Klobuchar has to prove her electability every day. Why not Buttigieg?

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 45 days until the Iowa caucuses and 319 days until the 2020 election.

It’s a case Amy Klobuchar has been making for a while: If she and Pete Buttigieg swapped genders, would anyone even take Buttigieg “seriously”?

He’s the 37-year-old mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city, yet he has risen to the top of the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. She is the thrice-elected senior senator from a state Donald Trump nearly won in 2016, yet she has struggled to break out of the mid-single digits.

“Do I think that we” — meaning Klobuchar and the other women competing for the Democratic nomination — “would be standing on that stage if we had the experience that he had?” the Minnesotan said on CNN last month. “No, I don’t.”

Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

“Women are held to a higher standard,” Klobuchar added at the November Democratic debate. “Otherwise we could play a game called ‘Name Your Favorite Woman President,’ which we can’t do because it has all been men.”

Does Klobuchar have a point? It’s obviously impossible to prove a counterfactual. Perhaps Iowans would equally support a woman with Buttigieg’s slim résumé; perhaps a man with the same record as Klobuchar would still be registering at less than 7 percent in Iowa and less than 3 percent nationally.

But one of the central exchanges at Thursday’s debate in Los Angeles suggests that Klobuchar is onto something. It revolved around the concept of “electability,” which is the key quality Democratic voters are seeking in their 2020 nominee. Or, more precisely, the different versions of electability that male and female candidates feel obliged to embody.

Photo: Chris Carlson/AP

The back-and-forth began near the start of the debate’s second hour, during a discussion about immigration. Buttigieg said that his “understanding of this issue isn't theoretical” — that “it’s not something I formed in committee rooms in Washington” but rather on the ground, as mayor of South Bend.

Klobuchar was clearly prepared for the opening — and she pounced.

“When we were in the last debate, mayor, you basically mocked the hundred years of experience on the stage,” Klobuchar snapped, going on to gild her attack with praise for the accomplishments of the other senators onstage. “I have not denigrated your experience as a local official. I have been one. I just think you should respect our experience when you look at how you evaluate someone who can get things done.”

Buttigieg responded by mentioning his military service. But Klobuchar wasn’t having it.

“I certainly respect your military experience,” she said. “That’s not what this is about. This is about choosing a president. … I know you ran to be chair of the Democratic National Committee. That’s not something that I wanted to do. I want to be president of the United States. And the point is, we should have someone heading up this ticket that has actually won and been able to show that they can gather the support that you talk about of moderate Republicans and independents, as well as a fired-up Democratic base, and not just done it once. I have done it three times.

“I think winning matters,” Klobuchar continued. “I think a track record of getting things done matters. And I also think showing our party that we can actually bring people with us, have a wider tent, have a bigger coalition and, yes, longer coattails, that matters.” 

Buttigieg tried once more to defend himself. “Senator, I know that, if you just go by vote totals, maybe what goes on in my city seems small to you,” he said. “If you want to talk about the capacity to win, try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80 percent of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence's Indiana.”

But Klobuchar got the last word, bringing up her rival’s disastrous 2010 race for state treasurer. “Mayor, if you had won in Indiana, that would be one thing,” she said. “You tried and you lost by 20 points. I’m sorry. That’s just the math.”

Though neither Buttigieg nor Klobuchar actually uttered the word “electability,” that’s what they were talking about. Poll after poll has shown it’s the only thing that matters to Democratic primary voters — a candidate’s impossible-to-prove yet all-important ability to beat Trump. Klobuchar knows that Buttigieg has ascended in Iowa because Iowans have come to see him as electable. She also knows that in order to have any chance of winning the nomination herself, she has pull off a top-tier finish in a state that shares a border with her own — likely by knocking the other Midwestern moderate down a few pegs. And so she is trying to redefine electability: It’s not a quality you project onto a candidate ahead of time, she’s arguing. It’s something you can assess based on their past record.

Based on Klobuchar’s definition of electability, Buttigieg wouldn’t even be in the race. South Bend is not “Mike Pence’s Indiana”; it’s a liberal college town of 100,000 people that Hillary Clinton won decisively in 2016. In his only statewide race, he lost by even more than Klobuchar claimed: 25 points, not 20. 2010 was a tough year for Democrats — remember the tea party? — but Buttigieg’s margin of defeat was the largest of any Indiana Democrat in a statewide race that year and the second largest since 2000.

Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters

By contrast, Klobuchar has repeatedly won her purple state by wide margins. In 2018, the other Democrats running statewide in Minnesota won by anywhere from 4 points to 11 points. Klobuchar won by 24 points; her victory included 42 counties carried by Trump. In 2012, Barack Obama won 53 percent of the vote in Minnesota. Klobuchar won 65 percent. In 2006, Republican Tim Pawlenty defeated his Democratic opponent for governor by a single percentage point. Klobuchar won her race by 20. Earlier this year, FiveThirtyEight ranked every senator’s ability to win over the other side by measuring the distance between a politician’s net home-state approval rating and that state’s partisan lean. No. 1 and No. 2 were West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, Democrats who won in deep-red states. Klobuchar was No. 3.

The problem for Klobuchar is convincing voters — and even the Democratic establishment — that that record matters. “@BarackObama lost a congressional primary to Bobby Rush 2-1 eight years before he was elected President of the United States,” former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe tweeted Thursday night. (Klobuchar’s rival Joe Biden, of course, was Obama’s vice president, but Plouffe has not signed on with a candidate this year.) “The past is the past. Question is do you have the talent and broad appeal to meet THIS moment. Electability should not be viewed thru a rear view mirror.”

For whatever reason — unconscious bias, Hillary PTSD, the fear that other people are sexist — women don’t get that same benefit of the doubt. Pundits detect in Buttigieg the potential to “bring people together”; Biden’s ability to win over blue-collar Trump voters is asserted as fact, even though he last won a competitive election in 1972. But female candidates are expected to prove their “electability” every time they take the stage. So Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris drop out long before Iowa. Warren becomes the only candidate forced to explain how to fund Medicare for All. And Klobuchar has to remind Democrats that Buttigieg lacks anything remotely resembling her string of victories in a Midwestern state that has a lot in common with must-win Wisconsin and Michigan.

Will it work? According to a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll conducted immediately before and after the debate, Klobuchar’s net favorability rating jumped by 6.1 points over the course of the evening — the field’s second-biggest increase. When voters were asked to estimate each Democrat’s chances of beating Trump, Klobuchar’s ticked up the most — by 4 points, on average. And she was by far the biggest winner in terms of attracting potential voters; the share of respondents who said they were considering voting for her grew by more than 4 points.

So it was a strong debate for Klobuchar. Her argument connected. Yet even so, the share of voters now open to supporting her remains small: just 14 percent. Buttigieg’s share is 25 percent. Biden’s is 54 percent. With the Iowa caucuses approaching, it looks like Klobuchar will have to prove that she’s electable by proving she can win — yet again.

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