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Amy Klobuchar may be Minnesota’s most popular politician. But how popular is she in Minnesota’s Trump country?

photo of people holding red and blue amy klobuchar signs at a rally
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
As the state’s politics have become more polarized along urban-rural lines, even Klobuchar has lost support in Greater Minnesota.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s entrance to the presidential race Sunday turned presidential watchers’ eyes toward Minnesota for the first time since the 2012 election, when the state had the distinction of having two politicians — Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty — seek the office.

There’s a particular reason some are watching Klobuchar, though, amid a crowding field of Democrats looking to get the party’s nomination next year: Her ability to run up big electoral wins in a Midwestern state that almost went for Donald Trump in 2016.

Democrats routinely win statewide offices in Minnesota. But not by Klobuchar’s margins. In three Senate elections, she’s bested her Republican opponents by double-digit margins, and the ability to win big in an increasingly purple Midwestern state has made some pundits say she might be the Democrats’ best shot to win votes in Trump Country.

But look a little closer, and that story gets more complicated. Yes, Klobuchar easily won re-election in 2018. But as Minnesota’s politics have become more polarized along urban-rural lines, even Klobuchar has lost support in Greater Minnesota.

Big wins

Klobuchar has a track record of winning big. She hasn’t faced a close race since she first ran for Hennepin County attorney in 1998. In her re-election bid for the seat in 2002, she ran unopposed.

Then she set her sights on the Senate. Running for the seat formerly held by Mark Dayton, Klobuchar beat Republican then-U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy by a comfortable 20-point margin. She won all but eight counties.

Running for re-election in 2012, she beat Republican state Rep. Kurt Bills by 35 points, outperforming Barack Obama’s margin by a factor of more than four. And this time, she won all but two southwest Minnesota counties (Pipestone and Rock) by double-digits.

But something seems to have changed by the time the 2018 election came around.

By-and-large, 2018 was a good year for Democrats in Minnesota. Tim Walz won the governor’s race with a commanding lead; the DFL kept Minnesota’s other Senate seat in Democratic hands with the election of Tina Smith, and Democrats took the state House of Representatives. Yet Klobuchar won with a smaller (though still substantial) margin of victory than in 2012: 24 percentage points over Republican Jim Newberger, a state representative who did not raise enough money or support to mount a serious statewide campaign.

She won 51 out of Minnesota’s 87 counties, losing patches she formerly won in southwestern, central and northwestern Minnesota.

Klobuchar margins by county, 2012
Klobuchar margins by county, 2018
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

How could she do so well while losing support in Greater Minnesota?

The Twin Cities metro area usually represents about 55 percent of votes in the state, a growing share. In 2018, the metro suburbs swung to the Democrats hard, driving DFL victories in statewide races.

Meanwhile, Democrats did less well in Greater Minnesota, losing Congressional Districts 1 and 8.

So yes, the national pundits are right that Klobuchar has shown Democrats can win in swing states. But moreso than past elections, her large margin of victory came from votes in the Twin Cities and its suburbs.

Tim Lindberg, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota-Morris, sees it as more of a Democrat problem than a Klobuchar problem.

“The Democrats did worse, ever since 2012, in rural Minnesota. They’ve been progressively doing worse outside of the Twin Cities area,” he said.

The divide in the electorate, with cities and suburbs leaning left, and rural areas leaning right, could provide both opportunities and challenges for Klobuchar.

Minnesota’s most popular Democrat

Despite her loss of support in Greater Minnesota in 2018 relative to 2012, Klobuchar outperformed other Democrats outside the Twin Cities metro by a longshot.

2018 vote totals in Greater Minnesota
Note: Greater Minnesota includes the 80 counties outside the seven-county Twin Cities metro.
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State

She won 76,000 more votes than now-Gov. Tim Walz, and 86,500 more votes than Sen. Tina Smith, neither of whom ended up in particularly close races. She won 51 percent of votes in Greater Minnesota, compared to the 35 percent won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, who still won the state by 1.5 percent despite her unpopularity in the 45 percent of the state that makes up non-Twin Cities metro areas.

Of course, if she’s on the ballot in November 2020, she’ll face voters nationwide — not just those who know her best in Minnesota.

Then, Lindberg says, the question becomes “Is Klobuchar helped more by her persona as this moderate centrist that can bring together rural areas and urban areas and have common sense legislation, or is it more she’s a Democrat and (none of that) matters anymore?”

Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Greg Laden on 02/14/2019 - 12:28 pm.

    It seems that some of that 2012 vs 2018 difference between the opposition in those two years. In any event, the phrase “… has lost support in Greater Minnesota” used in the body of the text and the photo caption should be revised. She has not lost support. She still has piles of support, esp for a DFLer, in greater Minnesota. Perhaps “… has reduced support in Greater Minnesota” (but again, the argument for that is not really strong).

