John Cornyn of Texas is at +17 approval, but that’s exactly where a Texas Republican should be (giving him a neutral score of 0). Struggling are Senators like Kevin Cramer in North Dakota, who is +8 in popularity when a North Dakotan Republican should be +33 (making him -25 on the chart), and Bob Menendez in New Jersey, who should be 13 points above water but is 10 points under it (making him -23).

[2]The next highest ranked candidate is Bernie Sanders in 30th place. He has a +31 approval rating in Vermont, but a Vermont Democrat “should” be at +24, so he’s only +7 on the chart. Cory Booker’s ranked 50th — right in the middle with a +13 approval in the +13 Democratic state of New Jersey for a score of 0. Massachusetts’s Elizabeth Warren is eighth from the bottom with just a +9 in a +29 state for Dems for a score of -20. California’s Kamala Harris is also bottom quartile: +13 in a +24 state for Democrats, giving her a -11.

[3]Incidentally, Biden and Sanders are partially inoculated by ageist attacks thanks to the presence of the other in the race. Could you imagine how readily Sanders supporters would make age an issue if their preferred candidate were 25 years younger?

[4]“I hope I’m not condemning her nascent run for the presidency,” half-joked Texas Senator John Cornyn in his praise of her. “She’s too reasonable, too likable, too nice.” And Missouri Senator Roy Blunt: “She wants to achieve a solution and I would hope that’s not a disqualifying thing for someone who would like to be president. . . . I like her a lot and hope that’s not harmful to her.”

12 thoughts on “We Need to Talk About Amy Klobuchar

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