Who can win in 2020? Voters shift focus toward centrists.

Why We Wrote This

The perception has been that all the energy in the Democratic presidential race is on the left. Things may be changing as many voters focus on how to win key states in the general election.

Mike Segar/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar speaks to supporters after filing papers to appear on the 2020 New Hampshire primary election ballot in Concord, New Hampshire, on Nov. 6, 2019. The Minnesota senator sells herself as a Midwesterner who can appeal to swing voters.

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Who can beat Donald Trump? For many voters turning up at Democratic events in New Hampshire, that’s the No. 1 question on their mind.

Progressives are coming under greater scrutiny. Even liberal voters who love Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s bold ideas like “Medicare for All” are questioning whether she can really win – especially in the heartland. The last thing they want is for Mr. Trump to eke out another Electoral College victory. For that, they’re willing to compromise on issues they care about.

“I’m more worried about [finding] the candidate that can beat Donald Trump than policy,” says John Keenan, a father in Concord, standing with his young daughter outside the Statehouse, waiting for Joe Biden to emerge. Though former Vice President Biden has been the go-to centrist candidate, Mr. Keenan is leaning toward Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, fellow Midwesterner, is also drawing larger, more enthusiastic crowds. “We need to build a blue wall around those states ... and make Donald Trump pay for it,” says Senator Klobuchar, who won reelection last year in 42 counties that went for Mr. Trump.

As the New Hampshire primary draws closer, and average voters start coming out to hear the presidential candidates in person, there’s a common refrain at Democratic events: We want someone who can beat President Donald Trump – and not just in coastal states like ours.  

Even some avowed progressives are expressing concern that, as much as they love Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s calls for systemic change, programs like “Medicare for All” might be more than fellow voters across the nation can swallow, especially in the heartland.

That may explain an uptick of interest in Midwestern candidates like South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, as well as the last-minute entry of former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and the possible bid by a centrist like Michael Bloomberg. Despite the unusually large Democratic field, what’s emerging is a deepening sense that beating Mr. Trump will be no cakewalk.

A recent New York Times poll indicated that among the front-runners, only former Vice President Joe Biden would beat Mr. Trump in a majority of Midwestern battleground states – and only barely.

“We need to build a blue wall around those states ... and make Donald Trump pay for it,” Senator Klobuchar told a theater full of voters in Rochester, New Hampshire, so packed at lunchtime on a weekday that more than a few people had to stand. To do that, she emphasized, the nominee must reach out not only to Midwestern Democrats but also to independents and “Republicans of conscience.”

Elise Amendola/AP
Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks outside the Statehouse in Concord, New Hampshire, after filing to be placed on the 2020 New Hampshire primary ballot, on Oct. 30, 2019.

That message has won the support of Patrick Quinn, a Republican who credits President Trump’s tax cut with dramatically improving his income as a travel nurse but calls the president himself “vile.”

“For the first time ever, I started looking at Democratic candidates,” says Mr. Quinn, who paid $45 for a ticket to a recent Democratic gala in southern New Hampshire headlined by Senator Klobuchar. By the end of the night, he was sold on her – despite his friends’ reactions on Facebook. “I’m happy to donate to her campaign, support her in any way that I can.”

In particular, Mr. Quinn, who still plans to vote for Republicans in every race other than the presidential contest, says he’s impressed with the Minnesota senator’s bipartisan record. She has passed more than 100 bills as the lead Democrat and was the primary sponsor of a third of those, compared with a handful for senators like Bernie Sanders and Ms. Warren.

That no doubt contributed to her winning 42 counties in 2018 that had gone for Mr. Trump just two years prior. And what about in a face-off? A recent poll shows her beating the president by 17 points in the state.

“Not flyover country to me”

“The heartland is not flyover country to me,” Ms. Klobuchar told a packed audience at a retirement community in Exeter, New Hampshire, earlier that day. Demonstrating how she would spar with Mr. Trump on a debate stage, she added, “I don’t think about these farmers and workers in the middle of the country as poker chips in a bankrupt casino like you do, as you bankrupt the country – they are my neighbors and friends.”

The go-to candidate for centrist voters all along has been Mr. Biden, a Roman Catholic who comes from a blue-collar family in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and is seen as having a more natural appeal to some of the white working-class voters who ditched the Democrats for Mr. Trump in 2016.

