A Midsummer Overview Of The Democratic Field

When people ask me who I think is going to win the Democratic nomination, I shrug my shoulders and say, “I have no freaking idea.” It’s worth keeping in mind that in a field of 20-something candidates with no runaway frontrunner, all of the candidates are fairly heavy underdogs. Joe Biden is probably going to lose. Kamala Harris is probably going to lose. Elizabeth Warren is probably going to lose. Bernie Sanders is probably going to lose. And so forth.

But the first debate last month, the subsequent polling and the latest set of fundraising numbers provide some clarity about where the race stands, sorting the candidates into what I’d consider to be four relatively distinct tiers. So after taking a couple of weeks mostly off to work on NBA metrics and vacation in Las Vegas playing poker,1 here’s how I currently see the race:

Nate’s not-to-be-taken-too-seriously presidential tiers

For the Democratic nomination, as revised on July 10, 2019

Tier Sub-tier Candidates
1 a Biden, Harris
b Warren
2 a Sanders
b Buttigieg
3 a Booker
b Klobuchar, Castro, O’Rourke
4 a Inslee, Gillibrand
b Gabbard, Yang
c Everyone else

We’ve used these tiers before, and as the headline says, they’re not to be taken too seriously. They’re mostly based on the polling — not just national polls, but also early state polls, favorability ratings, polling adjusted for name recognition, etc. — with some further adjustments upward or downward based on other factors, the most important of which I consider to be support from party elites and the ability to build a broad coalition. But they’re not based on any sort of statistical model, and they involve an element of subjectivity.

Let’s go ahead and start from the top, with the three candidates I’d consider to be front-runners.

Tier 1: The front-runners: Biden, Harris and Warren

Biden, Harris and Warren represent three relatively distinct, but fairly traditional, archetypes for party nominees:

  • Biden, as a former vice president, is a “next-in-line” candidate who is rather explicitly promising to perpetuate the legacy of President Obama and uphold the party’s current agenda. It might not be exciting, but these candidates have pretty good track records.
  • Harris is a coalition-builder who would hope to unite the different factions of the party — black, white, left, liberal, moderate, etc. — as a consensus choice.
  • Warren is offering more red meat (or should it be blue meat?) and would represent more of a leftward transformation from the status quo. But she’s simpatico enough with party elites and has broad enough appeal that she isn’t necessarily a factional candidate in the way that Sanders is. Instead, a better analogy for Warren might be Ronald Reagan; they are not comparable in terms of their backgrounds or their political styles, but they are both candidates who straddle the boundary between the ideological wings of their party and the party establishment.

On an empirical basis, the Biden and Harris strategies have produced more winners than the Warren one, although all three approaches are viable. That doesn’t mean that Biden, Harris and Warren are the only candidates pursuing these strategies. Cory Booker’s coalition could look a lot like Harris’s, for instance, were he ever to gain traction. But they’re the only candidates who are both (a) taking approaches that have worked well in the past and (b) polling reasonably well at the moment. That puts them in the top tier.

How you would rank them within the top tier is harder. But we should probably start with the fact that Biden is still ahead of the other two in the polls. It’s closer in early state polls, and it’s closer once you account for the fact that Harris and Warren still aren’t as well-known as Biden is. But Biden’s lead is nontrivial — he’s ahead of Harris by 12 percentage points (and Warren by 13) in the RealClearPolitics average.

And while you might claim that Harris and Warren have momentum, you need to be careful with that. Often, polling bounces from debates and other events fade, so it’s at least possible that Harris and Warren are at their high-water marks. Or not. But Biden is (POKER ANALOGY ALERT!) a bit like a poker player who’s just lost a big pot. Before, he had way more chips than Warren and Harris did; now, he has only slightly more than they do. But you’d still rather be the candidate with more chips than fewer, momentum be damned.

Unless … the way you lost that hand reveals something about your game that could come back to bite you again in the future. Biden wasn’t very effective in the debates, according to the voters we surveyed along with Morning Consult. And some of his decline in the polls has to do with what could be Biden’s two biggest vulnerabilities: his electability halo bursting and voters expressing concern about his age. The age problem isn’t going away. And while Biden can still make an electability case — there are plenty of polls showing him doing better than other Democrats against President Trump — voters are at least likely to scrutinize his argument rather than take it for granted.

Biden and Harris are a fairly clear No. 1 and 2 in endorsements, meanwhile, with Harris having recently picked up a number of endorsements from members of the Congressional Black Caucus, an indicator that coincides with her gaining support among black voters in polls. Warren lags in endorsements, meanwhile. Also, it’s worth noting that whichever candidate wins the plurality of black voters usually wins the Democratic nomination — something that Biden and Harris probably have a better chance of doing than Warren does. For those reasons, I have Biden and Harris a half-step ahead of Warren. That said, I see the dropoff from Biden and Harris to Warren as being considerably smaller than the dropoff from Warren to the rest of the field.

Tier 2: They can win Iowa, but can they win the nomination?

For Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, the data is a lot more mixed.

Let’s start with the good news for Sanders: He’s still roughly tied for second place in most polls. His favorability ratings are pretty good. He had a decent second-quarter fundraising number. He should have a pretty good on-the-ground organization in Iowa and other early states. He potentially has a fairly high floor relative to the other candidates, and voters know what he stands for.

