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How Amy Klobuchar’s campaign for president went wrong

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Comments (45)

  1. Submitted by Julie Stroeve on 03/05/2020 - 11:26 am.

    Barack Obama campaigned with a transformative message (though he came to govern as a transactional president); Amy campaigned with a normative, uninspiring message. 2020 isn’t normal at all. We need a transformative message and we need the newly elected president to go big with transformative policy rollouts. Senator Warren and Senator Sanders are those candidates, until today when Warren stepped aside. All eyes are on Sanders now.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 03/05/2020 - 11:43 am.

      Americans don’t want what Bernie is selling nor do they want more big govt. We are already well beyond broke in case you hadn’t noticed. Bernie would collapse the entire economy with his proposals.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/05/2020 - 03:24 pm.

        Would big welfare checks for farmers be big gubminit?

      • Submitted by Bob Kraemer on 03/08/2020 - 09:44 am.

        Why is it that Republicans see nothing wrong with Trump giving GIFTS to Billionaires, Millionaires and Corporations to the tune of $2.1 TRILLION! These same people complain that Bernie Sanders would bankrupt the country even though numerous Healthcare experts have said that the public would actually spend LESS money with better coverage? Why is it EVERY civilized industrial country in the world can have Healthcare and Higher education for ALL of their citizens but somehow the RICHEST country can’t afford those things?? These same people scream “Socialism” when the poor and working class get help but not Wall Street?

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 03/05/2020 - 11:44 am.

      Odds are we’ll end up with Biden. Dem voters perpetually learn the wrong lessons & repeat the same mistake over & over again.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/05/2020 - 12:21 pm.

        Biden is not ideal, but Dem voters know that Sanders will get destroyed by Trump and cost us the House as well.

        • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 03/05/2020 - 01:38 pm.

          Presidents Kerry, Hillary and Gore agree. Nominate a party hack with a history of failed legislation and he’ll join that list.

        • Submitted by Solly Johnson on 03/05/2020 - 02:03 pm.

          Virtually all political polls show that Sanders performs better against Trump than all the other candidates who were in the race.

          • Submitted by Michael Hess on 03/05/2020 - 03:12 pm.

            The coalescing around Biden changes that equation. The best many moderates were splitting the same pool of votes. New national polling shows Biden well ahead of sanders as a choice to bear trump.

      • Submitted by Judy Chucker on 03/06/2020 - 10:58 am.

        Spot on. All we have to do—but most don’t—is look at the pattern of nominees for the Democratic Party and how we’ve fared. We’ve taken the memes from the Party machine (those in power) that we mustn’t rock the boat but rather stay in the middle, be moderate. Then the GOP takes full advantage by failing to compromise. Even though we’ve been told by the machine that they will (“we can’t be too progressive because we’ll get nothing done”). The GOP gets bolder and bolder, ignoring the rule of law. We get more and more fearful, believing even more now that a progressive can’t be elected. So we’re left with the autocratic party. And the moderate let’s-just-keep-what-we-have Party..But the party that supported and put forth legislation under FDR is no longer. Most don’t realize that what Bernie or Elizabeth want is less radical than what we already had in terms of tax rates on corporations in the 50’s. And many can’t comprehend or do the math that higher taxes for healthcare but lower personal costs overall means they save money while getting more services.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/05/2020 - 12:23 pm.

      Obama, who was a moderate, seemed transformational. Sanders is just a shouty grandpa. All the new voters he was supposed to bring in didn’t show up.

      • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 03/05/2020 - 02:26 pm.

        Convenient of you to omit that Obama had no Senatorial accomplishments when he ran. That would kinda spoil your entire set of Bernie talking points i guess.

        • Submitted by James Miller on 03/12/2020 - 12:59 pm.

          He sponsored 147 bills, 2 of which became laws. He also co-sponsored 689 bills. Check your “facts” please.

    • Submitted by Thom Roethke on 03/05/2020 - 02:27 pm.

