Biden Is The Front-Runner, But There’s No Clear Favorite

Joe Biden is the most likely person to win a majority of pledged Democratic delegates, according to the FiveThirtyEight primary model, which we launched on Thursday morning. This is our first-ever full-fledged model of the primaries and we’re pretty excited about it — to read more about how the model works, see here.

But saying the former vice president is the front-runner doesn’t really tell the whole story. He may be the most likely nominee, but he’s still a slight underdog relative to the field, with a 40 percent chance of winning a majority of pledged delegates7 by the time of the last scheduled Democratic contest — the Virgin Islands caucus on June 6. If one lowers the threshold to a plurality of delegates, rather than a majority, then Biden’s chances are almost 50-50, but not quite — he has a 45 percent chance of a delegate plurality, per our forecast.

I want to emphasize that there’s still a lot of room for another candidate to surge because nobody has voted yet, the primaries are a complex process, and frankly here at FiveThirtyEight, we’re a little self-conscious about how people interpret — or sometimes misinterpret — our probabilistic forecasts. The Democratic primary still features 14 candidates, and while most of them have little to no shot, there are still several fairly realistic possibilities:

So while Biden’s in a reasonably strong and perhaps even slightly underrated position, it’s slightly more likely than not that Biden won’t be the nominee. Sen. Bernie Sanders has the next-best shot, with a 22 percent chance at a majority, followed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 12 percent and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 10 percent. There’s also a 14 percent chance — about 1 in 7 — that no one will win a majority of pledged delegates by June 6, which could lead to a contested convention.

The model works by simulating the nomination race thousands of times, accounting for the bounces that candidates may receive by winning or losing states, along with other contingencies — such as candidates dropping out and polls moving in response to debates and news events. Like all of our models, it’s empirically driven, built using data from the 15 competitive nomination races since 1980.8

Since the primaries themselves are fairly complex process, the model is fairly complex also — which we mean as a warning as much as a brag. Models with more complexity are easier to screw up and can be more sensitive to initial assumptions — so we’d encourage you to read more about how our model works.

As an illustration of how one race can affect the following ones in our model, here are each of the leading candidates’ chances of winning a plurality or majority of delegates conditional on winning or losing Iowa:

Iowa matters … a lot

How candidates’ chances of winning a majority or plurality of delegates changes if they win Iowa, according to FiveThirtyEight’s primary forecast

With an Iowa win With an Iowa loss
Candidate Majority Chance Plurality Chance Majority Chance Plurality Chance
Biden 80% 84% 20% 26%
Buttigieg 37 42 2 3
Sanders 61 67 8 10
Warren 55 60 5 7

As of 8 a.m., Jan. 10, 2020

Biden, for instance, would be a heavy favorite if he wins Iowa, with an 80 percent chance of a delegate majority and an 84 percent chance of a plurality. His majority chances would fall to 20 percent following an Iowa loss, however. Sanders would be a slight favorite to win a majority after an Iowa win, with a 61 percent chance, but his majority chances would fall to 8 percent with a loss there. Warren would also be a slight favorite to win a delegate majority after an Iowa win, but Buttigieg would not be (although his position would be substantially strengthened).

These scenarios account for Iowa wins of all shapes and sizes — big, emphatic wins and narrow, perhaps even disputed ones. With a landslide win in Iowa, Sanders might be a fairly heavy overall favorite for the nomination. If Iowa were a four-way pileup instead — with Sanders narrowly winning and Biden in a strong second place, for instance — Sanders’s projected bounce might not be enough to help him overtake Biden in national polls and the nomination could remain fairly open-ended.

Speaking of open-ended, the first three states all have highly uncertain outcomes. Biden is the nominal favorite to win Iowa, but has just a 33 percent chance of doing so.9 In New Hampshire, Sanders has a 31 percent chance and Biden is at 27 percent. And in Nevada, Biden has a 35 chance, with Sanders at 31 percent. Biden is a clearer front-runner in South Carolina — although even that lead might not be safe if he performed poorly in the first three states.