The bad news: His polling is less impressive given his high name recognition; in fact, he’s in a zone (15 percent-ish in the polls with 100 percent name recognition) that’s usually associated with losing candidates. He’s polling worse in Iowa than he is nationally, a bearish indicator given that it should be a strong state for him demographically. He’s failing to win the support of influential progressive groups like MoveOn.org that backed him four years ago, or to receive many endorsements of other kinds. His fundraising totals are underwhelming as compared with the numbers from his best quarters in 2015 and 2016. Warren’s emergence has produced another strong candidate in his lane. And to the extent that age is a consideration for voters, it’s a problem for Sanders as much as it is for Biden.

That’s a pretty long list of negatives to weigh against decent-but-not-great topline polling numbers. And it leaves out what might be the biggest problem of all for Sanders, which is that even if he were to win Iowa — and New Hampshire — that might not slingshot him to the nomination in the way it would for the other candidates. That’s because Sanders doesn’t have a particularly broad coalition. He has some support among black voters but not a ton, he doesn’t perform well with older voters, and he’s alienated enough moderate and pro-establishment Democrats that he’s usually near the top of the list when pollsters ask voters who they don’t want to see win the nomination. Meanwhile, the party establishment probably won’t do him any favors in the event of a campaign that remains undecided late into the race.

I don’t want to go overboard. If you’re comparing Sanders against, say, Booker, all of Sanders’s liabilities aren’t enough to outweigh the fact that Sanders is at 15 percent in the polls and Booker is at just 2 percent. But they do explain why I don’t have Sanders in the same tier as Warren and Harris, who are in a superficially similar position as Sanders is in national polls. None of those candidates are in a position to win the race right now with 15 percent of the vote, but Sanders has the least obvious path toward expanding his coalition.

Buttigieg offers a different mix of positives and negatives. Pluses: the best second-quarter fundraising numbers of any Democrat; high favorability ratings among voters who know him; stronger polling in New Hampshire and Iowa than he has nationally. Minuses: his topline standing in the polls has reverted back to only about 5 percent of the vote as college-educated voters flock to Warren and Harris; his credentials aren’t as impressive as the other leading candidates; his media attention has atrophied from his initial bump to some degree.

And then there’s Buttigieg’s big challenge, which is similar in some respects to Sanders’s: It’s not clear if Buttigieg can build a broad-enough coalition to win the nomination. He has very little support among black or Hispanic voters and relatively little support among non-college Democrats. Is there a niche for college-educated white voters who think Warren and Sanders are too far to the left, but Biden is too old and/or too moderate? Sure, and it’s a niche that probably includes a lot of FiveThirtyEight readers. 😬 But it’s not a particularly large niche, and that helps explain why Buttigieg is at 5 percent in the polls instead of 20 or something.

With all that said, a Buttigieg win in Iowa would be expectations-defying enough that it could reset how the media covers him. It could also sway voters who like him, but don’t necessarily have him as their first choice, to overcome their doubts about his campaign.

Tier 3: There’s potential, but these candidates are underachieving — for now

One of the lesser-noticed aspects of polling after the first debates is how several candidates who were deemed to have performed well in the debates by voters didn’t really see their topline numbers improve. That especially holds for Booker and Julian Castro. Both got high marks for their debate performances, and both saw their favorability ratings improve, but they’re still polling at just 1 or 2 percent in the toplines. That ought to read as a bearish signal for Booker, Castro and other candidates in this tier. They can have a good night, and it still isn’t necessarily enough to move the vote choice needle for them.

Perhaps that’s a sign that the top four or five candidates are fairly strong. Biden, Harris, Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg collectively give almost every voter in the Democratic Party something to be happy with. Some of the other candidates are more redundant, meanwhile. A potential Beto O’Rourke voter probably sees a lot of what he likes in O’Rourke in Buttigieg, for instance; or a Booker voter could gravitate toward Harris, instead. So it’s not clear what’s distinctive about what these candidates have to offer to voters, although I should note that Castro is the only Hispanic candidate in the field.

With that said, it’s early, and an alternative way to interpret Harris’s and Warren’s emergence is that serious candidates with good résumés will get their opportunities sooner or later. And Booker, Castro and Amy Klobuchar are all serious, well-credentialed candidates.

O’Rourke is in a slightly different category. He’s a little bit like (BASEBALL ANALOGY ALERT!) a baseball player who gets called up from the minors and surprises everyone by hitting .330 in 100 at-bats in September, only to hit .206 when he’s named the starting third baseman the next season before promptly getting sent back to the minors. What O’Rourke accomplished against Ted Cruz in Texas’s U.S. Senate race in 2018 was genuinely impressive — but he may not get another chance to prove that he wasn’t a flash in the pan.

Tier 4: These candidates are also running for some reason

Pretty much everyone else is in asterisk territory in the polls, and is raising relatively little money, and so is in danger of missing the third debate in September. To the extent I have any of these candidates ranked ahead of any of the others, it’s pretty much entirely subjective. But I think Kirsten Gillibrand and Jay Inslee are well-enough credentialed and have distinctive-enough messages — Gillibrand around women’s issues, Inslee around the environment — that they’re slightly more likely to surge than the others.

Beyond that … I’m deliberately avoiding listing overall percentage chances (i.e. “Biden has an X percent chance of winning the nomination”) until and unless we release a statistical model to forecast the primaries. But just to be clear, once we get down to Tier 4, we’re not talking about candidates with even a 10 or 20 percent chance of winning the nomination. Maybe it’s 1 or 2 percent. Maybe it’s 0.1 or 0.2 percent. Maybe it’s even less than that. I haven’t really thought about it much. The chances are not high, though.