Charles Krupa/AP
Democratic presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick files to have his name listed on the New Hampshire primary ballot, on Nov. 14, 2019, in Concord, New Hampshire.

When he arrives at the New Hampshire capitol to officially file his papers for the Feb. 11 primary, the narrow hallways are packed with firefighters and other supporters chanting his name. “J-O-E for 6-0-3,” they yell, referring to the state’s area code. As the former vice president walks with his wife past gilded portraits depicting New Hampshire statesmen, young staffers beat on upside-down plastic buckets hastily painted the day before, leaving a trail of blue paint chips behind them.

Outside, a modest crowd assembles in the frigid weather, awaiting Mr. Biden’s exit. They include voters who have just put the schedule of candidate visits on their fridge and are coming out for the first time, as well as people like John Keenan, who saw the crowd and stopped to see what it was about.

“I’m more worried about [finding] the candidate that can beat Donald Trump than policy,” says Mr. Keenan, who was shopping with his daughter to replace her pink Converse low-tops. He says he likes Mr. Biden but also Mr. Buttigieg and Senator Warren – and adds that he knows it will take someone really strong to beat the president. “When [Mr. Biden] is under the gun, he’s not as quick as he could be.”

Others dismiss the idea that Mr. Biden is too old or should pass the baton to a new generation, noting that he would be able to enter the White House on Day One knowing how to run it, and could leverage his many relationships with world leaders to repair America’s alliances.

“What better way to pass the baton than to right the ship and then pass it on to the next generation?” says Chris, a New Hampshire voter who didn’t want to give his last name because he is a federal employee.

“The character of our nation is on the ballot,” Mr. Biden said when he took to the stage before a modest crowd that had braved snow squalls on a frigid Friday afternoon. He indirectly addressed the president’s criticism around his and his son’s involvement in Ukraine. “I’ve learned two things the last several weeks: One is that Vladimir Putin doesn’t want me to be president,” he says. The other – “that Donald Trump doesn’t want me to be the nominee.”

“He’s scared of you!” shouts one woman amid more drumming and cheers.

In a five-minute speech, Mr. Biden presents himself as the only one who can bring the country together and make progress on key issues like health care, while still respecting Americans’ freedom to choose for themselves.

Mr. Biden is the only candidate who has a chance of beating Mr. Trump, says Dianetta Gilmore of Brooklyn, New York, when he finishes, pushing a cart of Biden buttons toward a line of protesters on the sidewalk with Medicare for All signs. Button sales haven’t been good today, though. “I tell you what,” she says, “Sanders and Warren are bringing them out in bigger numbers, and that’s not good.” 

Not an either/or choice?

Indeed, there has been tension throughout the campaign season over whether a crusader promising sweeping overhaul, like Ms. Warren or Mr. Sanders, is what’s needed to energize Democrats and get them to the polls in larger numbers. While some back that theory, others argue that it would be better to find a moderate candidate who can woo back former Obama supporters who went for Mr. Trump, win over disaffected Republicans, and help the country heal.

Mr. Buttigieg, the 38-year-old gay Harvard grad and Navy reservist, tells voters they don’t have to settle for one or the other.

“Don’t let anybody tell you that we’re going to have to choose – either solve the problems, or everyone is going to be united but we can’t get anything done. That’s not an acceptable choice,” he said, adding that the nation needs a president “who can stand on the rubble of what has been busted in our society and in our politics, pick up the pieces, implement bold solutions to get something done about those issues, and find a way to do it that’s actually going to unify the American people.”

Mr. Buttigieg has been raking in contributions lately, even as Mr. Biden’s fundraising machine has sputtered amid apparent donor worries about the staying power of his candidacy. The South Bend mayor now has more offices than any other campaign in New Hampshire, and has nearly doubled his staff since the summer, according to his campaign.

One voter from Boston, a 2016 delegate for Mr. Sanders who didn’t want to be identified because his clients come from across the political spectrum, says he likes Senator Warren’s policies but that recent polls have started to change his thinking. “[Mr. Buttigieg] might be the candidate that strikes the right balance [of] being inspiring without triggering fear of change,” he says. In particular, he’s concerned about the backlash Medicare for All could create, citing challenges with the Affordable Care Act’s rollout. “If you force that big a change ... you will upset a lot of people and eventually energize a lot of Republican voters in 2022 or 2024.”

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