What’s Behind Amy Klobuchar’s Surge — And Can It Go National?

It’s not often that a third-place finish grabs more headlines than first place, but there’s nothing the media loves more than an underdog, and they got one in spades with Sen. Amy Klobuchar on Tuesday night.

While there was evidence that Klobuchar was on the uptick going into election night (she gained a little more than 2 points in our polling average after the debate on Friday), she still handily outperformed her polls in New Hampshire. Klobuchar had been at about 10 percent, but she doubled her support on Tuesday, finishing third with 20 percent of the vote — just 6 points behind Sen. Bernie Sanders (the winner) and 4 points behind former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who came in second.

It’s unclear what this will mean for Klobuchar moving forward, as like Buttigieg, the next two states — Nevada and South Carolina — could be tough for her. But here’s a look at what we know about her last-minute surge in New Hampshire, and what that might mean for Klobuchar’s chances of capitalizing on her strong showing.

Klobuchar won voters who were still deciding

According to exit polls, Klobuchar did particularly well with voters who didn’t pick a candidate until the last minute. A whopping 75 percent of her supporters said they made up their mind about who they would support in the last few days, as opposed to earlier than that. Relatedly, the Minnesota senator also did well among those who said that Friday’s debate was important to their vote. She won 27 percent support among this group. (Our polling with Ipsos had also found that voters gave her high marks for her performance in the debate.)

This could be a relatively bullish sign for Klobuchar, as the Democratic race remains incredibly fluid and plenty of voters are still deciding whom to support. The question is: Do the factors that swayed New Hampshire voters to Klobuchar in the last week translate nationally?

She did best with college-educated voters

In addition to winning over many undecided voters in the final stretch, Klobuchar also did extremely well among college-educated voters. Voters with a college degree made up 56 percent of New Hampshire’s Democratic primary electorate on Tuesday, and Klobuchar won 25 percent support among this group, putting her 2 percentage points ahead of both Sanders and Buttigieg, who won 23 percent support. In particular, Klobuchar did particularly well with white college-educated women — with 30 percent support, she led that group by 5 points. (There were not enough voters of color to break that group out by gender and education.)

Klobuchar’s base relied on college-educated white women

Chosen candidate in the 2020 New Hampshire Democratic primary by race, gender and education, according to exit poll data

White
College graduatesNon-college graduates
CandidateWomen (30%)Men (20%)Women (24%)Men (17%)Nonwhite (9%)
Klobuchar30%21%16%11%11%
Buttigieg2524312116
Sanders2026253632
Warren1410749
Biden65101016
Yang23245
Steyer15552
Gabbard05277

Sample size for this question is 2,878. There were not enough voters of color to break them out by gender and education. Not all candidates were listed on the exit poll.

Source: ABC news/Edison research

In fact, the exit polls showed that white college-educated women made up 45 percent of her voter base.1 This had ramifications for other leading candidates, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose performance in New Hampshire probably suffered because of Klobuchar’s strong showing among college-educated voters and women — among women, Klobuchar won 23 percent to Warren’s 11 percent.

The Democratic electorates in Nevada and South Carolina have relatively low levels of education, compared to other states, so Klobuchar might find it hard to leverage her support among college-educated white voters in those states in the same way she did in New Hampshire. But plenty of Super Tuesday states rank highly by share of college-educated white voters — in particular, Massachusetts, Colorado and Minnesota (Klobuchar’s home state).

Older and moderate voters also backed her

Two other groups that also lined up behind Klobuchar were older voters and those who identified as more ideologically moderate. (These two traits tend to be related — older Democrats are more likely to say they’re moderate than younger ones.) Among voters 65 and older, Klobuchar led the field with 32 percent support. She also did well with voters between the ages of 45 to 64, but Buttigieg edged her out for support among these voters, 27 to 24 percent. Sanders continued to lead among young voters, receiving 51 percent support among those between the ages of 18 and 29 as well as 36 percent support among those 30 to 44.

