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Klobuchar for president? She’ll face enormous obstacles

MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
There are many problems Klobuchar confronts as a presidential candidate, some unique to her, some related to coming from Minnesota, some given the direction of the Democratic Party.
More than likely, Amy Klobuchar will announce on Sunday that she is running for president. As Minnesota’s most popular elected official, winning her last U.S. Senate campaign with 60 percent of the popular vote, everyone in the state thinks her presidential prospects are terrific. But while it will not be popular here to say this, her prospects of being a successful candidate are against her; contrary to received wisdom in Minnesota, she faces enormous obstacles either as a presidential or vice presidential candidate.

schultz portrait

David Schultz

There are many problems Klobuchar confronts as a presidential candidate, some unique to her, some related to coming from Minnesota, some given the direction of the Democratic Party — and in many ways all three of these factors are connected.

Consider first Klobuchar as candidate. Yes, she is well known in Minnesota, but nationally she is still barely a blip in public opinion polls. A recent Washington Post poll among Democrats gave her only 2 percent support. Other polls have given her barely 1 percent. Outside of Minnesota she remains largely unknown. Part of the  problem is that Klobuchar comes from the Midwest – flyover zone for those on the coasts – outside of the major media markets where candidates such as Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren come from. They simply have higher name recognition given their states. This geographic isolation of Minnesota has historically been a challenge for Minnesota presidential candidates.

A classic, more subdued Minnesotan

Second, Klobuchar is not a rock-star exciting persona — her persona is instead that of a classic, more subdued Minnesotan. The personality that might play well in Minnesota politics does not necessarily play well on the national level. Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey, Tim Pawlenty, and Michele Bachmann resonated well in Minnesota but not so well nationally. Minnesotans like their politicians, but the state’s exceptionalism in politics perhaps means that a different skill set and persona are needed here compared to the national level.

Third, Klobuchar faces a narrative problem. All candidates need a narrative or message and reason for running. Hillary Clinton’s problem both in 2008 and 2016 was that she had no narrative beyond that she was not Bush (in 2008) or Trump (2016) and it was her turn now. What is Klobuchar’s narrative? Simply being against Trump is not enough – all the Democrats running in 2020 will be that. Klobuchar needs to be more than that, and it is not clear what her narrative is — or it is one that may not play. Most of Klobuchar’s tenure as senator has been in the minority, where she has had little chance to make substantive policy in a polarized partisan environment. Her real record of accomplishment is thin.

Klobuchar’s major selling point is that she can reach across the aisle and work with Republicans. It is not clear that this is a selling point with a Democratic Party – especially during the primaries – that is moving to the left.

Klobuchar is running as a centrist and that is not where Democrats are now, and rarely has “running to the right” been a winning strategy for them at the national level. Campaigning with the endorsement of George Will does not cut it with liberals. Clinton in 2016 said her strength was going to be winning over moderate Republicans and winning white southerners (as she did against Sanders in the primaries), and look how well that strategy worked. The U.S. is even more polarized now and it is less clear that now a Democrat can garner Republican votes. Orthodoxy in the Democratic Party is now for Medicare for All, free college education, and other big idea economic redistributive ideas. Is this where Klobuchar is?

Experience and credentials

Klobuchar’s narrative is her experience – again much like what Clinton ran on in 2008 and 2016. She is a former county attorney and three-term senator. But Kamala Harris is a former state legislator, San Francisco prosecutor, California attorney general, and U.S. senator — equally if not more impressive credentials, even on the topic of law and order.

Klobuchar also seems to be relying on an Iowa strategy to energize her political campaign. First, it assumes that because Minnesota is next to Iowa and part of the former’s media market extends into the latter, people in Iowa know her. Second, since Jimmy Carter in 1976, candidates look to Iowa for a win to catapult them into a subsequent victory in New Hampshire and beyond. There are several problems with this strategy, assuming it has worked and that it will be a winning formula in 2020.

Bachmann and Pawlenty thought the Minnesota-Iowa connection would work for them and it did not. Second, since 1972, there have been 10 Democratic and eight Republican contested caucuses. Only six of the Democratic caucus winners and three of the Republican caucus winners have gone on to win their party’s nomination.

