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How Amy Klobuchar’s campaign for president went wrong

In all, it was a campaign that bet on Iowa, but lost.

photo of amy klobuchar speaking from lectern to crowd
Klobuchar’s day-old campaign got the image it was hoping for.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

Sen. Amy Klobuchar expected a blizzard the day she announced her run for president. And on the campaign trail, she spoke of it fondly.

“I stand before you as the granddaughter of an iron ore miner,” she said during a blizzard on Boom Island in the early days of February. “The daughter of a teacher and a newspaperman, the first woman elected to the United States Senate from the State of Minnesota, to announce my candidacy for President of the United States.”

The problem, though, was the inclement weather she did not expect. Four days before Klobuchar announced, HuffPost reported three people withdrew from consideration to lead her campaign because of her history of staff mistreatment. Two days later, BuzzFeed spoke to eight former staffers that described Klobuchar’s Senate office as “a workplace controlled by fear, anger, and shame.”

And two weeks after her announcement, the New York Times published a story that would not go away — the salad comb story — in which Klobuchar reportedly asked a staff member to clean her comb after they forgot to bring her a fork and she used it to eat her salad.

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Party operatives and activists in Minnesota often describe Klobuchar as one word: careful. Someone who expends political capital only when they feel they need to. And if you want to expend political capital, then there’s nothing more expensive than a presidential campaign. It didn’t seem to worry Klobuchar. As she would often say: “I have never lost one race I’ve ever run.”

Klobuchar was the candidate who wanted to bring in white moderate voters. As she put it: “If you are tired of the noise, the nonsense and the extremes of our politics, you have a home with me.”

Klobuchar was also a candidate who wasn’t used to being under the microscope. While she avoided much of it as a senator, a presidential run brought an extensive look at her electoral history (including her time as a prosecutor) and her interactions with DFL activists.

In all, it was a campaign that bet on Iowa, but lost; walked into New Hampshire, and defied expectations; and finally, sputtered out when it couldn’t win an election with a coalition of mostly white moderate voters.

The Iowa gambit

While other campaigns dispersed their operation, Klobuchar’s campaign put almost all of its resources into Iowa. The theory was that, if Klobuchar were to win Iowa like Barack Obama, she might be able to pick up some momentum moving into the more diverse later primary states.

Klobuchar spent over 71 days in Iowa, hosting 191 events. She placed the bulk of her staff in the state. She visited every county in Iowa. She constantly attended forums. At the Iowa Steak Fry, one of the biggest events for campaigns in the state, the campaign littered Des Moines Water Works Park with “Amy for America” signage. Her staff even camped the night before — in the mud and on a Friday night — to set up for the event: one of only two campaigns to do so (the other was Beto O’Rourke’s).

Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaking at the Iowa State Fair on August 10.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaking at the Iowa State Fair on August 10, 2019.
From the start, Klobuchar’s operation was lean. It was clear early on that Klobuchar struggled to match the prodigious small-dollar fundraising power of Sen. Bernie Sanders or the vast fundraising network built by Sen. Kamala Harris. At least once, Klobuchar called it a “happy, scrappy” campaign. For most of her run, the campaign leaned heavily on Minnesota donors to keep itself afloat. But the campaign was often burning money faster than they could raise it, with significantly less spending power than their competitors. At one point, they deferred staff salary payments into the next reporting period in order to juice their cash-on-hand numbers. And in order to keep up with the number of donors the DNC required to make the debate stage, Klobuchar’s campaign hired an army of contract canvassers to ask Minnesotans for money.

There were signs early on that things weren’t going perfectly in Iowa. At larger events, Klobuchar wasn’t drawing the crowds that might match someone pitching herself as a candidate for the heartland. Instead, the campaign sent busloads of supporters from Minnesota to attend events in Iowa.

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Carol Malenofski, who came down to the Iowa Steak fry from New Brighton, Minnesota, came down on the bus because Klobuchar is her candidate. “Everything I would like, Amy does. I’ve been active for Hillary, but I just want Amy to be president,” she said. “It’s the state pride certainly, I’ve been a Minnesotan all my life, but it’s more than that.”

Early on, polls consistently placed Klobuchar at between one and three percent. In December, there was a shift — as candidates started dropping out — and Klobuchar was able to reach around 11 percent. But candidates needed to win 15 percent support in each Iowa caucus precinct in order to remain viable. And for Klobuchar, come caucus night, it was clear that was a problem.

