Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is not currently a favorite to win the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, but if she does, it will likely be because she can make the case for electability better than probably any other Democrat in the field.
Klobuchar, who is set to announce her 2020 intentions on in Minneapolis on Sunday, is currently ranked ninth in my and Chris Cillizza’s power rankings of Democratic contenders for several reasons including that she is fairly moderate in a party moving to the left and she lacks experience winning minority voters in fairly white Minnesota.
But her potential candidacy – along with that of former Vice President Joe Biden’s – will provide a good test case of whether the conventional wisdom about what Democrats really want in a 2020 nominee is correct. If Democrats want a candidate who represents the party’s growing coastal, nonwhite, progressive and urban base, Klobuchar wouldn’t appear to be the candidate to meet that desire.
If, however, the conventional wisdom is wrong and Democrats decide that electability is most important (and we’ve seen some data in CNN’s latest poll supporting that very idea), Klobuchar can make the case for her nomination better than most other Democrats in the field.
While there are many ways to measure electability, one of the better methods is to see how candidates performed in past elections. Unlike Biden, Klobuchar has a history of winning in a purple state. She also comes with less potential baggage thanks to a political career on the national stage that is less than a quarter as long as Biden’s. Klobuchar would also appeal to voters who want to see a woman elected president.
Klobuchar’s electability can be seen as recently her otherworldly 2018 re-election performance. She won by 24 points, which, for comparison sake, is the same margin Sen. Elizabeth Warren won by in Massachusetts. Minnesota is much less Democratic leaning than Warren’s home state. Hillary Clinton won Minnesota by less than 2 points in 2016, but took Massachusetts by 27 points.
Indeed, Klobuchar’s 2018 performance relative to other senators running or potentially running for the 2020 presidential nomination was the best. We can see this by looking at how Klobuchar did compared to how Democrats running for the House did in Minnesota in 2018. (Using this House performance measure allows us to control for the 2018 national environment, as well as for the fact that sometimes states are more willing to vote for a Democrat or Republican for Congress than they are for the presidency.) Klobuchar outperformed House Democratic candidates in Minnesota by 13 points.
The only candidate who came close to Klobuchar’s level of achievement in 2018 was Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown.
Where Klobuchar really differentiates herself is her consistent performance in elections. You could argue that it’s unfair just to examine only one election. So let’s see how Klobuchar did in her other two elections for the Senate in 2006 and 2012.
The story is basically the same for other years too: double-digit over-performances by Klobuchar versus the average Democratic candidate. (The same is not necessarily the same for Brown, as the Washington Post’s David Byler points out.)
Six years later in 2012, Klobuchar won re-election by 35 points. House Democrats in Minnesota won the cumulative House vote by 12 points, which equates to an over 20-point over-performance by Klobuchar. That same year Democratic President Barack Obama won Minnesota by 8 points, so using that measure Klobuchar did even better relative to what you might expect from the average Democrat.
Now you might say, “OK so Klobuchar can win in Minnesota, this doesn’t mean she can win nationally.” You could be right, but look at the electoral map.
The reason Clinton lost in 2016 was she lost states that Obama carried in 2012. Had Clinton won the states she did, plus Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, she would have won the electoral college and the presidency.
Where Klobuchar has a history of being an above average candidate (Minnesota), happens to have a lot in common with these three states. According to FiveThirtyEight, Minnesota’s similarity score (based on “demographic, geographic and political characteristics”) scores in the top five with Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. If you’re performing well in Minnesota, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll perform well in these other three states as well.
Merely being electable though doesn’t guarantee that someone will win the nomination. Voters will be basing their vote choice on a number of factors.
Still, I’m not sure there is a better year to be able to make an electability argument than in 2020. The ability beat Trump ranked as the No. 1 factor for Democratic voters in their 2020 primary vote choice, according to the latest CNN poll. As I wrote about earlier this week, more Democratic voters this year say the ability for a candidate to beat the other party’s candidate is more important than agreeing with a candidate on the issues than in any cycle since at least 2004.
Luckily for Klobuchar, she may be just the candidate who is able to take advantage of this unique aspect of the 2020 cycle.