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Klobuchar for president? She’ll face enormous obstacles

Assuming she’ll announce her candidacy on Sunday, perhaps Amy Klobuchar will defy the odds and win. One can wish her well. But an honest appraisal suggests the odds are against her.

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.

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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.

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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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