With the homestretch looming in Iowa, time is running out for single-digit-polling candidates to leap into the top tier. Can Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar do it in the next three weeks? I spoke with national correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti and political columnist Ed Kilgore, both of whom enjoy a good Klobuchar pun, to game out her chances.
Ben: Ready to talk Klobuchar?
Gabriel: Let’s Klo.
Ben: Rim shot.
Ed: Let’s don’t be Amy-less about it.
Ben: Rim shot again.
Gabriel: Well, I think we’re done here.
Ben: When Democratic candidates meet for the final debate before Iowa next Tuesday, it’ll be the top-four candidates — Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg — and Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, who has stuck around as many others have dropped out, done enough to qualify for these events, but not broken out of the single digits in early states or nationally. Klobuchar had what was generally regarded as a strong performance last time around, and has a compelling electability argument to make, having dominated her contests in increasingly purple-state Minnesota. But time is running out for her to make a leap into the top tier. Can she?
Ed: It’s unlikely. Her path to the nomination has to begin with survival in Iowa, presumed to be her best state. There may be an unprecedented “four tickets out of Iowa” this time around, but not five. And I just can’t see her beating any of the top four there, unless someone self-destructs in next week’s debate or something. More likely, she will join Tim Pawlenty and Scott Walker as great-on-paper candidates from “neighboring” states done in by Iowans.
Gabriel: Along those lines, I don’t think even she would necessarily say she’s fighting to be included in the top tier this second so much as trying to surprise in Iowa. She’s recently been leaning into the idea that she’s experiencing a “surge,” but it’s not yet clear whether that means she wants to compete for a big delegate haul in Iowa or to live to fight another day. There’s still time for something interesting to happen, as Ed suggests, but her theoretical rise would need to become real, AND one of the other top four would likely have to fall down the ladder significantly — which would probably entail moderate voters in Iowa ditching Biden and Buttigieg for her, rather than for each other, and/or Warren voters changing course, too. (I don’t think there are many Bernie/Klobuchar caucusgoers, obviously.)
Ed: I’m just not sure finishing a surprisingly strong fifth in Iowa is going to give her much of a bounce. And where is the state that will give her a breakthrough? Sure, she’s “moderate,” but not much of a cultural match for South Carolina. I mean, seriously, her claiming Klomentum from getting 10 percent of the vote in Iowa will be mocked like Lieberman’s Joementum of 2004. (Sorry, I stole Klomentum from Gabe, who used it in a side chat.)
Gabriel: Klo problem, Ed. (Sorry.)
I think people have been underestimating how strange it is that four strong candidates could emerge from Iowa and then for another to be waiting in the Super Tuesday states. The thinking against this projected Klobuchar path is clear: Would Americans who’ve been bombarded with this stuff suddenly be open to a SIXTH?
Ben: We’ve seen again and again in polls that Democratic voters care more about beating Trump than about whether they align with the eventual Democratic candidate ideologically. Doesn’t Klobuchar have the strongest case to make in that department, since she has a record of winning statewide elections in the Midwest by healthy margins? And as we get closer to voting, isn’t there a chance that voters will focus like a laser on that attribute even more than they are now?
Gabriel: That’s central to her pitch these days, sure. But the idea of “electability” seems to be what voters are using to pick through the top four, not to find a new option. Everyone’s making an electability argument, and has been for months. There’s little evidence that Iowans are so worried about everyone else’s version of the pitch that they’re searching for something else. Anyway, yes, of course, she has an obvious case to make. That’s the whole reason some folks around her are remaining optimistic.
Ed: I’d add two things about Klobuchar and electability: (1) there are a lot of electability-obsessed observers who don’t think any woman is electable against Trump, and who also wonder whether she has more natural appeal to minority voters than Buttigieg does, and (2) perceptions of electability tend to follow perceptions of how well a candidate is doing in the nomination contest. Hence, her likely fifth-place showing in Iowa won’t help. I hasten to add that I personally detest the “no woman can beat Trump” business.
Gabriel: Anyway, if voters were thinking about electability in such short-term, strict “Who’s won what?” terms, the primary wouldn’t be dominated by a centrist Democrat from Delaware or a lefty from Vermont.
Ben: Right. Steve Bullock would be a force to be reckoned with in that case.
Ed: Or John Hickenlooper. Or Michael Bennet.
Gabriel: And the “Draft Sherrod Brown” movement would be in overdrive. And while we’re at it, there’s Tammy Baldwin.
Ed: Yep. A contested convention should turn its lonely eyes to her. A contested convention in her own state, BTW.
Gabriel: Damn, my “Ed brings up a contested convention” bet was set for four o’clock … he said lovingly.
Ed: Haha. Can’t you just hear the packed galleries in Milwaukee chanting, “We want Tammy! We want Tammy!,” until the delegates comply?
Ben: Tammy Hall, not Tammany.
Gabriel: Gabriel Debenedetti has left the chat.
Ed: To get back to our Klobutopic, my bottom line is that Klobuchar might have a better chance if she was not from a state bordering on Iowa. Electability credentials aside, she has by far the most realistic (but also extensive and detailed) policy agenda, along with a clear indication of how she expects to accomplish it. But the expectation that she needs to make a splash in Iowa prevents any sort of slow blossoming of her campaign, or at least that’s what I fear for her.
Ben: Yeah, we haven’t even discussed, you know, policy. “Pragmatism” seems to be the name of her game there, in an even more explicit way than Biden or Buttigieg.
Ed: We know about Warren’s plans. But Klobuchar has a plan that details like 200 things she’d do in the first 100 days. What I haven’t heard anything about is her actual ground game in Iowa. Whatcha got on that, Gabe?
Gabriel: Indeed, that plan is detailed in the literature her campaign is handing out to interested caucusgoers in Iowa these days. It’s been real for a long time, but she simply doesn’t have, and hasn’t had, the resources of a Warren or a Buttigieg or a Biden. So her presence is smaller, though still noticeable.
Ben: Because she has not been seen as a major threat to the other prime contenders, Klobuchar has not come under attack from really anyone. (To be fair, nobody is really attacking anyone else all that much, generally.) Let’s say she does make a surprise run right at the end — what do you see as her biggest vulnerability, other than the fact that she has not generated much excitement so far? The big story with her early on was her abusive behavior toward her staff, which you don’t hear much about these days, primarily because she’s not in a position to win.
Ed: I suspect the calculation is that actual voters couldn’t care less if she’s mean to federal-government employees.
Gabriel: There’s that, but I think those on the left would primarily just hit her with the same critiques they have for all moderates: that what’s needed now is boldness, not D.C.’s version of pragmatism.
Gabriel: If it gets this far, she could also face fire for her prosecutorial record, as did Kamala Harris. But this is all conjecture, and probably not going to be relevant.
Ed: She might take a Klobeating.
Gabriel: A Klobbering.
(Let’s … not print any of this.)