How to differentiate such small probabilities from one another is tricky. But other things being equal, if you’re betting on extreme longshots, you’d probably prefer weird candidates who have higher variance to milquetoast candidates with lower variance. Maybe 98 out of 100 times, Andrew Yang or Tulsi Gabbard fade out after failing to qualify for one of the debates and are never heard from again. But the two times out of 100, it turns out that American politics are way different than we thought — it wouldn’t be the first time! — and their eccentric approach proves to be effective. It’s a weird world where Gabbard becomes the Democratic nominee. But I’m not sure there’s any world where, say, Seth Moulton does.

Iowans Won’t Vote For You Just Because You’re Their Neighbor

Want a secret weapon for succeeding in the New Hampshire primary? Be a politician from a neighboring state. Want a secret weapon for succeeding in the Iowa caucuses? I’m afraid it’s back to the drawing board; hailing from a nearby state doesn’t look like much of a help.

Historically, candidates from neighboring states have had a checkered record in the Iowa caucuses, in contrast with the clear home-field advantage that exists for candidates from next door to the Granite State. In total, I identified 17 “major”1 candidates from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota or Iowa itself who have run in the caucuses since the modern primary era began in 1972, but only six of them won at least 20 percent of the vote and finished in either first or second. The 11 other candidates flopped, receiving 11.2 percent of the vote or less. One candidate even finished in eighth. (For comparison, in New Hampshire, politicians from neighboring states have always finished in the top two.)

Iowa doesn’t care where you’re from

“Major” presidential candidates from Iowa or neighboring states who have run in the Iowa caucuses, since 1972

IA Caucus Result
Year Party Candidate Home State Vote Share Finish*
1972 D George McGovern South Dakota 22.6% 2nd
1972 D Hubert Humphrey Minnesota 1.6 3rd
1972 D Eugene McCarthy Minnesota 1.4 4th
1980 R Phil Crane Illinois 6.7 5th
1980 R John Anderson Illinois 4.3 6th
1984 D Walter Mondale Minnesota 48.9 1st
1984 D George McGovern South Dakota 10.3 3rd
1984 D Jesse Jackson Illinois 1.5 7th
1988 D Richard Gephardt Missouri 31.3 1st
1988 D Paul Simon Illinois 26.7 2nd
1988 D Jesse Jackson Illinois 8.8 4th
1992 D Tom Harkin Iowa 76.4 1st
1992 D Bob Kerrey Nebraska 2.4 4th
1996 R Maurice Taylor Illinois 1.4 8th
2004 D Richard Gephardt Missouri 11.2 4th
2008 D Barack Obama Illinois 37.6 1st
2012 R Michele Bachmann Minnesota 5.0 6th

“Major” candidates were those included in national polls

* Among named candidates — i.e., not counting “uncommitted.”

Sources: State of Iowa, Des Moines Register, CQ Press, New Hampshire secretary of state

Why doesn’t it help to be from next door in Iowa when it is such a clear advantage in New Hampshire? I have several theories, but first things first — it is probably in part because candidates from around Iowa are just weaker candidates overall than candidates from around New Hampshire.

For instance, I found that the national polling average of Iowa-native and Iowa-adjacent candidates in the 30 days leading up to the caucuses was 11 points, on average, but for New Hampshire-adjacent candidates, it was nearly double that at 21 points.

But that’s not all that’s going on here. New Hampshire-adjacent candidates also did much better (19 points better, in fact) in the New Hampshire primary than their national polling average in the 30 days leading up to the primary. In Iowa, local candidates overperformed, but not by nearly as much. On average, these candidates did just 6 points better in the caucuses than they did in an average of national polls conducted in the 30 days before the caucuses — and that includes one candidate, then-Sen. Tom Harkin in 1992, who improved upon his national polling average by 70 (!) points in Iowa. (Harkin is the only major presidential candidate in the modern era actually from Iowa, so it’s not necessarily that surprising that he basically scared the other Democratic candidates away from competing there.) If we remove Harkin from the equation, Iowa-adjacent candidates’ advantage falls to 3 points, on average. That’s barely any better than the 1 percentage point by which candidates not from the area overperformed their national polls in Iowa, on average.

The reason home-field advantage is weaker in Iowa than in New Hampshire may be that many of the factors that make local candidates strong in New Hampshire do not carry forward to Iowa.

  • Distances, for instance, are longer in the Midwest than in New England, so it is not as easy for candidates from neighboring states to just pop in to Iowa for a quick visit.
  • Additionally, whereas a majority of New Hampshirites were born out of state, 70 percent of Iowans were born in Iowa, according to 2017 estimates from the American Community Survey. Only 4 percent were born in Illinois, 3 percent in Nebraska, 2 percent in Minnesota and 1 percent in each of Missouri, South Dakota and Wisconsin. In addition, only 5 percent of Iowa workers aged 16 or higher cross state lines to go to work.
  • Most Iowans — 66 percent — live in a broadcast media market (either Des Moines-Ames or Cedar Rapids-Waterloo-Iowa City-Dubuque) that is wholly contained within the state, meaning there is no real reason for its news coverage or political advertising to feature politicians from neighboring states. Only 15 percent live in a media market shared with Nebraska, 12 percent live in a media market shared with Illinois and even fewer live in media markets shared with other nearby states. (For comparison, 84 percent of New Hampshirites live in the Boston media market.)