California and Texas moving up primaries

But in 2020 things will also change in a dramatic way – California and Texas move up their primaries to March 3, and the early voting for the former will start about the same time as the date of the Iowa caucus scheduled for Feb. 3. Moving up the California and Texas primaries changes the importance of Iowa and the logic of campaigning. Relatively speaking, running in Iowa was cheap by comparison to California and Texas, which will take millions of dollars and lots of name recognition. Kamala Harris, for one, will be advantaged by the early California primary and if she does well there and Klobuchar not, Iowa may not matter at all, no matter how well the Minnesota senator does.

Finally, what about the theory that Klobuchar’s real aim in running for president is to be vice president? Contrary to all the folk wisdom (and empirical political science, including mine, supports this), few if any vice presidential candidates really matter to tickets or voters. There is a belief in geographic or other balance with vice presidents as running mates, but one has to ask what would Klobuchar add to a presidential ticket? Will she help a Democrat carry Minnesota? Will she pick up votes in New York? Is she a pit bull or attack dog, as some veeps are? Simply being a nice person whom everyone likes in Minnesota does not make one a strategically good choice for vice president.

Perhaps Amy Klobuchar will defy the odds and win. One can wish her well. But an honest appraisal suggests the odds are against her.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.” 


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Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Daniel Burbank on 02/08/2019 - 11:33 pm.

    I think that if Amy Klobuchar can successfully get through the Democratic primaries, and avoid being drowned by the tsunami of misogyny that hit Hilary Clinton, she will be an outstanding president. Schultz lays out a panoply of reasons why she is unlikely to be successful, but I’m pretty sure he could lay out a similarly dismal outlook for ALL of the potential presidential candidates at this point.

    A few years back, I volunteered to help judge at the Minnesota State Science Fair. We had to be at the event at some ungodly hour for a breakfast/orientation. Klobuchar showed up at 6:30 AM to give us a great pep talk on the importance of encouraging science education! I suspect this was the first of her many engagements that day. My point is, 85% of success is showing up. Klobuchar clearly shows up.

  2. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/09/2019 - 08:23 am.

    A leader needs to be someone who says, “Who’s on the bus? I’m driving!”

    But Klobs prefers to sit in the middle, not get too rowdy, and try to please everyone. Goods skills for a member of a legislative body perhaps, but not for an executive.

    “Let’s meet them half way” is not the way to inspire voters. That is particularly true when half way keeps moving further right. I forget, how many GOP votes did Obama get when he moved to right and proposed a Heritage Foundation healthcare plan?

  3. Submitted by Vonnie Phillips on 02/09/2019 - 09:04 am.

    Hi Daniel:

    I suggest you read the article in the Huffington Post, it’s creditable article. It needs to be addressed, and not by a staffer. Klobuchar has an issue with how she treats people, those that work for her, those that ‘SHOW UP”. Read it.

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/09/2019 - 03:59 pm.

      Vonnie, those of us who have read the HuffPost article are inclined to agree that there’s nothing to it. Just some anonymous hyperbole using click-bait “outraged” language to try to explain why some unnamed experienced presidential campaign-runners don’t want to tie themselves to a not-well-known candidate from the Midwest. Yet.

      Give it a rest.

      • Submitted by Vonnie Phillips on 02/10/2019 - 01:01 am.

        No, I will not give it a rest. Your explanation, which is nothing but a pretext is expected. The article is legitimate, it deserves an inquiry. Those anonymous complainants are doing what any other individual would do under same or similar circumstances, you as well, just move on.

        This is nothing but white folk groupie tribalism. The article is creditable, and your explanation is nothing but a diversion. Based on my experience and what I read in the HuffPost, it’s more probable than not that Klobuchar has an issue behind doors with treating people with respect and how she would like to be treated herself.

  4. Submitted by Brian Simon on 02/09/2019 - 10:20 am.

    The flyover argument is nonsense. The last two Dem presidents were from Illinois & Arkansas. Come to think of it, the last nominee was from both those places, before NY. And she had a hard time defeating the socialist from Vermont. The “personal story” argument is far more relevant. But, really, the challenge is basically one of long odds. Even the candidates with high name recognition have a challenging road ahead, whether Biden, Sanders, Warren, or Harris. There is no frontrunner this year, which may actually make it easier for a Klobuchar “flyover” candidate. She doesn’t have to outshine a Biden, HRC or Gore.

