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With her focus on mostly white Iowa, is Amy Klobuchar doing enough to reach black voters?

In South Carolina, where black voters are a much bigger constituency than either Iowa or New Hampshire, Klobuchar is polling at 0 percent.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders
Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, among other presidential candidates, are shown walking arm-in-arm with local African-American leaders during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade in Columbia, South Carolina, on January 20.
REUTERS/Randall Hill

Who is Amy Klobuchar?

According to a recent national poll of black voters conducted by The Washington Post and Ipsos, 62 percent of black voters either have no opinion of her or have no idea.

When it comes to support, Klobuchar doesn’t even register in the poll. She is behind Joe Biden, who has 48 percent support; Sen. Bernie Sanders, at 20 percent (the bulk of whom are 18-34); and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, at 9 percent. Even former mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has been criticized for a lack of black voter support, has 2 percent.

The poll speaks to a central problem for Klobuchar as she prepares for the Iowa Caucus: She has spent the majority of the campaign cycle focusing on Iowa, a primarily white state. But when it comes to the third-in-the-nation primary in South Carolina, the demographic picture looks very different. So how does Klobuchar intend to connect with black voters?

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King Day at the Dome

Last week, only two Democratic candidates did not initially schedule time to attend the annual “King Day at the Dome” celebration in Columbia, S.C., on Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg and Klobuchar.

“What they’re doing is really disrespectful to norms. They wouldn’t miss … what is it? … the Iowa Steak Fry,” Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative, told Bloomberg News.

Buttigieg did not budge. But Klobuchar’s campaign eventually changed its plans, and she showed up, immediately jetting off to The Brown & Black Democratic Presidential Forum hosted by Vice News in Iowa afterwards.

Both candidates are polling low in South Carolina, including with black voters. In the last few South Carolina polls, Klobuchar is not polling at all with black voters: She remains at 0 percent.

Klobuchar has spent the majority of campaign cycle so far focused on Iowa, a state that, according to the latest census data, is 90 percent white and around 4 percent black. 2016 exit polls place Democratic caucus voters at about the same percentage. There, she has at least 60 staffers on the ground.

South Carolina is noticeably different: 68 percent white and 27 percent black. And in 2016, data from the South Carolina Election Commission places Democratic primary voters at 19 percent white and 33 percent non-white (the commission does not release more specific demographic information).

While Klobuchar’s campaign would not specify how many staffers she has in South Carolina, the campaign does have a state director: Angela Kouters, a former chief of staff to Buttigieg when he was mayor of South Bend and a chief of staff to several members of Congress.

Color Of Change

Color Of Change is a large racial justice organization founded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to give black voters a voice. The group creates online media campaigns, petitions, lobbies, and give money to candidates in order to build power for black communities.

They also have a podcast: Voting While Black. Kamala Harris, the other prosecutor who was in the race, also was on the podcast last year. Four of the candidates on the last debate stage have also been on. Only two candidates on the debate stage have not: Former Vice President Joe Biden and Klobuchar.

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Rashad Robinson, Color of Change’s president, said that they have sent Klobuchar’s campaign at least 23 emails and offered up multiple meeting times. Up until now, the campaign has been unable to meet with her directly. He pointed to Klobuchar’s unwillingness to meet with the group as being indicative of who the candidate really is.

“The fact that she won’t even meet with us, that the only person we can talk to is an African-American outreach director, tells us a lot about how she thinks about governing and how important she sees black people,” said Robinson.

“And that should worry anyone who is supporting Amy Klobuchar.”

Klobuchar has made at least one visit to Black Leaders Organizing Communities, an organization in Milwaukee that coordinates political action within the black community.

‘It’s not fair and it’s not right’

In a statement provided to MinnPost, Klobuchar’s campaign disputed the idea that she is having trouble connecting with black voters.

“Even as a candidate who is not as well known as many of her opponents, it has become clear that as Senator Klobuchar visits more places and meets more people, her support grows — including with people of color. She has the support of Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, the first African American legislator in Iowa to endorse a presidential candidate, and as our campaign continues to ramp up in states like South Carolina, Nevada and beyond, we expect our support to grow there, too.”

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At a recent donor event, Klobuchar seemed to reframe the question of the importance of black support: To her, the problem for a Democratic potential candidate is not whether black voters will turn out, but that the party needs to be expanded with white independents and moderate Republicans.

“African American women have turned out every single time for Democratic candidates. They need some friends,” she said. “They need some support. And so when I look at this, I look at independents, and I look at moderate Republicans to add to our numbers.”

At the Vice Forum earlier this month, Klobuchar was asked by moderators if she is the “white moderate” Dr. King was talking about in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, who King said was “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice” and a greater “stumbling block” to freedom than a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Klobuchar responded, “I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to walk into a maternity room, pregnant, and say that your hands are swollen, and then walk out there without your baby because no one’s listened. Or what it’s like to be in a store, and have [store security] follow behind you. …  I don’t pretend to live that life. But what I do know is that it’s not fair and it’s not right.”

But for Color Of Change’s Robinson, Klobuchar’s actions on the campaign trail are more important.

“After Iowa and after New Hampshire, as you head to South Carolina and on Super Tuesday, the question will not be are you just meeting people,” Robinson said, “but have you built a relationship with them?”