      Bernie Sanders is great at telling us what is wrong with the country. What he’s unable to do is articulate any solutions beyond “the government is going to do it.”

  2. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 03/05/2020 - 11:41 am.

    Her campaign issue was her. She’s not known outside MN and she has more than a few skeletons in her closet. She’s also a fence sitter that just goes with the flow. C

  3. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 03/05/2020 - 11:55 am.

    Klobuchar did not have the Minnesota support because she has not come out for the environmental issues that Minnesotans are concerned about. She left the impression, by being closed-mouthed, that she is in the back pocket of the polluters and big business.

  4. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 03/05/2020 - 11:56 am.

    Maybe when Schiff runs for President in 2024 he will finally get the scrutiny he deserves as a former Federal Prosecutor.

    It is an unfortunate combination, Federal prosecutors running for higher office. Unbridled ambition plus immense and mostly unaccountable power make for an over-weaning self regard and a tenuous connection to the truth.

  5. Submitted by Don Casey on 03/05/2020 - 12:14 pm.

    Sure there were some stumbles and personal flaws exposed. Most campaigns experience those to varying degrees. But arguably little “went wrong” for Klobuchar. If anything, in the longer term, this campaign may prove to have been successful.

    She had no realistic shot at winning the Democratic nomination — little name recognition outside Minnesota and only moderate recognition in the Senate. She was more successful in the early Democratic delegate chase than might be expected.

    But in the process, she: has vastly broadened her exposure and political profile. She’s a savvy politician and dropped out at the right time and right place. It would not be a surprise to see her as Biden’s running mate this fall. And that would put her in a strong position for a realistic run for president in the future. At a minimum, she will become far more prominent in the Senate, also enhancing her position for a future presidential run.

    From my perspective, things couldn’t have gone much better for Klobuchar.

  6. Submitted by Vonnie Phillips on 03/05/2020 - 12:20 pm.

    I have nothing against Amy Klobuchar, always have voted for her; there has been some caveats of late, especially how she treated her staff in the past, but I’m confident she’s learned her lesson.

    As for what went wrong, if this publication and the Star Tribune have the guts to write about, her support amongst the African American and Latino communities was pretty much zero, they did not vote for her. Klobuchar proudly touts that she never lost an election, yeah, that’s easy to say, 89% of the electorate she brags about are white folk, people of color in the south know this, therefore Klobuchar’s election success that she brags about was just dismissed.

    The “Minnesota Nice” crap works in Minnesota with a white candidate, means absolutely nothing, nothing, outside the State of Minnesota. It was weird seeing Senator Klobuchar on stage at Wallace Community College on Saturday; I own a ranch 26 miles away in Heiberger, Alabama near Marion, I traveled down from my home in Minneapolis to Selma for the 55th Anniversary event.

  7. Submitted by James Hamilton on 03/05/2020 - 12:25 pm.

    Everyone is over-thinking Klobuchar’s tepid campaign for president or vice-president, as I’ve always viewed it. Her claim to fame was easily winning a few elections in Minnesota by appealing to the middle-class voter and currying favor with Minnesota-based industry. She had never faced a hard campaign. She had no record of leadership in her 13 years in the Senate. Her self-proclaimed ability to work across the aisle was dominated by feel-good, non-controversial legislation.

    It’s unfortunate that she may receive a cabinet appointment in a Biden administration.

  8. Submitted by Tim Smith on 03/05/2020 - 12:55 pm.

    She, and Biden for that matter, really don’t stand for anything.

  9. Submitted by Jim Roth on 03/05/2020 - 12:58 pm.

    I concede that sports analogies are overused. But running for president is like trying to win the world series or super bowl. It’s tough and bruising and your weaknesses are exposed and exploited. She has strengths and weaknesses. You may say she made the playoffs and was knocked off in the first round or some may say she didn’t make the playoffs. The analogy isn’t perfect. Critics are abundant. Did she run a terrible campaign or was she a terrible candidate because she didn’t win the big trophy?