  5. Submitted by Jim Spensley on 02/09/2019 - 11:01 am.

    As a long-time supporter of Senator Klobuchar, I believe her personality and political skills would be up to the tasks needed in caucus states to have substantial favorables at the Convention.

    Her legislative style is more toward goals than for goals, a careful joiner and seldom the sponsor of significant legislation. So her support is often solicited in framing bills with large impact. She has a little special credibility as ant-Trump, willing to vote to avoid or undo laws and appropriations proposed by the Administration. She hasn’t consented to Trump’s weird appontments either.

    What she needs in Primary States is an appealing platform and a plan –a prioritized schedule if elected President. In Minnesota and in the Senate, she is trusted to do the best thing. Elsewhere she will need to enuciate what she thinks is best for the country in 2021-2024.

    Many activists in Minnesota and elsewhare with better understanding of the process of getting elected President (than her Senate campaign staffs) should be engaged. She will need contacts and endorsements in the early going to overcome lack of name recognition to show promise in polls and donations received.

    • Submitted by Tory Koburn on 02/09/2019 - 10:49 pm.

      I largely agree with this. While Klobuchar has a bit too much of a pro-corporate record for my taste, I’m willing to overlook this if for no other reason than I think she is a good person at heart, and doesn’t try to sell herself as something that she is not. I can recognize that things like universal healthcare require incremental, gradual implementation in order to not cause undue chaos. The same goes for quite a few issues. It’s all well and good for other candidates to propose strong plans, but realistically we need long-term plans that can withstand successive governments and court challenges.

      I’m not even sure she’s my first choice, but I look forward to what she brings to the discussion in the upcoming primaries. Minnesotan sensibilities – if there are such things – certainly deserve a voice.

  6. Submitted by Jim Spensley on 02/09/2019 - 11:03 am.

    anti-Trump I meant to type of course…

  7. Submitted by Carl Brookins on 02/09/2019 - 11:31 am.

    I think it would be wonderful if Ms Klobuchar won the nomination and went on to be our first woman president. But I wonder. I wonder about long-term success and I look at John Dingle and Ted Kennedy and the enormous range of their accomplishments. Now compare those winnings with true presidential accomplishments. Who, in the long run of history will accomplish more? Senators and Congresspeople in long, thoughtful careers of designing and carrying useful legislation through the Congress influencing hundreds maybe scores of long standing improvements in the nation, or eight years of foreign and domestic turbulence? I just wonder.

  8. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/09/2019 - 11:34 am.

    All the Democratic candidates will face obstacles and difficulties in the primaries.


    Let the woman have her chance to run for President, Mr. Schultz, and stop predicting that she’s only got a chance at being somebody’s vice-presidential choice. Let’s finally see what Amy Klobuchar’s got.

  9. Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 02/09/2019 - 03:28 pm.

    I’d put Pawlenty and Bachmann in the opposite category from the others mentioned. They could not get an electoral majority in Minnesota but got some national attention for reasons that left us locals shaking our heads.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/09/2019 - 06:03 pm.

      It would have been very tough for Bachmann to get a majority of votes in Minnesota when she only ran in one Congressional district. But she did get a majority of votes in 3 out of 4 of her Congressional general elections. So there’s that.

  10. Submitted by Roy Everson on 02/10/2019 - 02:52 am.

    A few basic problems with this commentary. First, beginning with JFK Democrats have ONLY won with candidates who were little known at the outset of the campaign cycle. One can imagine a collective eye-roll from JFK, Carter, Clinton and Obama, all of whom were apparently
    long shots just aiming for vice president.

    A reputation for being too moderate may be unhelpful in the primaries, but more important is how she’s perceived by primary voters who have yet to be introduced. She is quite capable of giving rousing progressive stump speeches which may satisfy primary voters. The labels applied by commentators and experts are not as important as how well the candidate does at connecting with voters with her approach to issues most important to them. We learned this with Paul Wellstone, how soon it’s been forgotten.

  11. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 02/10/2019 - 11:28 am.