This is admittedly subjective, but I would also say that New England has a more uniform identity than the Midwest does. State borders seem to matter more in the Midwest (for example, most of New England roots for the same sports teams, but that is not true of the Midwest), and the Midwest is more heterogeneous. Perhaps this is why some candidates from neighboring states outperformed their national polls in Iowa, and others did not.

As for this year, the question of whether home-field advantage exists in Iowa might not matter much. That’s because there aren’t any candidates from Iowa currently running for president.2 There is one major presidential candidate from a state that borders Iowa: Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. And she does appear to be putting a lot of her eggs in Iowa’s basket. But unfortunately for her, merely being from next door does not appear to give a candidate much of a boost in the Iowa caucuses. In fact, Klobuchar’s fellow Minnesotans (Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale and Michele Bachmann) have all done worse than their national polling average there.

Geoffrey Skelley contributed research.

How The 2020 Candidates Do With The Voters Who Know Them Best

In politics, the people who really know you are your friends and neighbors. At this stage in the election cycle, many Democratic presidential candidates have low name recognition nationally, which means that their popularity at home might be one way to help us understand whether they can appeal to a larger, national audience. Or if they should consider not running.

To figure out how politicians’ constituents feel about them, we looked at two measures. The first is how popular they were among Democratic voters in their home states, which might be an indicator of their ability to attract support in their party’s presidential primary. The second is how popular they were among all voters in their states compared with the states’ partisan tendencies, which might give us a sense of how effectively the candidates can appeal to the broader general electorate.

When it comes to appealing to both the party and the broader public, Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar get strong marks in their home states. While this doesn’t necessarily mean either will be the Democratic nominee in 2020 — Vermont and Minnesota are not the same as the U.S., of course — it does offer evidence of their potential, particularly for the relatively unknown Klobuchar. Let’s start with approval ratings among Democrats in the table below, where these two senators lead the way.

How Democrats rate candidates from their state

Presidential candidates’ approval ratings among registered voters who identify as Democrats in the candidates’ home states in the final three months of 2018

Among Democrats
Candidate Home State Approval Disapproval Net Approval
Bernie Sanders VT 91.5% 6.2% +85.3
Amy Klobuchar MN 85.9 4.6 +81.3
Elizabeth Warren MA 79.8 10.6 +69.2
Cory Booker NJ 71.1 10.8 +60.3
Jay Inslee WA 71.6 12.5 +59.1
Kamala Harris CA 68.0 10.2 +57.8
John Hickenlooper CO 69.7 14.0 +55.7
Kirsten Gillibrand NY 66.0 11.6 +54.4

Among candidates who have declared they are running and who are included in Morning Consult’s approval polls of senators and governors.

Source: Morning Consult

In the table above, 2020 hopefuls are ranked by their net job approval rating (approval rating minus disapproval rating) among Democrats in their state. The data was collected by Morning Consult in the last quarter of 2018; every quarter, the pollster reaches out to hundreds of thousands of people to create its rankings of “America’s most and least popular” senators and governors. Of course, not all the declared Democratic presidential candidates were either a senator or a governor in the closing months of last year, which means that a few hopefuls have been left out, including former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.

Sanders and Klobuchar scored these high marks among Democrats in their home states while also being the best-known — based on the share of people who were able to form an opinion of them (approval rating plus disapproval rating). Notably, despite being so well-known, both Sanders and Klobuchar had disapproval ratings below 10 percent among Democrats, unlike the other six contenders. Sanders is already well-known nationally from his 2016 presidential bid, but that he remains beloved by Vermont Democrats — even as he has technically served as an independent — suggests that he hasn’t lost ground despite continuing to turn his gaze toward national politics. As for Klobuchar, she doesn’t have Sanders’s national profile, and only 2 percent or 3 percent of Democratic voters named her as their pick in the latest polls of the primaries. Yet, her net approval rating among Minnesota Democrats of +81.3 percentage points is nearly as high as Sanders’s (she easily won all three of her Senate races even though Minnesota is not nearly as blue as Vermont). So we shouldn’t underestimate her ability to make inroads among Democrats around the country once she becomes better-known.

The remaining candidates — except for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whom we’ll talk about in a minute — had net approval ratings between +54 and +60 points. That suggests that they’re relatively popular among their party bases but not as overwhelmingly popular as Sanders and Klobuchar. Part of that may be because most of them simply aren’t as well-known among their own constituents. Each of these candidates will be working to raise their profiles nationally in the coming months, but support at home could benefit at least one of them in a relatively early primary contest: California has more delegates available than any other state, and Sen. Kamala Harris is very popular there, and already leading in at least one poll.

While home-state popularity within the party may indicate strength in the primaries, winning the general election requires broader appeal. So we also looked at candidates’ approval ratings among all voters and how those numbers compare to the partisan lean of their states.1 This shows us how much more or less popular a candidate is than we might expect based on the political makeup of their state.