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/14/2019 - 12:31 pm.

    A reminder people vote, not counties.
    The closest thing to an exception is the Electoral College (America’s hymn to gerrymandering), where sparsely populated rural counties can outvote more populous urban and suburban ones. That’s why demographics (or maybe republographics) give Republicans at least a 4 point edge in elections. But the numbers still favor Klobuchar.
    “Once in love with Amy….”

    • Submitted by Joe Frank on 02/15/2019 - 07:18 am.

      “Electoral College (America’s hymn to gerrymandering” ? The Framers of our Constitution made it that way for a reason, and they were much smarter than you. “When we get piled upon one another in large
      cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe .”
      — Thomas Jefferson

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 02/14/2019 - 03:31 pm.

    Stop the Klobuchar bus, I want to get off.

    Many of the things people raise as reasons to support Klobuchar are reasons I oppose her candidacy. Her claim to have passed more bills than anyone else in the Senate, for example, is an indicator not of her leadership or her ability to reach across the aisle, but of the relatively innocuous nature of that legislation. She has never, to my knowledge, lead the charge on any controversial bill. To the contrary, it is my opinion that she has waited on the sidelines on such bills until it was clear they would play well at home, then climbed aboard as a co-author or otherwise endorsed the bill. Too, she has played the game of constituent services well.

    Her popularity in Minnesota (declining or not) is irrelevant to her appeal nationally. Minnesota has always been a political outlier. The fact that Humphrey and Mondale won Democratic nominations is due largely to the stature they gained nationally rather than here at home. Even though they were in the game far longer than Klobuchar has been, both lost convincingly. (Humphrey lost to Nixon by 110 electoral votes and would have lost even if he had picked up all 46 votes captured by George Wallace. Mondale captured only 13 electoral votes (all from Minnesota) in 1984.

    Can she bring progressives out to vote in November, 2020? I have serious doubts that a moderate being dragged to the left will be able to do so, even with Trump as her opponent. There is a good chance that the party will be badly splintered by the end of the 2020 convention, as it was in 2016. If so, does she have the leadership skills to unite them? Again, I have serious doubts.

    For my money, none of which I’ve actually contributed to her campaigns, Klobuchar would best serve the state and the nation by remaining in the Senate as a reliable vote and worker on the more mundane matters for which she seems to have some talent.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/14/2019 - 05:45 pm.

      “I have serious doubts that a moderate being dragged to the left will be able to do so, even with Trump as her opponent.”

      Well, that didn’t really pan out in 2016, did it? Let’s try something different.

      Separately, in 1984 Mondale did win 13 electoral votes, 10 from MN and 3 from Washington, District of Columbia.

      • Submitted by James Hamilton on 02/15/2019 - 09:29 am.

        I sit corrected and plead age in my defense.

        Separately, in 1984 Mondale did win 13 electoral votes, 10 from MN and 3 from Washington, District of Columbia.

      • Submitted by Henry Johnson on 02/17/2019 - 01:36 pm.

        Really? You’re seriously claiming that Hillary lost because she was a moderate? THAT was her big problem with voters??

        Come on, do you even really believe that yourself?

        She lost because for once Trump’s nickname for a political opponent was pretty on the mark IMO – namely “crooked Hillary”.

        She lost because of numerous alleged “pay-for-play” deals while she was secretary of state, the ‘Clinton foundation” which mysteriously received huge donations from foreign entities with business in front of the state department. Entities which had never been donors before.

        How about the lies? She falsely claimed she had dodged sniper fire “making a run for it” from the plane to the a getaway car when she visited Bosnia -wrong – TV footage shows she spent an hour in a meet-and-greet with hundreds of people on the tarmac, there were no bullets.

        How about being investigated for possible release of classified materials sent from a private email server? And shredding thousands of emails on that server before giving a chance for the FBI to review them.

        Or the fact that the Russians hacked her server and released gems like her comment in an email that probably most Bernie Sanders were “kids living in mom and dad’s basement” – which of course really made Sanders supporters want to go out and vote for her.

        Or Comey deciding he absolutely “had” to let the world know he was reopening the FBI email investigation into her, 10 days before the election, while not saying a single WORD about the investigation into Trump for possibly conspiring with the Russians to influence the election!

        There were a number of reasons why Clinton lost, but none of it IMO had to do with being a ‘moderate’, it had to do with her massive amount of political and personal baggage, questions about her honesty and character, and Trump receiving help from the Russians and from Comey.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/15/2019 - 09:17 am.

