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As Iowa meets to caucus, where things stand for the senator next door

Klobuchar has spent more time in Iowa than any other Democratic candidate still in the race. Tonight, she’ll learn how well that strategy paid off.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaking during a town hall in Ames, Iowa, on January 26.
REUTERS/Brenna Norman

Some people choose a nice restaurant. Or have a party at home.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar celebrated her birthday on the campaign trail in Des Moines.

When Klobuchar was in Iowa City last May, she said that her initial rise in Minnesota politics was planned out exactly like an Iowa Caucus strategy: “I won the Iowa caucus way,” she said. “I won by putting up 3,000 lawn signs, and by doing 20 parades, and by doing 85 pancake breakfasts.”

In the last two weeks, Klobuchar has been doing two things at once: criss-crossing between Iowa and D.C. When she’s not dealing with 12-hour days during the Senate impeachment trial, she’s hosting tele-town halls with up to 12,000 of Iowans.

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While she has few staff positioned in other states, she has more than 60 in Iowa. She’s visited all 99 counties at least once. She also has more endorsements from current and former Iowa state legislators than any other candidate in the race. And the Des Moines Register says Klobuchar has held 181 events in the state, more than any other candidate.

If all of that is what it takes to win Iowa, Klobuchar has done everything right.

‘The Senator Next Door’

Late last year, Klobuchar completed “The Full Grassley” (named for Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley’s habit of holding meetings in each county), by traveling to all 99 counties last year. The types of events varied: private events with voters, public rallies, short stopovers. At one point, Klobuchar completed a four-day bus tour that stopped in 27 counties.

The state is already familiar territory for Klobuchar, who titled her 2015 memoir “The Senator Next Door.” She’s been a regular visitor to the state next door to Minnesota for years, which long fueled speculation about an eventual presidential run.

Now that she’s caught up in an impeachment trial, she’s made an effort to speak to Iowans by any means that she can. In addition to the tele-town halls, her daughter, Abigail Bessler, is doing surrogate work for her full time in Iowa, hosting “Taconite Tater” hotdish events, as is her husband, John Bessler.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaking at the Iowa State Fair on August 10.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Klobuchar speaking at the Iowa State Fair on August 10, 2019.
Klobuchar has also worked hard to win over Democratic officeholders in Iowa. That effort has earned her the most endorsements from current and former Iowa legislators, more than 17, while candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren both have around 12. Klobuchar’s list includes people like Swati Dandekar, a former Iowa state legislator and the first Indian-born American citizen to win a legislative seat in the United States. And Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, the Iowa state representative from the 32nd District.

Klobuchar’s campaign says they are campaigning on “bread and butter” issues that they say Klobuchar has heard from all around the country, but particularly in Iowa. Her focus is on building more roads and bridges, mental health resources, and opioid addiction treatment. Other candidates have proposed similar plans, but Klobuchar campaigns as a moderate — someone who will push for post-2008 progressive policies, like a public option to tack on to the Affordable Care Act, instead of pushing for Medicare for All. She frames herself to Democrats as the candidate who can win Republican and independent votes, as she’s done in Minnesota.

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But while Iowa is the first state to hold a nominating contest, it only offers up 41 delegates, or about 1 percent of the total possible delegates up for grabs nationally. California has 415 delegates up for grabs, around 10 percent of the entire delegate count. In the end, the delegate totals will determine who wins the nomination (or if there will be an inconclusive, and eventually, brokered convention).

The Iowa Caucus is also not necessarily a predictor of who will win the nomination. In 1992, Tom Harkin, not Bill Clinton, won with caucus with 76 percent of committed delegates. But since 2000, the caucus winner has gone on to win the nomination.

Klobuchar has focused heavily on the early state. Some candidates, like Klobuchar, have viewed Obama’s Iowa victory as a model for propelling them to successful primaries in other states, particularly South Carolina. (Obama’s chief pollster for that state recently put a very public dent in that idea, saying Obama had support in the other states before solidifying his win in Iowa.)

Where things stand

Since announcing her campaign for president in February of last year, Klobuchar has climbed from 3 percent to around 10 percent in Iowa polls. In several, but not all, polls she still remains behind her competition: Warren, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Biden. A recent poll of Iowa voters from Monmouth puts Biden at 23 percent, Sanders at 21, Buttigieg at 16, Warren at 15, and Klobuchar at 10.

Another recent poll, this time from Iowa State University, is about the same, but with Biden trailing his counterparts: Sanders at 24 percent, Warren at 19 percent, Buttigieg at 17 percent, Biden at 15 percent, and Klobuchar at 11 percent.

The initial field was large and more than 20 candidates were still vying for the nomination. But the most noticeable shifts, namely who is leading the pack, haven’t involved Klobuchar. At the start of the race, Biden went from a steady lead in Iowa to now being neck-and-neck with Sanders. And Buttigieg and Warren both had moments where they were able to match or eclipse both candidates, but neither moment lasted: They are several points down from Sanders and Biden.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
REUTERS/Scott Morgan
On September 20, 2019, Klobuchar and nine other candidates spoke to a packed house of over 1,100 in Cedar Rapids in the first LGBTQ-focused candidate forum since 2007 and the first one hosted in the Midwest.
The caucus will begin at 7 p.m. Central and is estimated by party officials to take about an hour. The set-up for caucus sites fairly straightforward: Attendees will show up one of the 1,678 precincts, find a candidate’s precinct captain (a designated lead supporter who’s corralling the group), and they’ll gather until it’s clear who’s won in each precinct.

Caucus rules say that candidates who cannot get at least 15 percent support at a caucus site are eliminated, and then voters will get to go with a second choice, depending on who is left. That rule led to stories last week that aides from Biden’s campaign floated an alliance with Klobuchar: Would her campaign tell supporters that, should she not make 15 percent at some caucus sites, that they should support Biden? Klobuchar doesn’t seem to have entertained the idea at all. “I’m not making any deals,” she said last Wednesday. 

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This year the Iowa Democratic Party will release three results, which could make discussion among the candidates about who won confusing: the first alignment, or who won the first ballot; the second alignment, or who won after the other first-round candidates were eliminated; and the final state delegate count, the actual number of delegates who will be sent to the Democratic National Convention in July.

Happy birthday

When asked in June if she needed to win Iowa, Klobuchar told PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff that her current position in Iowa was fine, because she’s a “a glass-half-full person.”

“I don’t think I have to win it, because there’s a whole country to run in,” she said.

On her birthday weekend May, a few weeks before that interview, Klobuchar traveled to Decorah, Charles, Iowa Falls, Boone, Fort Dodge, and Des Moines, where 200 supporters and interested Democrats turned out to wish the senator a happy birthday. They signed a big card. They ate cupcakes.

And when she got there, it was as normal of a birthday as it could be: Klobuchar got on stage, likely made a wish, and blew out the candles.

Then she wanted to say a few things for her birthday. She wanted to talk about President Trump’s trade war.