Who’s favored in the first four states?

Candidates’ chances of winning the early states, according to FiveThirtyEight’s primary forecast

State Biden Sanders Warren Buttigieg Other
Iowa 33% 27% 14% 22% 4%
New Hampshire 27 31 15 23 3
Nevada 35 31 16 13 4
South Carolina 54 20 10 9 7

As of 8 a.m., Jan. 10, 2020.

The model also plays out the rest of the primaries on Super Tuesday and beyond — although they’re subject to more uncertainty, both because they come later in the process and because they have less polling. In states with little or no polling, our model infers odds based on demographic and geographic factors — see the methodology primer for more.

For a flavor of how this works, here are the states and territories that the model thinks each of the four leading candidates is the most likely to win.

Where each front-runner is most likely to win, in one table

The top four candidates’ chances of winning the primaries or caucuses where their position is strongest, per FiveThirtyEight’s primary forecast

Biden Sanders
Primary/caucus chances Primary/caucus chances
Alabama 61% Vermont 62%
Mississippi 58 Utah 33
Delaware 55 Washington 32
South Carolina 54 California 32
North Carolina 53 Colorado 32
Louisiana 51 New Hampshire 31
Warren Buttigieg
Primary/caucus chances Primary/caucus chances
Massachusetts 28% New Hampshire 23%
Maine 20 Iowa 22
Colorado 19 Indiana 20
Democrats Abroad 19 Democrats Abroad 16
Oklahoma 18 North Dakota 15
Minnesota 18 Minnesota 15

As of 8 a.m., Jan. 10, 2020.

Biden’s strengths are concentrated in the South, among states with large numbers of black voters. Sanders and Warren are expected to perform well in New England and in western states such as Colorado and California, where the Democratic electorate tends to be pretty liberal. Buttigieg’s strongest states figure to be largely white states in the Midwest and otherwise in the northern part of the country.

We’ll have a lot more to say about the forecast in the weeks and months ahead. But let me conclude by briefly considering the forecast from each of the major candidates’ perspectives, tackling each one in 100 words or less.

Biden. The optimistic case for Biden is fairly simple. He’s ahead in national polls. He’s also ahead in our “fundamentals” calculation. (Although Biden hasn’t raised all that much money, he has by far the most endorsements.) His strength among black voters will help him in the South, where none of the other candidates look particularly strong. So a win in Iowa would put Biden in a commanding position. And a loss there could be more survivable than it would be for another candidate. Still, Iowa is more likely to hurt him than help him, according to our model.

Sanders. Sanders’s early-state polling is fairly robust. He probably wouldn’t have any problem parlaying an Iowa win into a sequel in New Hampshire, and our model likes his position reasonably well in Nevada also. California is another potential strength for Sanders on Super Tuesday, as a source of both delegates and momentum. All that said, perhaps the biggest question about Sanders — namely, how would the establishment and voters react if he appeared to be on the verge of winning the nomination — remains unanswered, and it’s not necessarily something our model can answer by itself.

Warren. The conventional wisdom about Sanders is fairly bullish, while being fairly bearish on Warren. But it’s worth keeping in mind that there are only a few points separating them in the polls, nationally and in the early states. They’re an important few points — in part because they coincide with the 15 percent threshold that Democratic rules require candidates clear to win delegates. That’s part of why our model gives Sanders roughly double Warren’s chances of securing a delegate majority. But even a small-ish burst of momentum for Warren could restore her to a highly competitive position.

Buttigieg. Buttigieg can win Iowa — but he also runs the risk of stalling out afterward. The problem isn’t in New Hampshire, where his position is nearly as strong. But Buttigieg is weak among nonwhite voters, especially black voters, which makes Nevada and South Carolina uphill battles for him. With that said, Buttigieg is the sort of candidate who the model figures could get a relatively large bounce from wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. In general, the lower a candidate’s standing in national polls, the bigger the bounce they get from early-state success.

