At her campaign rallies, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar often brags that she has won every race she has contested – as she puts it, “Every race, every time, every place.” Her electoral success, she often adds, began in 4th grade, where she won a race for student government using the slogan “All the way with Amy K!” Here she pauses, and then admits, “I dropped that slogan as I got into middle school!”
The line invariably draws laughter – but it also reveals how Klobuchar uses humor to effectively drive home her point that she is the candidate best suited to defeat Donald Trump. It is a message that appears, slowly, to be gaining traction among Democratic voters who, if surveys are to be believed, are hyperfocused this election cycle on nominating a candidate who can take back the White House. Klobuchar finished 5th in Iowa’s caucuses, earning a shade under 13% of the first popular vote (and is projected to take home a delegate from the Hawkeye state as well.)
Her popular vote was about 4% above what the RealClearPolitics aggregate poll of polls suggested she would receive, although she was hurt in the final balloting because many of her supporters, not wanting to waste their votes with Klobuchar just under the 15% threshold, switched to back other candidates, particularly Peter Buttigieg, during the reallocation phase of the Iowa caucusing process. It also didn’t help that, along with senators Sanders and Warren (two candidates with better name recognition than Klobuchar), she spent most of the two weeks preceding the caucus in Washington, D.C. listening to testimony at Trump’s Senate impeachment trial just when polls showed her gaining momentum.
Despite her strong closing finish and outperforming the polls, however, the national media continued to portray the Democratic race as a four-person contest between Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren heading into New Hampshire. In a reminder how the media’s difficulty in grappling with complexity leads them to inadvertently put their finger on the scale, graphics on the evening news showed the Iowa results for those four, typically excluding Klobuchar’s stronger than expected 5th place result. It was only when two tracking polls showed Klobuchar gaining support in the Granite State that the media began taking her candidacy somewhat seriously, although they were still surprised when she finished third last Tuesday, less than 5% behind Pete Buttigieg’s second place showing, with about 20% of the vote. That was more than 10% ahead of both Warren and Biden.
But as I saw in both Iowa and in her closing rallies in New Hampshire, Klobuchar’s message is beginning to attract voters’ attention. On the last weekend before Tuesday’s primary, we attended rallies by Sanders (twice!), Buttigieg, Warren, Andrew Yang, and Klobuchar. Both Sanders and Warren had enthusiastic standing room only crowds, but our sense from conversations at their events was that most of those attending had had made up their mind to support the candidate. The events were more like pep rallies designed to mobilize the vote.
That was not the feel we got when attending Klobuchar’s rally on Saturday in Hanover on Dartmouth’s campus.
The crowd was slightly smaller than what we saw with Sanders or Warren (although the venue was as well.) Klobuchar spoke at length, starting with an anecdote about FDR’s funeral procession, and how people felt that he knew them. Building on that theme, she rhetorically appealed to different voting groups, finishing each time by saying “I know you, and I will fight for you.” She then segued into her biography, discussing her grandfather’s work ethic toiling in Minnesota’s iron mines and her father’s struggle with alcoholism. She used her father’s recovery, and his care in an assisted living facility (“It’s not bad – he says he can’t get a good drink there”) to drive home her point that everyone deserves access to decent health insurance and long-term residential care.
Because of those working-class roots, she said she’s not running for president out of a sense of entitlement, but from a sense of obligation. She touted her record of accomplishment passing Senate bills, many with bipartisan support, as proof that she could work with legislators across the aisle. Although she portrayed herself as progressive on issues like expanding Obamacare – “It’s 10% more popular than the President!” – she also stressed the need to build coalitions in order to see progressive policies pass – an ability that she says her record shows she has.
Klobuchar makes clear that she does not share the more statist progressive agendas pushed by Sanders and Warren, which she portrays as both more divisive and politically impractical. She wants to make college more affordable not by eliminating tuition for the wealthy, but by doubling Pell Grants and lowering eligibility requirements to help lower-income students. And rather than college debt forgiveness, she wants to link college loans to a post-graduate public service option. The economy of the future, she points out, will not offer jobs for those with “sports marketing degrees” but for those graduating from vocational schools; there will be “millions of jobs” for home health care providers, nurses, plumbers and electricians.
