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Democrats need a 'dark horse,' not a front-runner, to win in November

Democrats need a 'dark horse,' not a front-runner, to win in November
© Greg Nash

While uncertainty abounds over what will happen in Iowa on Monday night, it is clear that if the Iowa caucuses were the proverbial smoke-filled back room of the party bosses, rather than a wintry endurance test for activists, Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharFormer Minnesota Democratic leader quits party Top cybersecurity official ousted by Trump Lawmakers question tech CEOs about content moderation in first post-election hearing MORE (D-Minn.) would win. After gaming out the pros and cons of the available candidates, the bosses would realize that she is the most electable “dark horse” in the race.

An ideological moderate, Klobuchar’s bipartisan track record makes her broadly acceptable to the wider electorate. She hails from the Midwest and has demonstrated that she can win in Republican districts. She possesses an impressive political resume and has served in the U.S. Senate since 2006. She also offers more benefits than any of the four front-runners.

According to a year’s worth of qualitative data collected by YouGov, Klobuchar is perceived as not only “intelligent,” “competent” and “reliable” but also “likable” and “committed.” This combination is no small feat. Only former vice president Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden team wants to understand Trump effort to 'hollow out government agencies' Overnight Defense: Trump transgender ban 'inflicts concrete harms,' study says | China objects to US admiral's Taiwan visit Protect our world: How the Biden administration can save lives and economies worldwide MORE and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete Buttigieg'Biff is president': Michael J. Fox says Trump has played on 'every worst instinct in mankind' Buttigieg: Denying Biden intelligence briefings is about protecting Trump's 'ego' Biden's win is not a policy mandate — he should govern accordingly MORE also are thought to be both “intelligent” and “likable,” but neither is considered “competent” or “reliable.” Even though Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet Biden names John Kerry as 'climate czar' in new administration In the final chapter of 2020, we must recommit to repairing our democracy MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOn The Money: Biden to nominate Yellen for Treasury secretary | 'COVID cliff' looms | Democrats face pressure to back smaller stimulus Biden to nominate Janet Yellen as Treasury secretary: report Bottom line MORE (D-Mass.) are perceived as “intelligent,” neither is seen as “likable.” While both senators also are believed to be candidates who will “stand up for ordinary people,” neither is viewed as “committed.” 

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Taken together, Klobuchar appears to be the most relatable. She also is the least likely to prove controversial or have one of her positive traits (such as “passionate”) be turned into a negative one (such as “stubborn” or “inflexible”) with opposition attacks. In short, it’s hard to make “reliable” into a bad thing — maybe “boring”? 

Even so, boring could be good for Democrats in this election. Democrats must make this a referendum on President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden team wants to understand Trump effort to 'hollow out government agencies' Trump's remaking of the judicial system Overnight Defense: Trump transgender ban 'inflicts concrete harms,' study says | China objects to US admiral's Taiwan visit MORE, not just some ugly contest over which party’s base is angrier. A progressive crusader (Warren or Sanders) focused on a mobilization strategy helps Trump because it will push most right-leaning suburban voters back into the GOP fold. Further, a partisan death match fronted by two old, white men shouting insults at each other (Trump and Sanders) would disgust occasional voters who won’t then likely vote but whom the Democrats desperately need to make their Electoral College majority.

Democrats need a candidate Republicans can’t demonize. Of course, it is this knowledge that keeps Biden’s candidacy afloat, but the reality is that Biden’s electability always has been more of a wishful illusion propagated by nostalgia-oriented elites (i.e., Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaCentral Asia is changing: the Biden administration should pay close attention MSNBC to debut docuseries 'Obama' Can Biden vanquish Democrats' old, debilitating ghosts? MORE’s presidency was a “Golden Age”) than a hard-headed partisan calculation (i.e., many of those who voted for Trump vehemently opposed Obama’s presidency, and Democrats are not likely to win back those voters by nominating Obama’s vice president).

Simply put, Biden is better in theory than in fact. In theory, Biden is the “safe” pick — a former vice president with loads of experience and a likable personality. In fact, he is the weakest “safe” pick by a party since former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) in 1996. And Dole was a war hero.

What does Biden have? Biden’s legislative record makes him more out of touch with the electorate than former Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryOvernight Energy: Biden names John Kerry as 'climate czar' | GM reverses on Trump, exits suit challenging California's tougher emissions standards | United Nations agency says greenhouse gas emissions accumulating despite lockdown decline Biden moves forward as GOP breaks with Trump rise Central Asia is changing: the Biden administration should pay close attention MORE (D-Mass.), also a war hero, was in 2004. Biden’s propensity for gaffes and touchy-feely tendencies also make him weaker than Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyWhoopi Goldberg blasts Republicans not speaking against Trump: 'This is an attempted coup' GSA offers to brief Congress next week on presidential transition Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks MORE (R-Utah), who sometimes could be too literal or formal for his own good (e.g., “friends that are NASCAR team owners” and “the 47 percent”). 

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But beyond these long-present liabilities, Biden already has been “swift-boated.” As a result of the Republicans’ desperate search for conspiracy theories to cover their own president’s wrongdoing and abuse of power with respect to Ukraine, Biden has become damaged goods. And now that the Ukraine energy company Burisma is associated in many Americans’ minds with “corruption” (irrespective of any facts or truth), all of Biden’s family ties are sure to not only come under scrutiny but also attack.

The only line of attack that seems likely to reemerge from Klobuchar’s past is the, yes, sexist one (see also, “Women Have to Be Likable”) that she is a tough boss and overly ambitious. Still, in the grand scheme of things, the party bosses also likely would view Klobuchar’s “tough” reputation as an attribute, rather than a defect, given that she would be going up against Trump, whose celebrity status rose on the false impression that he relished firing people.   

There is only one other candidate in the current Democratic field who fits the “boring” bill but in a somewhat different way: Michael BloombergMichael BloombergBiden's great challenge: Build an economy for long-term prosperity and security The secret weapon in Biden's fight against climate change Sanders celebrates Biden-Harris victory: 'Thank God democracy won out' MORE. Since Bloomberg isn’t running in Iowa, he poses no competition to Klobuchar on Monday night.

With all of this said, Iowa party activists who don’t want to make a mistake should vote with their heads, not hearts. Although Klobuchar may not make it all the way through what is sure to be a long and expensive Democratic nomination process, they can be assured that if she were to become the party’s standard-bearer, she is a strong “dark horse” and, with room on the track, she could outrun the Republicans’ “favorite.”   

Lara M. Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University and the author of the forthcoming book, "Amateur Hour: Presidential Character and the Question of Leadership." Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.