Along with former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Klobuchar and Sanders again led the way, as you can see in the table below. Because Minnesota is a purple state, its electorate includes a higher percentage of Republicans and independents than heavily Democratic Vermont’s does, so Klobuchar has more non-Democrats available to win over than someone like Sanders, which may make it easier for her to top this particular ranking. But the fact that her overall net approval rating far exceeds Minnesota’s slight Democratic lean shows that she is successfully appealing to voters outside her base. The same could be said of Hickenlooper. Democratic candidates who are able to appeal to independents and Republicans in purple states might be better able to win over the same types of voters around the country, having had to win some of those voters to get elected in the first place.

Who’s getting more home-state support than their party?

Presidential candidates’ net approval rating among registered voters in their home state in the last quarter of 2018 vs. the partisan lean of that state

candidate Home
Candidate state Partisan lean Net Approval at home home net approval vs. lean
Amy Klobuchar Minnesota D+2.1 +31.6 +29.5
John Hickenlooper Colorado D+1.5 +18.5 +17.0
Bernie Sanders Vermont D+24.1 +35.9 +11.8
Cory Booker New Jersey D+13.3 +14.3 +1.0
Jay Inslee Washington D+11.6 +11.7 +0.1
Kirsten Gillibrand New York D+22.0 +18.8 -3.2
Kamala Harris California D+23.7 +14.0 -9.7
Elizabeth Warren Massachusetts D+29.4 +15.4 -14.0

FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric is the average difference between how a state votes and how the country votes overall, where 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.
Among candidates who have declared they are running and who are included in Morning Consult’s approval polls of senators and governors.

Source: Morning Consult

Hickenlooper’s situation is particularly interesting because even though he ranked lower in net approval rating among home-state Democratic voters, his net approval rating among Colorado voters overall was strong, especially relative to the partisan lean of Colorado, which is a highly competitive state. Of the eight Democratic presidential candidates we’re looking at, Hickenlooper had the best net rating (-17.1 points) among Republicans in his home state. This might not bolster Hickenlooper’s appeal to the left wing of the Democratic Party nationally, but he could perhaps use those numbers to argue that he has the potential to broadly appeal to a general electorate and even chip away at the small share of Republicans who may be willing to oppose President Trump.

Warren stands out here. Although the senator had a strong net approval rating among Democrats in her home state in the first table above, her net approval rating among Massachusetts voters overall is weak relative to how Democratic her state leans. (She also underperformed her state’s partisan lean in her re-election victory last year.) That’s because her net approval ratings among home-state independents (-0.3 points) and Republicans (-61.4 points) were the worst among the eight candidates we’re examining here. That could be a sign that Warren will encounter problems when trying to appeal to the broader electorate. Maybe it’s not surprising then that in a recent Gallup poll of U.S. adults, Warren had the highest unfavorable rating of the seven Democratic presidential candidates whom respondents were asked about.

Although home-state approval ratings may not end up proving predictive of how the 2020 Democratic primary and general elections turn out, they may offer us some insight into the national candidacies of people who aren’t well-known across the country — like Klobuchar — or provide clues about the potential strengths or weaknesses of candidates who are more recognizable — like Warren. If the folks who know you best really like you or don’t like you as much as we’d expect, that might be a clue for how voters nationally will receive you.


From ABC News:
Sen. Amy Klobuchar launches 2020 presidential campaign


Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections.

How Amy Klobuchar Could Win The 2020 Democratic Nomination

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar announced her candidacy for president at a rally in Minneapolis on Sunday, becoming the fifth Democratic senator1 to launch a campaign. In contrast to some of the big names — Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren — who had been expected to run for president for years, Klobuchar is a little bit more of a homespun, independent-label candidate.

But being on an indie label has its upsides and downsides. On the one hand, there’s perceived authenticity and the ability to build momentum from modest expectations. On the other hand, there’s the question of whether your product can get into the hands of consumers without having major-label marketing muscle behind it — and, if so, whether it can expand beyond a niche audience.

So this article is meant to provide a relatively comprehensive assessment of Klobuchar’s strengths and weaknesses — rather than being either a “devil’s advocate” argument or a best-case scenario. It’s informed by conversations with Klobuchar’s campaign as well as with unaffiliated Democrats, but the opinions and analysis are my own. As you’ll see, I think Klobuchar’s upsides outweigh her downsides, but there’s plenty of material in both columns.

Four potential advantages

1. Electability. Democrats really, really want to beat President Trump. A recent Monmouth University poll found that 56 percent of Democrats “prefer someone who would be a strong candidate against Trump even if they disagree with that candidate on most issues,” compared with just 33 percent who held the opposite view.

What it means to be “electable” is somewhat in the eye of the beholder — the term sometimes seems to be a euphemism for a good-looking white guy who isn’t too liberal (hello, Beto).

But Klobuchar can make some good, data-driven arguments for her electability. One of them is simply the overall electoral importance of the Midwest — particularly the Upper Midwestern states of Minnesota (which Trump came within 1.5 percentage points of winning), Wisconsin and Michigan (which Trump won). Winning those three states plus Pennsylvania (or Ohio, or Florida, or North Carolina) would have given Hillary Clinton the presidency. And if the midterm elections were any guide, they still probably represent the path of least resistance for Democrats to retake the White House.

There’s also Klobuchar’s strong performances in Minnesota to consider. She was first elected in 2006 by a 20-point margin and then re-elected in 2012 by 35 points and in 2018 by 24 points. In each case, she performed well statewide and not just in the Twin Cities, winning 79 of 87 counties in 2006 and 85 of 87 in 2012. That declined to 51 of 87 counties in 2018, but given the massive swing toward Trump and Republicans in rural counties elsewhere in the Midwest, Klobuchar still did better than many Democrats.