She took a similar pragmatic approach to address climate change, which she linked to flooding in the Midwest. To combat it, she argued, you must make its economic implications salient to those whose livelihoods are affected, like those in the fishing industry, hunters and maple syrup providers. “You have to make clear the dividends to the people [of climate change reforms], not just the costs.”
Again and again, she hammered home her central theme that “We aren’t going to win by out-dividing the Divider-in-Chief.” This election, she said, was “a decency check.” She made repeated reference to the similarities between Minnesota and New Hampshire – “We can both see Canada from our front porch!” – focusing not just on their rural economies and how much they depend on extracting natural resources, but also on the civility of their voters.
Of all the candidates we saw, however, it was Klobuchar who in my view made the most effective closing appeal, not by rallying her base to get out and vote, but by wooing the significant number of undecided New Hampshire voters. She closed by describing how much she learned from her mentor Paul Wellstone, the former Minnesota Senator who was killed in a plane crash in 2002, and who was noted for taking unpopular stands such as his vote against the Iraq War – the only Senator facing reelection who chose to do so. This explains why her campaign adopted the green color of Wellstone’s campaign bus she tells the crowd. She acknowledged, again referencing Wellstone’s experiences as an underdog, that the 2020 campaign “playing field is not even” which was why she needed New Hampshire voters to defy expectations and support her. She finished by exhorting the crowd: “Let’s go, let’s win it, let’s do it.” The crowd gave her a big round of applause and many waited to get their picture with her.
As is traditional we also waited in line so that the well-known Vermont politician could get a picture and exchange policy views with her.
When she finished with pictures, Chris Matthews, who was standing next to me for much of the event, moved up to interview her. His presence signaled that the media had belatedly recognized that she was gaining momentum, although many still seem surprised when she finished with nearly a fifth of the Democratic vote.
Moreover, despite her strong closing, national news outlets continue to portray her primarily as a spoiler who cost Buttigieg the victory in New Hampshire rather than as someone who has a shot at uniting the Democratic party and winning the nomination. Ironically, conservative pundits seem to give her greater respect than do many journalists; in a recent column America Greatness’ Conrad Black writes, “If Klobuchar, a candidate no one has anything against, and who is genuine, plucky, and articulate and doesn’t take herself too seriously or fulminate, even against Trump, can get accelerating momentum these next three weeks, she could be the uniting candidate.”
Today I received a Valentine’s Day email fundraising pitch from Klobuchar’s husband, John Bessler, asking me to help him raise $18,000 on Valentine’s Day. Why $18,000? He writes, “As Amy has said before, in her first U.S. Senate campaign (when people were still struggling to pronounce her last name) she raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends. But given her impressive showing on Tuesday in the New Hampshire primary, I’m betting that I can do even better.” It is another reminder how her campaign has infused a bit of humor into the very serious task of choosing the Democratic nominee.
Make no mistake about it – the road gets more difficult for her moving ahead. Like Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg, she has yet to prove she can draw support from racial minorities who will compose a much larger share of the voters in Nevada, South Carolina and the March 3 SuperTuesday states. However, she has some tailwinds coming out of New Hampshire, and an infusion of cash because of her strong showing. Although anecdotal, conversations I’ve had with African-American students indicate that their parents are giving Klobuchar a second look, primarily because they are most interested in backing a winner.
A final thought. A surprising number of New Hampshire voters told me they were choosing between Klobuchar and Warren. At first glance this doesn’t seem to make much sense, since they are occupying different ideological “lanes”, if you subscribe to that theory. But as I noted in an interview with Vermont Digger’s Kit Norton, I think voters are more focused on who can beat Trump, and they will sacrifice ideological purity to achieve that goal if necessary. It appears that, in the last days before New Hampshire voted, some Warren supporters began to have doubts regarding her viability, and some of them switched over to Klobuchar.
I’ve described her before as the “Little Senator That Could” (she is fond of reminding voters that James Madison was also only 5’ 4” tall.) However, her candidacy still has major hurdles to overcome, and it remains to be seen whether it will have a storybook ending – or whether it is heading down the wrong tracks.