Klobuchar did well among older voters

Chosen candidate in the 2020 New Hampshire Democratic primary by age, according to exit poll data

Candidate18-29 (14%)30-44 (23%)45-64 (38%)65+ (25%)
Klobuchar4%9%24%32%
Buttigieg20222724
Sanders51361914
Biden461012
Warren61389
Steyer3343
Gabbard4441
Yang7321

Sample size for this question is 2,932. Not all candidates were listed on the exit poll.

Source: ABC news/Edison research

But among voters who said they were moderate or conservative, both Klobuchar and Buttigieg did well.

Klobuchar’s supporters nearly span the ideological spectrum

Chosen candidate in the 2020 New Hampshire Democratic primary by ideology, according to preliminary exit poll data

CandidateVery liberal (21%)Somewhat liberal (40%)Moderate (36%)Conservative (3%)
Buttigieg15%26%28%21%
Sanders48261611
Klobuchar9192619
Warren191034
Biden48126
Steyer1544
Yang3334
Gabbard11518

Sample size is 2,728. Not all candidates were listed on the exit poll.

Source: ABC news/Edison research

In fact, 48 percent of Klobuchar’s support came from moderate voters, while 39 percent came from those who describe themselves as somewhat liberal. Moderate and conservative primary voters only made up 39 percent of New Hampshire’s primary electorate, so the fact that Klobuchar also did well among liberal voters — she won 19 percent of somewhat liberal voters, and convinced 9 percent of very liberal voters to support her — helped her remain competitive overall.

Klobuchar’s message that she could defeat Trump by appealing to voters across the political spectrum may have been pivotal to her performance, too. She received 31 percent support — tied for first with Buttigieg — among those who said the most important quality was a candidate’s ability to “unite the country.” Additionally, she got a fair bit of support — 21 percent — from those who said they wanted a candidate who “cares about people like me,” only finishing behind Sanders among those respondents.

Klobuchar’s supporters think she’s a uniter

Chosen candidate in the 2020 New Hampshire Democratic primary by which quality was most important, according to exit poll data

CandidateCares about people like me (20%)Can bring needed change (38%)Can unite the country (32%)
Klobuchar21%12%31%
Buttigieg172331
Biden9814
Sanders31359
Gabbard213
Steyer343
Warren8123
Yang552

Sample size for this question is 952. Six percent of candidates said a candidate’s preferred quality is being a fighter; this group was too small to break out into cross tabs. Not all candidates were listed on the exit poll.

Source: ABC news/Edison research

Again, looking ahead, the question now is whether Klobuchar can use this New Hampshire result to truly get into contention for the Democratic nomination. After yesterday’s vote, our forecast remains pretty skeptical — it gives her only a 0.2 percent chance of winning a majority of pledged delegates. And the New Hampshire exit polls suggests she’s going to have to get around Buttigieg to win moving forward, since they both performed well among many of the same groups of voters. For instance, both posted strong numbers with moderate voters, older voters, and those who thought Sanders’s and Warren’s positions were too liberal.

Buttigieg is also in a better position than Klobuchar from a financial and organizational perspective — he raised more than twice as much money as her in the last quarter of 2019, giving him an edge in building a larger campaign infrastructure beyond the early states. Plus, while Buttigieg doesn’t have particularly strong numbers in the next states to vote — Nevada and South Carolina — he has stronger numbers than Klobuchar. He also leads her in national polls.

Still, Klobuchar’s surge in New Hampshire could give her campaign a boost that could carry it into March and beyond. The Granite State is far from representative, but if Klobuchar can appeal to more moderate voters of color in the more racially and ethnically diverse states coming up later this month and perform decently well — a big if — she might be able to position herself as a strong center-left alternative to Sanders heading into Super Tuesday.


Footnotes

  1. To be clear, this is the share of all Klobuchar voters who happened to be white college-educated women. We calculated this using the exit poll data on different racial, gender and educational groups found in the table above, and determined how large a share of the overall electorate each group was.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Laura Bronner is FiveThirtyEight’s quantitative editor.

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