Class I Democratic senators such as Klobuchar have been blessed not to face election or re-election in a “red wave” cycle — 2006, 2012 and 2018 have all been blue years. Nonetheless, Klobuchar has performed strongly relative to other Democrats in the same elections. Below, for example, is the output from a regression analysis that calculates an expected result in each 2018 Senate race based on every state’s partisan lean (how much more Republican or Democratic it is than the country as a whole2) and whether either party had an elected incumbent running. According to this analysis, you’d have expected Klobuchar — a Democratic incumbent in a blue year, but in a purple state — to win re-election by 14 percentage points. Instead, she was re-elected by 24 points, beating the model’s expectations by 10 points:

Klobuchar was one of the strongest Democrats in 2018

Margins of victory or defeat for Democratic Senate candidates vs. their forecasted margins based on incumbency and the state’s partisan lean

Margin of Victory or Defeat
State Dem. Candidate Actual Expected Actual less expected
West Virginia Manchin D+3.3 R+10.5 D+13.8
Vermont* Sanders D+44.4 D+31.1 D+13.3
Minnesota Klobuchar D+24.1 D+14.3 D+9.8
Texas O’Rourke R+2.6 R+12.2 D+9.6
New Mexico Heinrich D+23.6 D+18.2 D+5.4
Nevada Rosen D+5.0 R+0.3 D+5.3
Maryland Cardin D+34.5 D+29.9 D+4.7
New York Gillibrand D+34.0 D+29.4 D+4.5
Montana Tester D+3.6 R+0.8 D+4.3
Tennessee Bredesen R+10.8 R+14.7 D+3.9
Virginia Kaine D+16.0 D+12.8 D+3.2
Arizona Sinema D+2.3 R+0.4 D+2.7
Maine* King D+19.1 D+16.5 D+2.6
Minnesota special* Smith D+10.6 D+8.3 D+2.3
Hawaii Hirono D+42.3 D+40.1 D+2.2
North Dakota Heitkamp R+10.8 R+12.5 D+1.7
Pennsylvania Casey D+13.1 D+11.8 D+1.4
California* Feinstein/others D+30.2 D+29.0 D+1.3
Ohio Brown D+6.8 D+7.1 R+0.3
Connecticut Murphy D+20.2 D+20.9 R+0.7
Wisconsin Baldwin D+10.8 D+11.6 R+0.8
Delaware Carper D+22.1 D+23.0 R+0.9
Nebraska Raybould R+19.1 R+17.6 R+1.5
Wyoming Trauner R+36.9 R+35.3 R+1.5
Mississippi special* Espy R+7.3 R+5.0 R+2.3
Missouri McCaskill R+5.8 R+1.7 R+4.1
Washington Cantwell D+16.9 D+21.6 R+4.7
Indiana Donnelly R+5.9 R+0.9 R+5.0
Michigan Stabenow D+6.5 D+13.7 R+7.2
Mississippi Baria R+19.0 R+11.0 R+8.0
Florida Nelson R+0.1 D+8.6 R+8.7
Rhode Island Whitehouse D+23.1 D+32.3 R+9.2
Massachusetts Warren D+24.2 D+35.1 R+10.9
New Jersey Menendez D+11.2 D+22.8 R+11.7
Utah Wilson R+31.7 R+17.1 R+14.6

Potential presidential candidates are in bold

* In Vermont and Maine, the independent is treated as the Democrat. In California, the aggregate results for all Democratic candidates in the June 5, 2018, primary is used, since two Democrats advanced to the general election. However, in the Mississippi special election, the result of the Nov. 27 runoff is used since that race featured a Democrat against a Republican. Races with appointed incumbents — namely, the Minnesota and Mississippi special elections — are treated as open seats rather than as equivalent to races with elected incumbents.

Source: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

That rates as the third-strongest performance for a Democratic candidate for Senate last year, slightly behind West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders3 and just ahead of Texas’s Beto O’Rourke. Among other actual or potential Democratic candidates who ran Senate races in 2018, New York’s Kirsten GIllibrand also performs relatively well by this metric, whereas Ohio’s Sherrod Brown gets an average rating, and Massachusetts’s Warren a poor one.

That’s not to say you should expect Klobuchar to tout her own electability on the campaign trail, which can seem uncouth. (The first rule of electability is: Don’t talk about electability.) But it’s an argument we’re liable to hear a lot from her surrogates.

2. Potential strength in Iowa, and in the debates. As compared to candidates such as Harris and O’Rourke, who might hope to blitz their way to victory on the basis of strong fundraising and early delegate accumulation in California and Texas, Klobuchar is probably playing a long game. But doing so requires hitting two important mile markers. First, success in the debates. And then a strong performance in the Iowa caucuses.

Klobuchar’s team believes she should have two advantages in the debates. First, like Harris, Klobuchar is a former prosecutor — having been county attorney in Minneapolis’s Hennepin County — a skill that should translate well into the sharp-elbowed stage of the debates. And second, she can be candid and funny, potentially allowing her to surpass expectations among voters who expect Midwestern blandness or “Minnesota nice.” It’s a credible-enough case, but Klobuchar, who starts out with name recognition well below 50 percent, will need some big moments in the debates.

