vision 2020

Amy Klobuchar Might Finally Have Some Momentum. But Is It Too Late to Matter?

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

In Iowa these days, keeping up with The Narrative can be a disorienting exercise. Depending on who you listen to, Bernie Sanders is days away from sweeping to a caucus victory, Joe Biden will soon commence his ultimately predictable drift to the Democratic nomination, or both are irrelevant because Michael Bloomberg will just blow up the whole chessboard in March anyway. One story line, however, has been consistent for the last few weeks: that Amy Klobuchar is on the upswing. “We are in the middle of what someone called a surge,” the senator told a Cedar Rapids crowd early this month, as, on the sidelines, members of her team half-jokingly debated the spelling of the purported phenomenon: Was it “Klomentum” or “Klobmentum”?

It’s clearly true that Klobuchar, who has run as a pragmatist with a track record of winning in the Midwest, established herself as the obvious fifth-place contender in Iowa this winter, lagging the well-established Sanders–Biden–Pete Buttigieg–Elizabeth Warren top four but floating a cut above the less-defined (yet equally omnipresent to overwhelmed Iowans) tier headlined by Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang. And the Minnesotan, who has been banking on a next-door-neighbor advantage since announcing her campaign nearly a year ago, has stressed in recent days that even as she’s mostly stuck in Washington for impeachment duty, she’s doing everything she can to maintain the trajectory. “I’m a mom, I can do two things at once,” she said on multiple occasions before blitzing the state in person this weekend during a brief break from Capitol Hill. On the second day of impeachment proceedings alone, she’d remotely given five local interviews to Iowa and New Hampshire outlets and called into a town hall for Iowa caucusgoers, all in an attempt to crack the local news even if she couldn’t be on the trail like Biden and Buttigieg. (On Tuesday she saw an opening in the impeachment schedule and added a surprise evening rally in Council Bluffs; the announcement came as Buttigieg was prepping for his third Iowa event of the day, his seventh of at least 25 planned for the final pre-caucus week.)

What’s far less clear on the ground, however, is how real, or at least how lasting, this upward path actually is. Those close to Klobuchar concede that most of their evidence for it is anecdotal: They say they’re seeing an uptick in coveted commit-to-caucus cards at Klobuchar’s appearances in recent days, and they point out that some of her recent events have been unexpectedly packed — at the Cedar Rapids gathering on a snowy afternoon early this month, even before the Des Moines debate, they were happy to have outdrawn Biden, who was greeting campaign volunteers a few blocks away.

Though Klobuchar’s polling average has risen over two points in Iowa over the last month, in a state where she must hit 15 percent support at caucus sites to gain delegates, her numbers have mostly been in the single digits, according to reputable pollsters, with the exception of a mid-January survey commissioned by the Focus on Rural America advocacy group and, on Wednesday, a Monmouth poll finding her ticking up to 10 percent. But the most recent Des Moines Register poll put her at 6 percent and the New York Times–Siena had her at 8, before a USA Today–Suffolk poll placed her back at 6, and CBS News at 7. In each case, she was still in fifth place. And the in-person picture isn’t always much more encouraging. In Cedar Rapids, I overheard an organizer reassuring an attendee she wouldn’t be bombarded with calls and text messages if she shared her phone number, because the campaign didn’t have the resources for that. (Klobuchar raised $11.4 million in the fourth quarter of 2019, less than a third of Sanders’s take.) Her campaign was proud to see about 200 people show up for that event, in Cedar Rapids’ Veterans Memorial Building. Less than three weeks later, Buttigieg packed the same room with 1,200 Iowans.

Nothing is more revealing of Klobuchar’s place in the race, though, than the relatively soft treatment she gets from her rivals, who tend to view her as a potentially very dangerous threat who is running out of time to prove she’s an actual one. In theory, Klobuchar stands poised to sap support from each of the top four, except for Sanders. But none of them, or their allies, has yet identified a reason to go after her with any specificity — especially since many of her voters could be up for grabs in the second round of caucusing next month. For instance, Klobuchar’s opponents never mention the reports about how she mistreats staff, and when their surrogates do, the references are oblique, treating the matter like a personality quirk of Klobuchar’s rather than a serious matter. She has largely escaped the kind of scrutiny of her record as a prosecutor that followed Kamala Harris, and it’s seldom mentioned that the Senate election victories upon which she stakes her central electability claim weren’t always expected to be competitive to begin with. Finally, though Klobuchar is sensitive to the concern that she struggles to win over nonwhite voters — she recently reshuffled her schedule so she could address a Martin Luther King Jr. Day gathering in South Carolina and Iowa voters on the same day — it is Buttigieg, not her, who’s had to answer most questions about this from party elites and rivals.