      Clinton had a credibility problem, when she tried to claim she is progressive it was just another example of dishonesty that most progressives found kind of disgusting. But most us voted for her anyways because we saw how close the vote was going to be. We knew Clinton wasn’t even much of a liberal let alone a progressive, but Trump was too much to contemplate. Ironically, she got OUR vote, but lost the undecided’s, Obama black voters, and white women. Granted a lot of progressives voted for Stein, but no more than would have otherwise.

      I don’t know if Klobuchar shares Clinton’s credibility problem. I had similar doubts about Walz but so far he’s not disappointed me.

      I don’t know to what extent the ghost of Clinton can haunt Klobuchar, and I also wonder what progressives would do with a Democratic Party that ignores a liberal platform… again? In some ways a moderate Klobuchar distancing herself from wildly popular liberal agendas may lose more progressive votes than Clinton did, and I’m not sure she’ll capture the votes that Clinton lost. But is certainly helps that she’s NOT Clinton.

    • Submitted by Dorothy Crouch on 02/19/2019 - 02:01 pm.

      I’ve noted that a solid negative appraisal of Klobuchar will not be published. I have been a Democrat in the past but have never supported Klobuchar. Nor will I now. In fact I left the Democratic Party after this past election and am now an Independent. I won’t vote Democrat or Republican. We need another party.

  4. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 02/14/2019 - 03:41 pm.

    If Trump allows his trade war to produce a recession or depression in rural Minnesota and America with heavy farm foreclosures and small business failures, all his talk about walls, bathrooms and invisible tax cuts will not cut it with people who trusted him to represent their best interests.

    There is no doubt that Amy offers exactly the opposite of Trump. She thinks before she speaks, respects her opponent and puts in the full work days taxpayers should be able to expect from their leaders. There is really little to like about Trump. Fear or envy, maybe, but like – no. He is like the neighbor who never stops talking about himself and doesn’t even pretend to care about the things that matter to you. How can you not like Amy?

  5. Submitted by John Helgerson on 02/14/2019 - 04:04 pm.

    There is much to like about Senator Klobuchar;her strengths are well documented. But I have to say that I am disappointed that she is looking to leave the senate, especialy after vowing to serve out her full term. Moreover, Klobuchar has elected to not accept any PAC funding — admirable, yet not realistic for a presidential campaign.. Hillary Clinton amassed a war chest of more than$1.1 billion and did not win. I cannot imagine just how Klobuchar will have nearly enough funding to compete and win. even if she gets the nomination. I’m afraid that it will take another Democrat to capture the White House.

    • Submitted by Joan Halgren on 02/17/2019 - 11:07 am.

      Hmm. Paul, Elizabeth Warren isn’t taking PAC money either. And AOC proves you can with without it! Taking a macro view, the GenXers and Millennials are the people these candidates need to listen to since they will be the biggest voters in coming elections. They are much more progressive than Ms. Klobuchar so go figure. Our country has fallen into disarray and must emphasize a moral compass: progressive legislation that lifts all boats. If not, well, adjust your lives to the return to a two-class system: lords and serfs–that’s what happens when we allow democracy to slip from our grasp.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/20/2019 - 02:59 am.

        AOC won a safe Democratic seat, which means nothing in a presidential election or even in a competitive race anywhere.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/20/2019 - 02:03 pm.

          She defeated an entrenched incumbent in the primary. While her seat may be a safe Democratic one, the race to get there was still competitive.

          Granted, a Congressional election in the Bronx is not a great indicator of the national mood.

  6. Submitted by Brian Simon on 02/14/2019 - 09:52 pm.

    The piece focuses on the wrong data points. If the dem nominee, Klobuchar doesn’t need to win over more MN Republicans, she needs to outperform Clinton in a few states. In MN, Sen K outperformed Sec C by 16 points. If she can outperform Clinton by one point, WI, MI & PA go to the win column. 1.3 points adds Florida. Given Trump’s ongoing slide, that doesn’t seem out of reach.

    • Submitted by Joan Halgren on 02/17/2019 - 11:09 am.

      If VP Biden decides to run, well, all demo candidates will be out of reach! That’s the potential reality.

    • Submitted by Henry Johnson on 02/17/2019 - 02:15 pm.

      I agree with you Brian, although to me, the real fallacy was the idea that ANY Democratic candidate could really pull many votes from the Trump ‘base’.

      These people have “drunk the kool-aid”, nothing is going to change that probably.

      The real block to go after is in the left-center, center, and right-center, which includes a huge block of voters as well that are far too often ignored – independents.

      And I think Amy would do well and bring victory to the Democratic party with that huge independent and centrist block of votes that are actually fairly undecided, not committed already, and that’s the group which makes the differences in these elections.

      AOC was only a token, minor part of the mid-term democratic win – most of the seats captured were by by moderate democratic candidates who won the votes of disillusioned and educated republican women in the suburbs.