Her potential to succeed in Iowa is more obvious. She will probably be the only major candidate in the race from a state that borders Iowa and one of relatively few Midwesterners in the field. And in her statewide races in Minnesota, she relied heavily on a retail approach to politics, something that should translate well to Iowa. Looking at past results from the Iowa caucuses makes it pretty clear that there’s a regional advantage in this contest, although other politicians who are not from the region but have strong retail skills (a description that might fit Booker and O’Rourke, for example) can also perform well there.

Beyond Iowa, Klobuchar’s path is less clear. In New Hampshire’s open primary, voters typically favor liberal New Englanders such as Sanders and Warren.4 And the electorates get much less white after Iowa and New Hampshire, whereas Klobuchar’s strengths with nonwhite voters are less than obvious. So she’d be hoping for a polling bounce out of Iowa, something that used to occur regularly but has been more fleeting in recent years.

3. The beer track … without the baggage? Klobuchar’s campaign is likely to emphasize her working-class Midwestern roots, her staff said; you’ll hear stuff about how her grandfather worked as an iron-ore miner, for instance. It will also pitch her to voters on candor, honesty, pragmatism, an ability to “get stuff done,” work ethic and so forth. It’s going to lean pretty heavily into her Midwesternness, in other words.

The idea is to draw a contrast — probably softly at first, and maybe more explicitly if the campaign grows more combative — between Klobuchar and more left-wing candidates from the coasts, particularly Harris, Warren, Sanders and perhaps Booker. In some ways, this will recall the old distinction between “beer-track” (“flyover-state” moderates) and “wine-track” (coastal liberals) Democrats. However, Klobuchar isn’t likely to have the beer track to herself; Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown could be playing in the same lane, and, more significantly, so could former Vice President Joe Biden. There’s also what you might call a “craft-beer track,” consistenting of candidates who are from the middle of the country but whose appeal might be stronger among college-educated voters, such as O’Rourke and (craft brewery founder!) John Hickenlooper, a former governor of Colorado.

Does that mean Klobuchar is liable to run explicitly as a moderate — campaigning, for instance, against policies such as “Medicare-for-all”? Her campaign wouldn’t quite say as much, instead describing her as a pragmatist and a realist — but that’s a fussy distinction at best.

But there is an interesting twist to Klobuchar’s triangulation: Although she has a relatively moderate voting record, it’s fairly liberal relative to Minnesota, which (despite its reputation as a bastion of liberalism) is a purple state. Of the 13 Democrats who are either already running for president or are clearly telegraphing a run and who served in Congress during President Trump’s tenure, Klobuchar has the 12th-highest Trump score, meaning she’s voted with Trump comparatively often (31.5 percent of the time, trailing only former Maryland Rep. John Delaney among the presidential contenders). But she has the 10th-lowest Trump plus-minus rating, meaning that she’s voted with Trump much less often than you’d expect from someone from a purple state or district. Only Oregon’s Jeff Merkley, and Brown and Rep. Tim Ryan from increasingly red Ohio have a lower Trump plus-minus among the potential presidential candidates. By contrast, O’Rourke, although he voted with Trump slightly less often than Klobuchar, has the highest Trump plus-minus in the field because he represents an extremely blue district in El Paso.

All of that is to say: Klobuchar may well try to finesse the distinction between being a moderate and a realist, however meaningful that distinction might or might not be to Democratic voters. And she’s likely to express support for at least some decidedly liberal goals, having signaled support for the Green New Deal, for instance.5

Klobuchar looks moderate in the Democratic primary field

Trump score, predicted Trump score and Trump plus-minus for likely and declared Democratic candidates for president who have served in Congress under Trump. Klobuchar’s voting record is moderate relative to other Demoratic candidates for president but liberal relative to a purple state.

Trump score
Member Actual Predicted Trump Plus-Minus
Sherrod Brown 29.5% 67.7% -38.2
Tim Ryan 20.6 49.6 -29.0
Jeff Merkley 13.5 34.9 -21.4
Amy Klobuchar 31.5 50.0 -18.5
Cory Booker 15.7 31.4 -15.7
Michael Bennet 29.2 43.9 -14.7
Kirsten Gillibrand 12.4 25.1 -12.8
Elizabeth Warren 13.5 22.8 -9.3
Bernie Sanders 14.8 23.4 -8.6
John Delaney 34.4 38.5 -4.1
Kamala Harris 18.0 21.7 -3.7
Tulsi Gabbard 22.8 20.5 +2.3
Beto O’Rourke 30.1 18.8 +11.3

Trump score indicates the share of votes for which the member voted in line with Trump’s position. The predicted score is what we expect that member’s score would be based on Trump’s 2016 margin in that member’s state or district. The Trump plus-minus is the difference between the actual and expected scores.

Klobuchar also has some other arguments to make against the rest of the beer-track candidates. Or at least, she arguably has less baggage than the rest of them. Her credentials — 20 years in public office — are sound by presidential standards (unlike O’Rourke’s). She isn’t 76 years old, as Biden is, and she doesn’t represent a state that is heavily invested in the financial industry, which is a problem for Biden and for all of the New York and New Jersey Democrats. The beer track will likely also be dominated by men — including possible candidates Biden, O’Rourke, Brown, Hickenlooper, Ryan and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock — so Klobuchar could have a lot of strength with working-class women, an overlooked and important part of the Democratic base.

