Why Amy Klobuchar would win by subtraction

The 2020 Democrat is the candidate of Republicans staying home

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has been waiting for her moment for nearly a year. On paper, she has always looked like a winner: a middle class daughter of the heartland who has won every election in which she competed, and who consistently ran ahead of her party in a crucial Midwestern swing state. But she never caught fire. Vice President Joe Biden dominated the moderate "lane" for most of the campaign, while other candidates — Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg — generated more personal enthusiasm. Eventually, she came to be seen as the scold of the campaign, patiently explaining to the voters why they can't have nice things.

That's finally changing — perhaps too late, but just possibly not. Biden's and Warren's campaigns are stumbling, and Buttigieg is getting a closer and more skeptical look. Klobuchar's closing argument in the New Hampshire debate clearly touched a chord, and the polls have moved significantly her way: both the Suffolk University and Emerson College polls — the only ones that sampled voters immediately before and after the debates — both have Klobuchar surging to 14 percent and third place, ahead of both Warren and Biden and nipping at Buttigieg's heels.

Could she ride a surprisingly strong New Hampshire finish into real contention for the nomination? It would require everything to break her way. Along with other, more tangible matters like money and support from crucial constituencies, it would require a real change in the logic that has governed the campaign to date.

A much-noted article in Politico about political forecaster Rachel Bitecofer explains that logic. According to Bitcofer's thesis, there are far fewer true swing voters than people believe. Most independents actually lean strongly to one party or the other, and most of the remainder simply vote against the status quo. Very few voters truly swing between the two parties.

So how could a state like Iowa, say, have swung so strongly from Obama (who won the state by over 9 percent in 2008 and nearly 6 percent in 2012) to Trump (who won the state by nearly 9 percent)? The answer is that the electorates weren't the same. Eighteen percent of Iowa voters didn't shift from Obama's camp to Trump's over eight years. Rather, a significant number of Obama voters dropped out of the electorate (or went third party), while a significant number of non-voters came out of the woodwork for Trump.

In Bitecofer's understanding, an election is a two-step process. First, the contours of the electorate are defined. Well before the voting starts, the shape of the electorate — the demographic and geographic characteristics of the two party coalitions — will be clear. Once that shape is set, the battle will be for each side to turn out their voters. And as Bitecofer sees it, since November 2016, the shape of the electorate has been defined by Donald Trump's residency in the White House. So the job of the Democrats is to mobilize those voters who find that fact intolerable.

Following that logic, it's easy to conclude that what the Democrats need to do is nominate someone who maximally energizes the various components of their coalition, from suburban professional women to young urban African Americans to rural Hispanic voters. There's still a legitimate debate about whether a more moderate or a more left-wing candidate would do a better job of exciting the Democratic base, because that base includes both left-wing and more moderate voters — and in their different ways, that's the debate we've been having between Biden and Buttigieg on one side and Sanders and Warren on the other. But in either case, the question is really who gets Democrats to the polls, not who swings the middle to their side. (And, frankly, if Bitecofer is right, then the savvy deployment of marketing dollars and GOTV efforts will matter much more than who the candidate is.)

But that way of parsing the question misses something crucial: negative partisanship is a two-way street. It doesn't just matter how well you energize your own coalition. It matters how well you energize your opponent's coalition — whether your candidate is someone the other side is scared of enough to mobilize their people against.

The case for Klobuchar is, fundamentally, that she's the candidate Republicans would have the hardest time mobilizing against, because she's just not that scary to them.

This would be true even if the campaign had proceeded differently until this point. Klobuchar's biography and legislative history make her a relatively difficult target for Republican demonization. They'll surely come up with something, but the trivial attack lines against her competition — that she's doddering, that she's an extremist, that she's a "deep-state" insider, that she's a neophyte, that she's an out-of-touch elitist — won't apply. But it's especially true given that, were she to actually win the nomination, she would have done so precisely as the candidate of realism, and the candidate against revolution, because that has been her brand the whole campaign. Plus she would have done it without the personal resources of a billionaire like Mike Bloomberg.

Klobuchar flips on its head the logic of all the other campaigns. From their perspective, Trump's voters are a given: He's got the passionate support of white evangelical Christians, rural voters, men without college degrees, and partisan Republicans of all stripes. Democrats need to run up the margin in the cities and suburbs, and among women and minorities, to overwhelm their numbers. That's what happened in 2018, when the Democrats and Republicans both achieved high turnout, and the Democrats were able to take the House.

But in that same wave election, the Democrats lost ground in the Senate. Strong Democratic turnout wasn't enough to overcome the partisan Republican advantage in states like Indiana, North Dakota, Missouri, or Texas, or even in Florida. And a major reason was that the Kavanaugh hearings energized the Republican electorate to come out in force.

Now imagine that Trump's vote isn't a given. There's clearly a segment of the electorate who are reluctant Trump voters. They aren't going to vote for a Democrat, but they might stay home rather than give Trump four more years — provided they aren't too worried about who the Democratic president would be. Who are these voters? Perhaps they are single white women without college degrees who thought Hillary Clinton looked down on them. Perhaps they are Chamber of Commerce types who enthusiastically supported Romney. They may well live in states like Iowa, Maine, and North Carolina where Trump's approval rating is under water in spite of the inroads he made in 2016 — and which are crucial to the Democrats' Senate hopes in 2020. Which nominee is best positioned to convince those voters to stay home, and thereby not only defeat Trump but deprive him of Senate coattails?

That's the case for Klobuchar from a progressive perspective. It's not just a question of who would more aggressively push a progressive agenda as president, or even which nominee would be more likely to win the presidency in the first place. Without the Senate, even a President Sanders would have a hard time passing most of his agenda. And the Democrats are unlikely to take the Senate simply by running up their own vote. They need to depress the other side — and do it in states where Trump will be competitive or even favored to win.

While turning to a moderate would seem to be a sign of fear, in a sense a Klobuchar nomination would be an expression of confidence. The Democrats would be saying: We know our people are going to turn out, because they are mobilized by Trump. And we know whoever we nominate is going to share, broadly, a similar vision for the country. It's the other side that needs a bogeyman to run against, someone they can paint as scarier than Trump to voters who only ever picked Trump as the lesser of two evils. So we're not going to give it to them.

Is that confidence warranted? That's the real question. If not, the Democrats have to hope their nominee is someone who can excite the kind of passion that only rare candidates can, and that it doesn't generate a more effective counter-mobilization by Republicans of their coalition. If so, then it might just be Klobberin' Time.

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