      The Trump core believers are already committed, but many somewhere near the center of the political spectrum could be influenced into voting either for a Democratic OR a republican, depending on how things play out over the next 21 months.

      Many of those people are pretty skeptical of Trump after seeing all his flaws these last two years, and therefore democrats really have a good chance with those voters.

      However, it remains to be seen whether the more far-left elements in the party will succeed in “grasping defeat from the jaws of victory” by handing the Republicans issues they can easily demonize and therefore convince the huge centrist block that despite his flaws, Trump and republican senators are the ‘safer’ choice.

      I’m talking about issues such as the ‘Green new deal’, ” Medicare-for-all”, and so on – programs that have ZERO chance of being elected into law unless and until Democrats have the white house and both chambers of congress.

      Which ironically is far less likely to happen if democrats continue to hand those easily demonized and easily lied-about issues to republican candidates to “run against”, and if the legislation itself isn’t worrisome enough to centrist voters, to lie, distort, and fear-monger about that legislation until it is a deal-breaker for that huge block of centrist voters.

      The focus for 2020 for democrats should be IMO on WINNING, not ruining things by pushing legislation that is going to raise red flags for that huge centrist block of voters, especially since republican candidates will be trying to throw as much sensational fear-mongering as they can at those issues as possible.

      If Trump gets another 4 years, which could happen people!, with the rate at which he’s shredding and degrading democracy, we might have a near-fully totalitarian state by 2024.

      We need to get him out of there, and not let ourselves get so intoxicated by the mid-term elections gains that we start thinking that it’s a shoe-in that Trump will be defeated, and the senate can be regained by democrats.

      Remember, 98% of the country, even republicans thought Trump had zero chance of winning the nomination in 2016.

      We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves and think it’s a given that he won’t get reelected – again, especially if democrats continue to push legislation that can be portrayed as being far enough “out there” to make that huge centrist block of voters see Trump and the republicans as being the “safer choice” and perhaps for many centrist voters, “the lesser of two evils”.

  7. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 02/15/2019 - 06:59 am.

    Democrats will not reclaim the White House by appealing to Trump voters. They will only win if more citizens actually vote.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 02/15/2019 - 08:42 am.

      Considering that some Trump voters were Obama voters, I disagree. Looking at MN data, there were apparently Trump Klobuchar split tickets. It is erroneous to assume that all Trump 2016 voters are unpersuadeable in 2020.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/15/2019 - 09:23 am.

        Trump lost MIN. And the issue isn’t Trump voters of 2016 since they didn’t deliver the state Trump anyways. The issue is current Trump supporters, and THEY will not vote for a Democrat, or more importantly, any Democrat they would vote for, should not be president.

        Will some Trump voters switch? Maybe, but that’s not the well of votes that’s going to put any Democrat into the White House, so those aren’t the voters Democrats need to chase.

  8. Submitted by Elsa Mack on 02/15/2019 - 08:46 am.

    On the one hand, I think Klobuchar lacks charisma and I don’t see her as offering a compelling vision for the future of the country. Common sense and compromise seem like good ways to govern, but not great ways to campaign.

    On the other hand, in 2018 there were several instances of Democrats who won red-leaning districts because they emphasized moderate, practical positions that were popular in their districts.

    Basically we need someone who is inspiring to young people and farther left Democrats, as well as someone who doesn’t scare moderates. I’m not sure that Klobuchar is it.

    • Submitted by Joan Halgren on 02/17/2019 - 11:14 am.

      Biden is it. He symbolizes stability during chaos and holds the traits of great presidents: tenacity, integrity, empathy, compassion and curiosity. While his age may seem problematic, he is a strong father figure that many young people are desperate to have. So we’ll see what happens…Klobuchar maybe wasting her time.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/18/2019 - 09:28 am.

        Biden has been running for President since 1988.

        “While his age may seem problematic, he is a strong father figure that many young people are desperate to have.” That strikes me as a trifle condescending. I don’t think “Vote for Daddy” is a message that’s going to resonate with many younger voters.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/15/2019 - 08:49 am.

    No Democrat is going to get votes from Trump supporters, and any Democrat that tries is inching towards Fascism in pursuit of votes they’ll never get. If THAT’S Klobuchar, she actually needs to be defeated because that’s not sustainable politics and it’s not an America most people want to live in. I’m not saying that IS Klobuchar, but that’s the calculus bi-partisan’s are playing with, so… play at your own peril. One thing we’ve learned about Congressional Republicans (and Republicans in general) over the last two years, is they’re every bit as toxic as Donald Trump. So do we want Democrats who reach out to Republicans, or do we want Democrats who defeat Republicans? I think wherever you encounter Fascism it needs to be defeated, but that’s just me.

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