Of course, it’s also possible that the beer track is a road to nowhere. Democratic delegate allocations are based on the number of Democratic votes for president in each state, which means they’re deliberately biased toward blue states. And an increasing number of Democrats view themselves as liberal rather than moderate.

4. A reasonably clear contrast to Trump. Before I started researching and reporting out this story, I thought one Klobuchar strength was that she could formulate one of the clearest contrasts to Trump. It’s almost always helpful for candidates in the primaries to draw stylistic and substantive contrasts against the other party’s president, as Trump did against Barack Obama, as Obama did against George W. Bush, and as Bill Clinton did against George H.W. Bush. My thinking was that Klobuchar’s mild-mannered Minnesota-niceness and long career as a public servant — and the fact that she’s a woman — would look to Democratic voters like the antidote to Trump’s bombast and braggadocio.

I still think that theory is mostly true and that Klobuchar is an above-average Democrat in her degree of not-Trumpness. But I want to hedge against it a little bit. The version of Klobuchar we see in debates and on the campaign trail may be scrappier, blunter, more sarcastic and more emotive than people are expecting (and reports of angry and abusive behavior toward staffers may facilitate those perceptions). Moreover, to the extent that her campaign is drawing distinctions between her beer-track persona and the wine-track elites from the coasts, she’ll in some ways be echoing arguments that Trump might make about Democrats.

Overall, this is an impressive list of strengths, even if some of them are quite hedged. They’re why Klobuchar has a considerably better chance of winning the nomination than you might guess given her relatively low profile. But she also has a couple of significant weaknesses.

Two potential problems

1. Lack of a clear path with nonwhite voters. Minnesota is not quite as white as you might think. It’s home to several immigrant groups, including some relatively smaller ones such as Somalians and Laotians. And its nonwhite population has grown significantly since 2000. Nonetheless, as of 2017, about 80 percent of Minnesota’s population was non-Hispanic white, compared with 61 percent for the U.S. as a whole. And since many of those nonwhite Minnesotans are recent immigrants, the share of whites among the electorate is even higher, at about 89 percent.

That’s not to say that white politicians can never find appeal with nonwhite voters. John Kerry did quite well with African-Americans, for instance, and O’Rourke was elected to Congress three times from one of the most Hispanic congressional districts in the country. This year’s Democratic field features several people of color, however, and Klobuchar doesn’t have any obvious strategy to appeal to black, Hispanic and Asian voters, which together will make up around 40 percent of the Democratic primary electorate. Instead, several of her likely strategic choices — running on the beer track, heavily investing in Iowa and (perhaps) New Hampshire — would emphasize trying to capture as much of the white vote as possible before turning to minorities.

Klobuchar also isn’t likely to have a lot of initial appeal to the left. She may subtly and selectively push back against some left-wing policy proposals while embracing others — or she may run more explicitly toward the center, depending on who else enters the race. (Biden’s decision about whether to run could significantly affect her calculus.) But either way, the left will have candidates such as Sanders, Warren and Brown as their first choices. That means Klobuchar doesn’t perform well according to our “five corners” heuristic, which regards black voters, Hispanics and The Left as three of the five major constituencies within the Democratic Party:

The five corners don’t capture everything. In particular, they don’t account for voters’ gender, even though around three-fifths of the Democratic electorate will be women.

But it does mean that Klobuchar’s campaign will need to proceed in stages, without necessarily having a lot of margin for error. First, she’ll have to perform well in debates and town halls to boost her name recognition. Second, she’ll need to win Iowa — or at least beat expectations there — to vault herself ahead of the other beer-track candidates. Third, she’ll need to heavily emphasize electability to win the slugfest against the wine-track candidates. Each stage holds risks for Klobuchar, and she doesn’t have a lot of shortcuts or detours at any point along the route if she gets knocked off track.

2. Staffing a campaign and building support among insiders. Articles published by HuffPost and BuzzFeed News have included allegations of abusive behavior by Klobuchar toward her staff, citing both statistics showing her high turnover and heretofore largely anonymous accounts of bad behavior from former staffers.

These rumors have been widespread for a long time. (To insert myself as a barometer here, as someone who doesn’t live in Washington and who is sort of ambivalent to political gossip, I’d heard about them several times.) In some ways, the HuffPost and BuzzFeed stories are relatively gentle in that they don’t contain that many details and are largely anonymous. Furthermore, this criticism can be gendered: A woman who exhibits the same behavior as “tough” or “demanding” male boss might be typecast as as “b—-.”

They also reek of inside-baseballness. Having a reputation as a bad boss can be problematic within your industry. But without salacious details, it’s not the sort of scandal that voters are liable to care all that much about.

At the same time, the nomination process is to some extent an inside game. If, as the HuffPost story claims, Klobuchar has trouble recruiting the layers of highly talented staffers that the other candidates have because of a reputation (well-earned or not) for being an abusive boss, that will hurt her. It will hurt her more if it signifies a general wariness about Klobuchar among Washington insiders, which could yield fewer endorsements and less willingness by “party elites” to rally around her if the field has been winnowed down to two or three candidates.

So I’ll be looking to whether Klobuchar is able to gather a few endorsements in the early stages of her campaign, especially from outside of Minnesota. There’s an extent to which a measured amount of pushback from Beltway elites could play into Klobuchar’s brand as a tough, no-BS outsider. But it’s really hard to go it completely alone in the primary, especially when your strategy involves winning over one faction of the party first (the beer track) and then building bridges to the other factions later on.


From ABC News: