A day before the New Hampshire primary, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has zoomed into third place in two tracking polls and is drawing her biggest crowds of the cycle. Few predicted at the start of the primary system that after the Granite State primary, she might be the only woman still standing.
Better-known Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York left the race in 2019, unable to overcome electability concerns in an electorate fearful that Democrats might pick the wrong nominee and fall to President Trump. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, was never a contender and, surely, neither was spiritual guru Marianne Williamson.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., seemed to be running strong in late summer and early fall, making herself out to be the ideal compromise between socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and center-left candidates. Ironically, Medicare-for-all, which was never central to her theme, tripped her up, and she has never seemed to recover. It’s a funny thing how one day, a candidate can be confident and in the zone, and then after a mishap quickly transform into a shadow of her former self.
Where once she was the gal with all the plans, Warren now seems to be a one-note tune (it’s the corruption!). She seemed to recede from the top tier at the last debate, coming alive only briefly to swat down former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg for his record on race.
It would be foolish to ignore gender as a hurdle for her. As Sam Stein of the Daily Beast puts it, she faces a “stubbornly persistent belief that Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 is proof that misogyny remains a latent but potent force in American politics and that, in an election all about beating Donald Trump, resurfacing that might not be worth the risk.” Her supporters gripe that “she gets none of the benefits for trying to break the last remaining glass ceiling in politics while getting all of the downsides that come with being a woman in politics.”
Some of the complaints are nothing more than excuses for poor political judgment. Warren made a choice to cling to Medicare-for-all and then to put out a plan to pay for it. She decided to seize on Sanders’s reported comment from a private meeting that a woman could not win.
However, it is certainly the case that the media virtually ignored her respectable third-place finish in Iowa. One would have thought she came in behind the former vice president. Often the greatest damage the media can inflict is to ignore a candidate. Somehow, Warren’s story has gotten lost among the multiple media narratives. (Can Joe Biden survive? Biden or Buttigieg?) In the Friday debate in New Hampshire, the moderators inexplicably let billionaire Tom Steyer butt into the conversation, leaving Warren stranded on the sidelines.
How, then, has Klobuchar persevered and even flourished? For one thing, she has not been a top-tier contender until now and therefore has not been the focus of media vetting and opponents’ attacks. In addition, she has used gender as part of her life story and image. (“I’m not the tallest or the loudest,” she says in debates.) Her political career was a result of her maternity experience when she was kicked out of the hospital while her daughter had to remain to be treated for a serious health condition. However, her campaign message is not about breaking the glass ceiling. It is simple: She is a moderate who can get things done, and just as important, can beat Trump in the Midwest.
Klobuchar’s campaign does not force voters to think about gender. She is running, pardon the expression, like a man, or rather, the way men are allowed to run. She found a simple message and pounds it relentlessly. She does not have to tout a feminist moment (“She persisted,” as Warren recalls from her encounter with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.) She shows she is tough by confronting Sanders on Medicare-for-all (it’s not happening) and poking Buttigieg for his light résumé and disdain for experience. She remains on offense with a touch of humor — an advantage for any politician. She can be self-deprecating (James Madison was 5-foot-4!) and biting (I won’t be flying to my resorts. Oh, that’s right — I don’t have any!). She has avoided going after Biden (letting the media and her opponents do the work).
If Klobuchar finishes strong in New Hampshire today, she might steal the “anybody but Bernie” crowd if Buttigieg cannot get past his trouble with nonwhite voters and concerns about his age/experience. As for Warren, she might trudge on to Nevada and beyond, but one senses that she is much closer to elimination than Klobuchar. And who would have predicted that?