There was one bright spot for the campaign when caucus night was over: Klobuchar came within striking distance of Joe Biden, earning about 12 percent of the overall vote. Klobuchar finished in fifth place, but came out on stage and delivered what very much felt like a victory speech.

“You’ve probably heard we don’t know the results. But I did not want to let another minute go by without thanking all of you,” Klobuchar said as she took the stage at the Des Moines Marriott. “We know there’s delays, but we know one thing: We’re punching above our weight.”

Because of problems with reporting, the Iowa results were not finalized until the end of February, weeks after the Iowa Caucus was held. In all, of 41 total pledged delegates allocated to the Democratic National Convention, the Iowa Democratic Party said that Klobuchar would receive only one.

New Hampshire boomlet

The surprise of the campaign was New Hampshire. While she didn’t win, Klobuchar earned more than double the votes of Joe Biden or Sen. Elizabeth Warren: a third place finish behind Sen. Bernie Sanders and former mayor Pete Buttigieg.

“I cannot wait to win the nomination,” Klobuchar said at her election night event. “I cannot wait to build a movement and win with a movement of fired up Democrats, independents, and moderate Republicans that see this election as we do. We see it as an economic check on this president. We see it as a patriotism check. And we see it as a decency check.”

Despite a windfall of donations after the New Hampshire results and the debate that preceded them, Klobuchar’s campaign lacked the money to compete moving into the next contests. To keep her afloat, a Super PAC formed in order to boost Klobuchar’s chances of winning: Kitchen Table Conversations. The group spent more than $2 million in South Carolina, Nevada, and Colorado.

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Even with that boost, Klobuchar was not just short on money, but time. While other campaigns had large long-term staff operations in Nevada, Klobuchar barely had any staff in the state until a few weeks before. Scarce resources meant Klobuchar’s campaign leapfrogged the bulk of their staff capacity from state to state. The Amy for America bus, which was in New Hampshire, traveled 2,700 miles from New Hampshire to Nevada.

Minnesota’s senior senator spent a few days in Nevada prior to the caucuses, but by then it seemed clear the contest was between Biden, who had heavily courted union membership along the Vegas strip, and Sanders who had done the same and built an extensive outreach effort to Latinx voters in the state.

Klobuchar finished in sixth place. And before the night was over in Nevada, Klobuchar was already in Minnesota, talking about the need to focus on South Carolina and Super Tuesday.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
REUTERS/Gretchen Ertl
Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaking to supporters at her New Hampshire primary night rally in Concord.
But then, another problem. Klobuchar had been polling poorly in South Carolina for months, particularly with black voters, who make up the bulk of the state’s Democratic voting bloc. In the days before the primary, Klobuchar was nowhere to be found in the Palmetto State. Instead, she was campaigning elsewhere.

Klobuchar finished in sixth place, with CNN’s Exit Poll placing her support from black voters in South Carolina at one percent.

This is the moment her campaign says Klobuchar began to reevaluate whether they’d stay in the race. Klobuchar had a serious conversation with her campaign manager, Justin Buoen, about dropping out.

The weekend before Super Tuesday, her pre-vote rally didn’t go as planned. A coalition of protestors from Black Lives Matter Minnesota and the Minneapolis NAACP stood on stage and blocked Klobuchar from hosting her rally, eventually forcing the cancellation of the event. The protestors insisted that Klobuchar should drop out after a report found that, when she was Hennepin County Attorney, Klobuchar’s office used faulty evidence for a case that eventually sent a teenager to prison for life.

The day before Super Tuesday, when Minnesotans show up to the polls to vote, Klobuchar dropped out.

Flying to Dallas, Klobuchar appeared on stage at a Biden rally and endorsed the former Vice President.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar endorsing former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign for president during a campaign event in Dallas, Texas, on Monday.
REUTERS/Eric Thayer
Sen. Amy Klobuchar endorsing former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign for president during a campaign event in Dallas, Texas, on Monday.
“If you feel tired of the noise and the nonsense in our politics, and if you are tired of the extremes, you have home with me,” she said, echoing her campaign stump speech, adding: “And I think you know you have a home with Joe Biden.”

That marked Klobuchar’s first and only time conceding an election — the senator’s first and only electoral loss.