Amy Klobuchar was supposed to be an afterthought by New Hampshire. She certainly wasn’t meant to finish in third place behind Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, outpacing both Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren and walking away from the state with a handful of delegates. But after an uptick in poll numbers, boosted further by a standout debate performance on February 7, Klobuchar’s campaign has received renewed viability and a much-needed surge of media fawning. While the longevity of this so-called Klobmentum may slow to a crawl when the race moves on to more diverse states, there’s something that Klobuchar took from New Hampshire that she’ll have no interest in returning: Warren’s block of educated white women voters.
According to exit polls, Klobuchar trounced Warren among college-educated white women, the demographic Warren has courted with immense success throughout the primary season. And to drive this point home to an absurdist degree, New York Times reporter Nick Corasaniti observed the following at Klobuchar headquarters in New Hampshire on Tuesday night: “Loudest cheers of the night erupted here in Concord as a CNN graphic showed Klobuchar well ahead with white college-educated women.”
It’s a perplexing leap between candidates with drastically different policy proposals, and little more in common than gender and party affiliation. White women in New Hampshire abandoned a progressive candidate who has advocated for free public college, medicare-for-all, and the end of cash bail for a moderate who believes that building on the gutted affordable care act is sufficient and views free four-year public university as the work of “magic genies.”
Klobuchar has repeatedly positioned herself as the adult in the room, the sensible, pragmatic Democrat who sees the shit heap that the Democratic party has been handed and aims to work with what they’ve got, not strive for too idealistic. It counters Warren’s platform calling for bigger structural changes, basing its pragmatism in the fact that the status quo is failing too many people to be worth preserving. As Warren said in the July 2019 Democratic Debates in response to centrist John Delaney: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running to be the president of the United States to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
Behind Klobuchar’s tough talk and girl power ethos lies this very problem: a fundamental belief that there are too many things that Democrats can’t do. So why would women in New Hampshire who have been supporting Warren’s vision of an America transformed switch their allegiance to someone who has a much narrower vision of what this country can and should achieve? Why would they place their bets on a woman who, despite a strong debate performance, is not performing well in any upcoming primary states? Why do they see a path forward in a woman who has recently come under scrutiny for her role as a prosecutor on a case in which a black teenage boy was sentenced to life in prison based on a litany of flawed evidence? Why do they see leadership in a woman who was under fire a year ago for allegedly creating a toxic workplace for her staff?
Voters aren’t purely ideological. There are people for whom the potential of a woman candidate rising in the polls is exciting, regardless of policy; and perhaps we saw this play out in New Hampshire. Voters are drawn to candidates for a myriad of other factors other than identity: charisma, eloquence, electability, or even how friendly they seemed at the county fair five years ago. The idea that Warren supporters would naturally flock to Bernie Sanders if her campaign went south was flawed thinking from progressives from the start. And if this shift in New Hampshire suggests anything, it’s that it wasn’t necessarily Warren’s policy agenda and her vision of a better tomorrow that drove educated white women to Warren, but rather a strong feeling of affinity. For a small group of voters at least, Klobuchar is inspiring the same emotions, just as Hillary Clinton did for this same demographic.
But Warren was already starting to lose them. Her numbers have been on a steady decline, which many blame on her somewhat ham-handed attempt to sell her Medicare-for-All plan to voters. As Jordan Weissman of Slate pointed out:
...[Warren] was also pitching college-educated professionals who may have been cold on single-payer to begin with but liked the idea of putting a hyper-competent wonk in the White House. As she floundered on Medicare for All, many of these voters seemed to switch to Pete Buttigieg, another outwardly brainy candidate with professional-class appeal, who subtly reversed himself on single-payer early enough in the race for nobody to notice.
But for the college-educated white women of New Hampshire, it was Klobuchar, not Buttigieg, who found the lion’s share of their support. What that means going into Nevada, South Carolina and eventually Super Tuesday is impossible to predict. But it might be evidence of the tepid feminism of a sizable demographic of Democratic voters.
Welcome to the election season, folks.