  10. Submitted by joe smith on 03/05/2020 - 12:58 pm.

    She had no new ideas, that was her issue. Klobuchar didn’t want a socialist as President , so she was at odds versus fellow Democrats. Klobuchar somehow felt an economy that middle class wages rose from 60k to 65k in past 3+ years, wasn’t working for everybody but offered no concrete solutions to “fix” it. She wasn’t a socialist but didn’t connect with moderates either. No way forward for Klobuchar and she dropped out, good move.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/05/2020 - 03:30 pm.

      She can’t offer real solutions to wage stagnation because it would upset corporate America. Just like Obama.

    • Submitted by Cynthia Jones on 03/06/2020 - 03:13 pm.

      Possibly she saw the writing on the wall i.e. that she was NOT going to win the primary in her “home” state and withdrew in order to “save face.” I never really picked up on what she actually stood for other than we should vote for her because she’s never lost an election. That refrain, that she’d never lost an election, got real old, very fast.

  11. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/05/2020 - 01:01 pm.

    Thanks to the democrats’ blatant race pandering, white moderate voters now vote more republican than democrat. People forget that white women voted for Trump.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/05/2020 - 03:25 pm.

      Isn’t it “race pandering” to talk about what white voters want?

      In 2016, 54% of the women voting voted for Clinton. I guess bragging about sexual assault just didn’t appeal to that demographic the way it was supposed to.

  12. Submitted by Vonnie Phillips on 03/05/2020 - 01:03 pm.

    Also, this is why I don’t put much credence in this publication or the Minneapolis Star Tribune or Pioneer Press, it tribal; more concerned about shielding our favorite political sons and daughters, rather than writing about the truth.

    What went wrong, the data is there Minnesota Post, just write about it. Very simple here, people of color will not vote for her, and if she appears on the ticket, Trump wins. Another subject matter the Minnesota Press will not write about, the progressive agenda that Klobuchar promotes, an agenda that still marginalize African Americans; LGBTQ concerns are accelerated, a top priority, issues that African Americans and other people of color in the TwinCities continue to complain about, falls on deaf ears. The deep south primaries speak for itself, Klobuchar has a lot of work to do before she can present the credentials to be competitive in a national election, very simple.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/05/2020 - 01:35 pm.

    I think in the end she treated the people she wanted votes from with condescension and ridicule. When she made fun of an audience for thinking there might be a diploma taped to the bottom of their chairs I knew she was toast. When think health care, affordable tuition, transportation and energy infrastructure, and living wages are funny… you’re not going get much traction just because you started out in a snow storm.

    Her gambit in one of the debates of comparing herself to FDR was particularly ridiculous, she was the most anti-FDR politician in the field until Bloomberg showed up. FDR was NOT about doing as little as possible for the smallest number of people. Her public option, although never described in any coherent way at all, would have left 50 million people untouched by any kind of health care.

    Ultimately I think this election cycle, much like 2016 has challenged decades long Democratic practice of identity politics. Klobuchar and Buttigieg may have shown us that campaigns based on the practice of simply saying: “Look at me, don’t you like me? Wouldn’t you like to see me in the White House?” no longer compete on a political landscape riddled with crises.

  14. Submitted by gary felder on 03/05/2020 - 02:40 pm.

    What Amy was trying to sell made a lot of sense to me…compromise. There are a ton of bills that could fix healthcare, gun control, infrastructure, etc.. that go nowhere because of lack of compromise in Washington. If we had more centered folks in DC real progress might have a chance of existing. That’s not to say we don’t need bold progressive ideas or conservative views at other times….we need both.

    Failing to connect with minority voters however is my biggest problem for Amy. The fact that the Root ranked her the lowest (outside of Tulusi) for an agenda suited for African Americans shows there is worked needed in this area. The fact that her campaign didn’t try to solve the Myon Burrell issue as this will continue to haunt her is also problematic (really its up to the Governor or State Attorney General IMO to fix this….they should have found a way to deflect this issue). So yes not being in the limelight hurt her.

    With that said I still think she has the making to be a decent VP. Having the Capital Hill experience and deal making experience will be required to get many of these stale bills into law. There is not a better teacher and mentor for Amy than Joe Biden.

    Regardless if stays a Senator or lands a position in the Biden Administration she should would on improving her perception in the African American community and work with Environmentalist as well to balance the need for protecting the environment while keep those employed in the mining business as well.

  15. Submitted by Andy Briebart on 03/05/2020 - 03:13 pm.

    Funny how the media didn’t interview anyone from BLM after crashing the rally. I sure would like to know their side of the story.

    The Dem voters have spoken, they want one of two old white guys.

  16. Submitted by Roy Everson on 03/05/2020 - 03:22 pm.

    She fit the profile of a potential winner: a centrist Democrat, new on the scene who breaks new ground on the political landscape. (See JFK, Carter, Clinton, Obama). But, alas, weaknesses and breaks.
    Any of Klobuchar’s weaknesses could have been overcome,
    if only a couple of billionaires and oddball candidates hadn’t soaked up loads of unwarranted attention;
    if only the Mayor Pete boomlet had petered out sooner;
    if only she would have co-opted Mayor Pete’s language of “medicare for those who want it” and added a JFK like pledge of achieving universal health coverage by 2025. Something bold, modestly progressive, nonspecific, not a side of canned vegetables you’d rather not eat.

  17. Submitted by Susan Shofer on 03/05/2020 - 05:43 pm.

    FINALLY, we had a candidate who was articulate, educated on all matters presented to her and spoke with determination and grace without assaulting and offending. Amy was not extreme on the issues at hand. Rather, she knows the problems and has resolve with concise approaches without any political rhetoric. The problem is, our country has become divided, so full of rage and hate for one another (no matter how people say to the contrary) that they now thrive on the contention. Amy was not willing to engage in the nasty banter and name calling. All she wanted was to help repair us. Amy – if you are reading this, we want you back in 2024 (you will still be young!) because we will need to clean up the mess more than ever.

  18. Submitted by Jim Spensley on 03/05/2020 - 10:44 pm.

    Klobucher was a not too old, principled, female and congenial in public US Senator not from NY or CA.
    She fit in Hillary’s establishnent shadow.

    She thought not having lost an election to mean conservative men and successfully prosecuting criminals were good cards for middle class suburban neighborhoods. See from NH that she was likely right.

    She had gender and age in her favor. It might have worked. The numbers were wrong in Iowa –few suburbs –and SC –white racist republican suburbs.
    As an old anti-Trump activist I hope Biden picks a vigorous younger VP and cabinet and hooks up with Senate and House campaigns with more new and young candidates leading on climate change, foreign policy and health care.
    And that Amy tends to Senate business and become a Chair of the Judicial Committee!

  19. Submitted by Bob Kraemer on 03/08/2020 - 09:55 am.

    Amy Klobuchar should have dropped out of the race after Iowa! A 5th place finish there after 71 visits, 191 events $3.8 Million is TV Ads for $22,000 Votes? That is only one part of what she spent in Iowa but that one alone resulted in spending approx $173.00 per vote!! It is probably much more than that! Iowa proved to be a massive waste of time, energy and money. They never were a legitimate sample of the American electorate and hopefully they will be removed from being the first stop in the race. To sum up, Klobuchar proved to be just another corporate-owned shill that offered nothing for the poor and working class!

  20. Submitted by Carl Brookins on 03/08/2020 - 10:46 am.

    Fascinating story. Thanks!

  21. Submitted by Gary Farland on 03/18/2020 - 02:55 pm.

    The Biden-Klobuchar ticket seems like something planned long ago. And even though many of us Bernie-types have reservations about her she would make a very good candidate since she is so articulate and careful. I think they would run a good administration. But will Trump become a war hero?

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