What about … Klobuchar? Sen. Amy Klobuchar has picked up a percentage point or two in the polls since the December debate. But if that’s all she gets, it’s probably a case of too little, too late. Her position is not hopeless — the model does have her as the fifth most likely winner. But the model simply thinks it will take a lot to leapfrog four other candidates. With that said, there’s been little polling recently, and a single strong poll in Iowa could change the equation for Klobuchar.

What about … Bloomberg? If you’re a Michael Bloomberg optimist, you could point toward the 14 percent chance that no candidate wins a delegate majority as a bullish sign. The former New York mayor’s plan clearly involves hoping for a murky outcome in the early states and playing the long game. But there are many, many questions here. The first four states probably will produce a clear front-runner or two, and even if they don’t, it’s not clear why Bloomberg would emerge as the alternative. Still, his unconventional strategy is difficult to model.

What about … Steyer? Billionaire Tom Steyer has risen in recent polls of Nevada and South Carolina after a monthslong advertising barrage there. It’s not quite clear what that gets him, though. On the one hand, his position will be weaker in those states by the time they get around to voting if he hasn’t also performed well in Iowa and New Hampshire. On the other hand, he hasn’t invested in Super Tuesday states (as Bloomberg has) to follow up on any potential success in Nevada and South Carolina. He’s worth watching, but the model doesn’t see a clear path for him.

Enjoy the weekend — and the CNN/Selzer/Des Moines Register poll that is scheduled to come out on Friday night — and we’ll be back at you with more updates soon.


How a raucous convention revolutionized our primary system


The December Democratic Debate in 6 Charts

This holiday season, the Democratic National Committee gave the gift of one last primary debate in 2019. The stage featured just seven candidates, and despite a sleepy first hour, there was a lot of tension in the two-and-a-half-hour affair. Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg came under fire from the rest of the field, fielding attacks from Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren in particular. According to the FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll, which used Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel to interview the same respondents before and after the debate, Klobuchar had a good night, attracting the most new potential support. Former Vice President Joe Biden also did well, earning the highest debate performance score from the viewers in our survey.

Maybe you were out holiday shopping — or watching the new Star Wars movie! — and missed it (hey, we don’t blame you), or you just want to know more about how the December debate may affect the race as we move into 2020. Either way, here’s the Democratic debate, summed up in 6 charts:

Which candidates performed best?

To kick us off, which candidates did viewers think had a strong performance? A weak one? To answer this, we compared each candidate’s pre-debate favorability rating1 to viewers’ ratings of his or her debate performance to see how candidates performed. This time, Biden walked away with the highest marks from respondents in our poll. But if it’s hard to see a decisive winner from last night, that’s because Biden, Warren and Sanders all performed roughly as well as we would expect given their pre-debate favorability. Buttigieg and Steyer received the worst marks for their performances, relative to their pre-debate favorability ratings.

How did voters’ priorities affect their views of the candidates?

According to our Ipsos survey, nearly two-thirds of likely Democratic primary voters prefer a candidate who has a good chance of beating President Trump over someone who shares similar stances with them on the issues. How these types of voters evaluate the candidates and their performances can vary, though, even if the differences are relatively small.

Voters who prioritize beating Trump thought Biden had the best debate performance, with Warren, Sanders, Klobuchar and Buttigieg tied with the second-highest marks. Among voters who prioritized issue stances, Sanders and Yang fared best.

Among voters who prioritize beating Trump, Biden did best

How well debate-watchers thought candidates performed in the sixth Democratic debate, by which type of candidate they prefer

Type of candidate preferred
candidate Similar issue positions Able to beat trump
Biden 2.8 3.3
Warren 2.9 3.1
Sanders 3.1 3.1
Klobuchar 2.7 3.1
Buttigieg 2.5 3.1
Yang 3.0 3.0
Steyer 2.5 2.8

From a survey of 3,543 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Dec. 13 and Dec. 18. The same people were surveyed again from Dec. 19 to Dec. 20; 720 responded to the second wave and said they watched the debate. The average ratings are out of 4 points, where 4 is best and 1 is worst.