    I would concur in Professor Schultz’s general point. Senator Klobuchar’s success rests principally on her being deeply grounded in Minnesota culture, and having the innate talent to navigate the demographic elements of that culture so as to maximize the proportion of Minnesotans that find her likeable and comfortable. The elements of her presentation that make her likeable and comfortable tend to work among people more broadly, but in that her success has been so Minnesota-specific, her capacity to scale up to capture support on the national level remains to be seen.

  12. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 02/11/2019 - 09:45 am.

    The Senator has another obstacle that too often goes overlooked by pundits inside Minnesota; Minnesota.

    The NorthStar state has a reputation for electing rather kooky people to office; Rudy Perpich, Jesse the Body, Paul Wellstone, Michelle Bachman, Keith Ellison and Al Franken come to mind.

    That’s not to say the Senator is kooky, in fact, posed against the kooks that are driving the Democrat bus these days, she looks quite reasonable. But Minnesota’s kooky legacy will be run out against her, and people will remember.

  13. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 02/12/2019 - 05:12 pm.

    Amy is a doer. She isn’t cheap talk but action. Let me name a few Presidents who were doers – Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Eisenhower and LBJ – that is pretty good company. Better than that model than our current “hot air” President. Great Presidents inspire but also close the deal.

    Schultz is trying to judge the horse race based on very traditional thinking. The first woman President has to make people be comfortable enough to trust her to do the right thing. Amy has shown that even conservative men are comfortable working with her. Part of that is that she is too busy getting stuff done to be fighting all the time. Just what we need!

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/14/2019 - 11:24 am.

    There’s a pretty lengthy discussion thread about Klobuchar and her appeal following another Minnpost story announcing her bid:

    I’ll just say here that I tend to agree with Mr. Schultz on this one. Looking at her announcement and speech there really isn’t a lot of substance there and if she want to capture a national audience she’s going to have to do more than brag about being from MN. Every candidate comes from somewhere, and every candidate has or had parents at some point in their lives.

    I personally don’t think American is needs or is going to need a “moderate” replacing Trump. There is a lot of damage that will need to be aggressively undone by whoever takes over. Furthermore, it’s a mistake to assume that this is all about Trump, the fact is that many the issues and problems from living wages, to health care, to education and infrastructure predated Trump, and American’s haven’t forgotten about those problems. I think voters will be looking beyond Trump, and I don’t think they’re in the mood for tweaks that nibble at the edges of our big problems.

    For instance regarding health care. The high costs of pharmaceuticals that Klobuchar mentions were actually a product of Obamacare and it’s failure to control pricing. The “solutions” K. is proposing are limited in scope. Her notion of loosening up import restrictions looks a lot like Pawlenty’s online Canadian drug exchange from what? Twenty years ago? And while the story of the young man who died without his insulin is tragic, since he wasn’t on Medicare or Medicaid lower negotiated prices may not have done him much good. Now if EVERYONE were on Medicare/Medicaid negotiating lower prices would have a dramatic effect.

    Listen, Americans didn’t want to lose Obamacare when the Republicans tried to repeal it, but that doesn’t mean they’re satisfied with it and will content to tweak it with compromises that will still leave millions without affordable health care.

    As far as “bipartisan” success is concerned, someone around here pointed out the fact that ALL legislation that makes it into law is bipartisan, Klobuchar’s legislation isn’t special in that regard.

    In the end I’m not sure Americans want the limited agendas and marginal policies that bipartisanship can deliver. American’s may want a Democrat and Democratic party that simply defeats Republicans and enacts the popular liberal policies that K. seems to be distancing herself from. Many voters may have realized that the pursuit of bipartisan governance has in and of itself actually yielded the gridlock and failed compromises of the past few decades.

    As for K. being able to “speak” to progressives and liberals, progressives are too familiar with centrist Politicians who tack to the left during their campaigns and then return to station once elected. Besides, if everyone thinks “moderates” are the “electable” candidates, why do these moderates need to pretend to be more liberal than they are in the first place?

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/15/2019 - 09:42 am.

    It will interesting to see how her fundraising works out. I got an e-mail asking for $5 because she’s not accepting corporate PAC or national lobbyist money. That’s a model that looks like Sanders’s fund raising model but that strategy only seems to work with really popular candidates who voters think are exciting. Is that going to be Klobuchar?

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