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 KlobucharElection security advocates see strong ally in Harris The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The choice: Biden-Harris vs. Trump-Pence California Democrats back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup 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 BidenHarris to host virtual Hollywood campaign event co-chaired by Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling Trump plans to accept Republican nomination from White House lawn US seizes four vessels loaded with Iranian fuel MORE and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The choice: Biden-Harris vs. Trump-Pence California Democrats back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup Obamas, Clintons to headline Biden's nominating convention MORE also are thought to be both “intelligent” and “likable,” but neither is considered “competent” or “reliable.” Even though Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersChris Wallace: Trump struggling with attacks on 'shape-shifter' Harris Kamala Harris: The outreach Latinos need Biden and Harris seen as more moderate than Trump and Pence: poll MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenChris Wallace: Trump struggling with attacks on 'shape-shifter' Harris Markey riffs on JFK quote in new ad touting progressive bona fides Howard Kurtz: Kamala Harris 'getting walk on water coverage' by media after VP pick 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.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

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 TrumpUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Michael Cohen book accuses Trump of corruption, fraud Trump requests mail-in ballot for Florida congressional primary 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 ObamaUS blocking private charter flights to Cuba Biden, Harris to address Democratic convention from Chase Center in Delaware Kamala Harris is now under the protection of Secret Service: report 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 KerryThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Harris launch Trump offensive in first joint appearance Ocasio-Cortez's 2nd grade teacher tells her 'you've got this' ahead of DNC speech Ron Johnson subpoenas documents from FBI director as part of Russia origins probe 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 Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Harris launch Trump offensive in first joint appearance Ron Johnson signals some GOP senators concerned about his Obama-era probes Davis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump 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”). 

ADVERTISEMENT

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 BloombergThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump threatens Postal Service funding l Biden proposes national mask mandate l Democratic convention takes shape Bloomberg to speak at Democratic convention Everytown on the NRA lawsuit: 'Come November, we're going to make sure they're out of power, too' 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.