Yet she continues gathering traditional markers of momentum, keeping her opponents on edge. She continues to win praise from an ideologically diverse array of pundits (though this can be falsely encouraging: Chris Cillizza has named her a “winner” of every debate since October). And she has picked up a raft of late-breaking local legislative endorsements in Iowa. Meanwhile, though she hasn’t dominated the newspaper-endorsement race — Warren won the Des Moines Register’s and Biden got the Sioux City Journal’s — recent backing from the Quad City Times (“Amy Klobuchar is a progressive realist”), the New Hampshire Union Leader (“Amy Klobuchar can win”), and the Keene Sentinel has boosted her organizing efforts. Plus, the New York Times’ joint Warren-Klobuchar nod “arrived at exactly the moment where the electorate here was looking to make that final decision, and I think that has renewed the engagement for caucusgoers,” Minnesota congresswoman Angie Craig told me while campaigning for Klobuchar in Iowa last week. “People are still open to who they’re going to caucus for on the third.”

Klobuchar herself is now trying to make the hard sell wherever, and whenever, she can. That has meant, in part, making sure Iowans don’t think of her as too much of an incrementalist: One of her latest television ads in the state focuses on all the plans she has for as soon as she becomes president, and at her events, her team members distribute pamphlets listing her goals for the first 100 days of a Klobuchar administration. When she talks to Iowans, she told me shortly before the impeachment trial began, “Some of them will have last-minute questions about issues, that is true — they are in Iowa, and they’re very well-versed on where people were on policy — but some of them want to see from me not just how I want to get to Election Day, but what I’m going to do on day one.” In recent weeks, she said, “It is a transition from when they really wanted to dig deep on policy. Now they want something bigger.”

To close the deal, she is also zeroing especially tightly on the “Can you win?” question that undergirds nearly every undecided Iowans’ wavering. “I have won every single time in that red district that borders Iowa, not just by a little, but by a lot,” she likes to repeat, in a now-familiar riff. “I have won in the congressional districts, every single time, that border North and South Dakota. I have won a northern Minnesota Republican-held district where the steelworkers are, and, yes, I have won Michele Bachmann’s district every single time.”

Like Buttigieg, she speaks often of her ability to win over Donald Trump voters. In Cedar Rapids, she twice mentioned “my friend John McCain.” Like Biden, she’s been talking about how Democrats further down the ballot would benefit from having her on the top of the ticket. She sees opportunities to hit the viability threshold to gain delegates in rural areas — the recent Focus on Rural America poll showed her nearly doubling the rest of the field on the question, “Which candidate is best for the needs and interests of rural Iowa?” — which local congressional candidate J.D. Scholten, who’s been in touch with many campaigns, told me was “her base.” Klobuchar’s final sprint through the state is expected to touch more western and remote parts of Iowa than some of her rivals, who are focusing more on the state’s bigger, eastern cities.

But time is not on her side. “I know you guys like to say, ‘You’re in my top three,’ ‘You’re in my top two,’” she told a recent crowd, referring to the remarkably high levels of proudly undecided caucusgoers. “Just go for it! It’s a new year!” At one point, she spotted an attendee whispering into a cell phone and urged the voter to convince the caller to commit to her, too. Klobuchar, after all, keeps having to get on planes back to the trial.

That’s already meant that she had to scrap her unannounced plan to visit all 99 Iowa counties for a second time, and that she’s stuck relying on her local endorsers and surrogates to pick up the slack. Her daughter has stepped up. So has the coach of the gold-medal-winning 2018 Olympic men’s curling team.

And even when she settles back into her seat in the Senate to fulfill her constitutional duty, reminders of the scale of the task ahead of her in the final week are inescapable. Her desk sits between those of Chris Coons of Delaware and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, two of Biden’s most prominent backers.

Due to an editing error, this story incorrectly stated that Klobuchar held the post of state attorney general. She was a county-level prosecutor.

Is Klomentum Real?