Why Amy Klobuchar is moderate Democrats' only hope
The moderate wing of the Democratic Party is in trouble.
With Elizabeth Warren's polling looking unchanged despite weeks of attacks from other candidates and prominent moderates, and with fellow progressive Bernie Sanders given new life by his most recent debate performance and the flurry of endorsements from "Squad" members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, moderates are running out of time to prevent control of the party from being seized by its left flank.
The strategy for the Democratic establishment thus far has been to count on former Vice President Joe Biden's enduring strengths with the party's electorate, his reputation as an Amtrak-riding everyman, and his universal name recognition to carry him to victory. And while moderates and the party's ubiquitous 'donors' may be comforted by Biden's steady national polling numbers, they shouldn't be. Instead, they should be doing everything in their power to consolidate their faction around the one remaining moderate who is viable in both the primary and the general election and capable of stringing together multiple coherent sentences in a row: Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. The hour is late, and they are running out of time.
Despite some decent polling since October's debate, Biden's candidacy looks increasingly untenable. His performances in the nationally televised Democratic debates have ranged from halting and confused to defensive and angry. His inability to capitalize on his early polling edge allowed the indefatigable Warren to methodically roll up the supporters of lesser known candidates, make inroads with the rank-and-file, and pull even with or ahead of Biden in many surveys. While some national polling still has him in the lead, Biden trails in Iowa and New Hampshire and barely leads in averages of Nevada, the third state to vote. Only one candidate from either party — Bill Clinton in 1992 — has ever lost both Iowa and New Hampshire and then secured the nomination during the primary era. It is unlikely to happen again.
Biden's fundraising has also cratered. A man bereft of the kind of quasi-religious fervor his rivals inspire in their most dedicated boosters, his entire operation has been floated by big-dollar donors together with the sense of inevitability he has curated since day one. Yet Biden was fourth in third-quarter fundraising, lagging far behind Sanders and Warren but also trailing South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The whispers have gotten louder: Does anyone love Biden enough to put in the sleepless nights on the trail and the massive number of volunteer hours needed to put a campaign over the top? Will young people turn out for him? Will he be yet another 'safe' choice for Democrats, like John Kerry, who ends up snoozing the electorate into a narrow defeat?
His camp clearly doesn't see deficits in the early voting states as a mirage, and has talked openly about South Carolina as a "firewall." But they are underestimating the narrative pummeling that Biden would endure after losing each of those early voting states. There are four weeks between the Iowa caucus and the South Carolina primary. It's just too long to sustain an electability argument as your guy keeps getting publicly drubbed, and it overlooks the fact that Biden is slipping there too. In the most recent poll of South Carolina, Warren pulls 19 percent — too much for Biden to use the Palmetto State and other southern strongholds to pull away if he's getting lapped elsewhere.
The other problem for Biden right now is that his polling edge against Trump as compared to Warren and Sanders is less substantial than it once was. CNN's most recent poll, for example, had Biden doing just 2 points better nationally than Warren and just one more than Bernie. A recent Emerson poll had Biden, Sanders, and Warren beating Trump by the same 2 point margin. An Oct. 11 Fox poll had both Warren and Biden trouncing Trump by 10 points, with Sanders just behind at 9. There are still some recent state polls, including ones of Wisconsin and Florida, that show Biden doing meaningfully better against Trump, but they are fewer and further between. And the more his electability perception erodes, the more trouble he will have holding off challengers who inspire broader and deeper enthusiasm from their supporters.
Biden isn't sunk just yet, but counting on a rebound in public performance, fundraising, and public perception from a 76-year-old who often seems adrift and always appears one cognitive step behind his rivals is delusional. That's to say nothing of the pervasive chatter about his son Hunter and how he came to acquire a lucrative gig on the board of a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma — a prime example of favor-currying that has been vaulted to the center of American politics through the impeachment inquiry against President Trump. While no one has turned up any legal wrongdoing, and while the president is clearly using it as a cudgel to bludgeon what he sees as his most potent rival, the whole affair reeks of the kind of insider dealing and nepotism that has led many Americans to regard the government as a redoubt of legalized graft. Biden's strategy in response to this scandal has thus far been underwhelming.
And so moderates hoping that Biden will break decisively away from his progressive challengers need another option. Based on her performance in the October debate and not withstanding her reputation as a binder-flinging Horrible Boss, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar could be that savior.
Klobuchar, almost totally unknown nationally before last year, would not be in this conversation without her 2018 interrogation of Brett Kavanaugh, then the embattled nominee to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. The daughter of an alcoholic, Klobuchar managed both to corner Kavanaugh about his past drinking problems but also to seem like the more sympathetic person in the exchange when he tried to clumsily turn the tables on her. It was a star turn.
The buzz about a potential presidential bid was immediate, and got louder when she outperformed all expectations in her November re-election campaign, particularly in comparison to the party's 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. As Nathaniel Rakich of Five Thirty Eight noted, Klobuchar "outperformed Clinton by more than 20 points in 11 counties, all of them places where the population is overwhelmingly non-Hispanic white, where the median household income is lower than the statewide median ($65,699), and where less than a quarter of the residents have a bachelor's degree." She looked like a kind of electoral unicorn — a fiery progressive woman who could inspire the base and also keep those mythical Obama-Trump voters in the fold.
Yet her subsequent presidential campaign hasn't exactly caught fire. She's never pinged higher than 5 percent in a national poll, and she's mostly been an afterthought in the debates, where she has seemed earnest and sharp but also sometimes nervous and overeager to deliver her zingers. Despite camping out in neighboring Iowa, she's topped out at 8 percent there. With Buttigieg making a play for the same moderate, Midwest Democrats, Klobuchar has frequently been lost in the media shuffle and has struggled to find oxygen.
If they are going to vault Klobuchar into the top tier between now and Iowa, her boosters are going to need to produce some polling sooner rather than later. A recent survey of Minnesota had Klobuchar doing better there against Trump than any other Democratic candidate, blowing the president out by 20 points. But that's Minnesota, where Klobuchar would be expected to outperform other potential nominees anyway. If her argument that she has unique appeal to rural Democrats and swing voters has legs, it needs to be demonstrated both in other early voting states and nationally by favorable head-to-heads against the president. And voters need to see those polls as soon as possible.
More importantly, Biden boosters should ask themselves some tough questions. Do you really believe in this guy? Can he withstand two or three hours on a debate stage with Trump? Can you trust him not to commit some awful, campaign-ending faux pas in October of 2020? How can he appeal to younger voters who see him as a drab relic from another age, and can he make up those losses with gains among independents? Why not toss him aside for someone who at least has a fighting chance of appealing to Millennials and Generation Z?
From the beginning, many progressives, yearning for a true ideological break with the recent past, underrated Biden's shot at the presidency. But he still had to perform well, and almost from the get-go, he has plunged himself into a series of needless controversies and stumbled badly at important moments. Some of this seems baked into his personality, but other pratfalls are driven by age-related decline and obstreperous, personality-driven self-destructiveness. For moderates, the time to turn the page on Biden is now, and Klobuchar seems like a much better bet than flash-in-the-pan newbies like Buttigieg or Third Way fever dreams like Michael Bloomberg.
And while this progressive would prefer Warren or Sanders, if the nominee has to be a moderate, Klobuchar seems like a much better candidate, a sharper sparring partner for Trump, and a much more effective potential president than Joe Biden.