Source: Ipsos/FiveThirtyEight

Who left a good impression?

We also wanted to see if any of the candidates managed to leave a good impression, as captured by their net favorability rating (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) before and after the debate. By this metric, Yang and Klobuchar saw the largest gains, roughly six points each. But even with these increases, their net favorability scores are still lower than much of the rest of the field — better-known candidates like Biden, Sanders and Warren are viewed more favorably.

Yang and Klobuchar made positive impressions

Change in net favorability for candidates in a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll taken before and after the December Democratic primary debate

Net favorability
candidate before debate after debate change
Yang +16.1 +22.4 +6.3
Klobuchar +11.0 +17.1 +6.1
Steyer +4.3 +7.3 +3.1
Warren +40.0 +43.0 +2.9
Sanders +40.5 +42.6 +2.1
Biden +43.2 +45.1 +1.9
Buttigieg +29.4 +27.5 -1.9

From a survey of 3,543 likely Democratic primary voters who were surveyed between Dec. 13 and Dec. 18. The same people were surveyed again from Dec. 19 to Dec. 20; 1,908 responded to the second wave.

Who spoke the most?

Klobuchar stole the mic Thursday, speaking the most words of any candidate. This was the first time the Minnesota senator earned this distinction, significantly improving upon her position in the last debate, where she came in fifth for words spoken. Buttigieg wasn’t too far off from Klobuchar, though, speaking just 200 fewer words.

Who held the floor?

Number of words candidates spoke in the sixth Democratic debate

Candidate Words Spoken
Amy Klobuchar 3,557
Pete Buttigieg 3,327
Elizabeth Warren 3,087
Bernie Sanders 2,891
Joe Biden 2,869
Tom Steyer 1,937
Andrew Yang 1,729

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

The fact that Klobuchar and Buttigieg spoke the most last night may be surprising given that they are significantly behind Biden, Sanders and Warren in the national polls. Normally, higher-polling candidates tend to get more air time, but in Thursday’s debate, the relationship between a candidate’s polling average2 and the amount of words he or she spoke was not particularly strong.3 For instance, while Sanders spoke about as much as his polling average would suggest, Biden spoke far less than expected.

Who mentioned Trump the most?

The candidates may not have spoken for equal amounts of time, but one thing they did have in common was name-dropping Trump. Klobuchar, for example, talked about Trump way more than Warren, who only mentioned him once. (This doesn’t seem to be a new strategy for Warren: She came in second to last in Trump mentions at the November debate, too, saying his name just twice.)

Who talked about Trump?

How often Trump’s name was mentioned by candidates in the sixth Democratic debate

Candidate Trump Mentions
Amy Klobuchar 11
Bernie Sanders 8
Joe Biden 6
Pete Buttigieg 6
Tom Steyer 4
Andrew Yang 4
Elizabeth Warren 1

Source: Debate Transcript via ABC News

On average, each candidate said Trump’s name about six times. But of course, this doesn’t cover every reference to Trump, as some didn’t call out the president by name — like when Sanders said “we have a president who is a pathological liar.”

Do you want even more debate coverage?

Cool graphics from other sites:

  • Going into the debate, The New York Times had a cool primer, which included tidbits like which candidates they expected to attack each other. It’s fun to look back now and see whether they were correct; notably, their speculation that Buttigieg might come under fire proved prescient, particularly in the back and forths with Warren and Klobuchar.
  • And if you want to see exactly how many times the candidates attacked one another, NBC News tracked it! Buttigieg came under fire the most, while Sanders dished it out more than any other candidate.
  • The New York Times also tracked how long each candidate spoke on each issue. Sanders spoke the most about health care, while Klobuchar dominated the conversation on electability. And foreign policy was the longest-discussed topic of the evening, racking up 15 minutes total.

And here’s more great post-debate analysis:

But really, all you need is … our debate coverage:

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: