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 KlobucharHillicon Valley: Democrats urge tech CEOs to combat Spanish disinformation | Amazon fined 6M by EU regulators Democrats urge tech CEOs to combat Spanish disinformation Bill would honor Ginsburg, O'Connor with statues at Capitol 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 BidenThe Supreme Court and blind partisanship ended the illusion of independent agencies Missed debt ceiling deadline kicks off high-stakes fight Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegSunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Chasten Buttigieg: DC 'almost unaffordable' JD Vance takes aim at culture wars, childless politicians MORE also are thought to be both “intelligent” and “likable,” but neither is considered “competent” or “reliable.” Even though Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Angst grips America's most liberal city Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenCalifornia Democrats warn of low turnout in recall election Pelosi disputes Biden's power to forgive student loans Warren hits the airwaves for Newsom ahead of recall election 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 TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement 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 ObamaMillennial momentum means trouble for the GOP Biden's Cuba problem: Obama made a bet and lost Democrats need a coherent response to attacks on critical race theory 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 KerryHow the US could help Australia develop climate action Equilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Clean power repurposes dirty power No. 2 State Department official to travel to China amid tensions 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 RomneyThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill 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 BloombergWHO leader issues warning on 'harmful' e-cigarettes Six months in, two challenges could define Biden's presidency Why Democrats' .5 trillion reconciliation bill is a losing game 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.