If you read that headline and thought, “Is anyone actually claiming she has a chance?”, the answer is yes. Lots of political pros, actually. And their reasoning isn’t complicated. An election featuring a president who’s running for a second term almost inevitably ends up as a referendum on that president. That’s good news if your job approval is 50 percent (or thereabouts), not so good news if, let’s say, it’s been stuck at 43 percent for two years despite roaring job growth. An unpopular president is in grave danger if voters go into the booth on Election Day asking themselves, “Do I want more four years of this?” instead of “Which candidate do I like better?” Which means the soundest strategic move the opposition cparty an make in that situation is to nominate someone who seems competent yet so relentlessly bland that you’d struggle to find *anything* to say about him or her, whether good or bad.
Meet Amy Klobuchar.
Her fans say she’s “the opposite of Trump.” I wouldn’t. I think Beto, the hippie turned gassy idealist, or Kamala Harris, a black woman with a career in law enforcement, have better claims to being the anti-Trump. But Klobuchar is unquestionably the most nondescript candidate in the Democratic field and Trump is, ah, pretty darned descript. He monopolizes America’s attention all day every day, usually as much for Twitter antics or personal feuds as for major policy decisions. He craves drama in all things. Klobuchar couldn’t muster drama if you handed her a script. If you’re fatigued by Trump and simply looking for someone who’ll run the country and not make you think about politics every five g-ddamned seconds, well, then: Klobuchar. She might as well change her legal name to “Generic Democrat.” Or “Not Trump.”
Which is a good thing to be in a referendum on an unpopular president.
And another thing. Wasn’t it literally yesterday that I read a blog post somewhere claiming that what Democratic voters prize right now, much more so than they have in recent memory, is a candidate who can win? Finding someone who agrees with them on the issues is nice and all, they say, but what they really, really, really want is to win next year. If that means choosing someone who isn’t as far left, or as centrist, as they might prefer then they’re prepared to make that sacrifice. Which, again, leads you straight to Amy Klobuchar. The least objectionable candidate in the field is almost by definition the most electable candidate in a referendum on Mr. 43 Percent. Choose Amy, sit back, and let the “at least she’s not Trump” votes roll in.
So what’s the problem? Why am I skeptical? For this reason: Although rationally Democrats should choose the least offensive candidate to face Trump, voters … just don’t vote rationally. And they don’t all vote at the same time. The eventual nominee has to win somewhere early to survive the initial whittling of the field, which means Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, and maybe now California. (Advantage: Harris.) Any candidate who wins one or more of those states will see their support rise as the also-rans drop out and their voters realign among the remaining options. How does Klobuchar survive that initial culling? She’s not beating Harris in California and would be a long longshot in South Carolina, where the black vote is decisive. Iowa and Nevada are caucus states, which tend to reward candidates with hyper-enthusiastic followers — not Klobuchar’s strong suit, although she’d have something of a home-field advantage in Iowa by dint of Minnesota’s proximity. There’s always New Hampshire, but because New Hampshire is the first primary the entire field will still be in the race and competing there. She’d have to beat Elizabeth Warren from next door in Massachusetts, Harris, Cory Booker, O’Rourke, and possibly either Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders or both.
Where does she win to gain some momentum? I think her chances would improve every day that she manages to stay in the race, precisely because as the field narrows and the general election gets closer, voters will begin to weight electability more heavily. They’ll get more “rational” as Trump looms larger before them. But the year-long build-up to the first votes in Iowa, with Dem voters forced to choose among a deep field and then justify their choices, will ensure that those early-state votes will be mostly emotional. That’s poison for Klobuchar. As much as she might want to play the long game, she can’t stay in forever if all the early states split among the competition. It’s farcical to think of Dems turning to her after Harris, say, has piled up three early-state wins to zero for Amy from Minnesota. Those wins will quickly come to be seen as evidence that Harris is the “electable” one, not Klobuchar, despite all the hype about the latter. The surest sign of “electability” is actually winning some elections, right? If Klobuchar finishes out of the top two or three in the early states, which is perfectly plausible, the stench of underperformance will smother her.
How might she get past that “emotional” early period in primary voting and outlast the competition? One Twitter pal pointed to the 2004 Democratic primaries as a potential analogue, with bland but acceptable John Kerry surprising progressive grassroots favorite Howard Dean in Iowa. Fair point, but this year’s field is much deeper than the one Kerry faced and Klobuchar’s competition is far better credentialed. She’s facing potentially five candidates who already have national profiles, including possibly a two-term former VP. Another friend pointed out that the oppo is already flying against candidates like Elizabeth Warren and that the brawling between, say, Harris and Booker for black voters and Sanders and Warren for progressives might end up leaving Klobuchar as a consensus choice. Right … but that comes close to arguing that an act of God will lead to Klobuchar’s nomination: Somehow everyone in the field ends up nuking each other, conveniently leaving her unscathed. Klobuchar and her “Minnesota nice” reputation won’t be spared from oppo attacks either, I’m sure. Politicos already whisper about the unusual rate of turnover in her Senate office, and what disgruntled staffers might have to say about what it’s like to work for her.
And another thing. Virtually every argument I heard today about her chances came with the caveat “assuming Biden doesn’t run.” The idea, it seems, is that progressive voters will splinter among a thousand left-wing candidates and leave Klobuchar to consolidate the sensible centrist voters — assuming Biden doesn’t run, in which case he’ll be the one to consolidate those voters and coast to the nomination. I’m skeptical that Klobuchar will be first choice for moderates even with Biden out of the race, although it certainly improves her chances if he doesn’t jump in. But since it looks like he is running, what are we really left here? “Klobuchar might win if literally everything breaks just right for her”? Well, okay. But that argument applies to everyone else in the field as well.
Anyway. I hope I’m right that she’s a bust, because a “Flight 93 election” strategy in which the GOP’s chances depend upon convincing voters that the fate of humanity depends upon defeating … Amy Klobuchar is unlikely to be successful.
Update: Annnnnnd literally 10 minutes after I finish this post, this story appears at HuffPost. Here comes the oppo: “[S]ome former Klobuchar staffers, all of whom spoke to HuffPost on condition of anonymity, describe Klobuchar as habitually demeaning and prone to bursts of cruelty that make it difficult to work in her office for long.”