PROLE, Iowa—In the last days before the Iowa caucuses kick off the 2020 election in earnest, the Amy Klobuchar campaign is in state-spanning overdrive. Everyone in presidential politics sets a lot of store by Iowa, of course, but Klobuchar, the senator from neighboring Minnesota, has particular hopes that Midwest solidarity will help her to a stronger-than-expected finish Monday.
On Thursday night, it was off to a supporter’s home just outside Des Moines for one of the campaign’s trademark “hot dish parties,” where caucusgoers are invited to come talk politics over a home-cooked meal. The point of the parties is to infuse Klobuchar’s meet-and-greets with the maximum amount of homeyness and charm, and both were laid on thick.
The food was pure Minnesota Lutheran: the eponymous tater-tot-topped hot dish (Klobuchar’s own award-winning recipe!) and Norwegian lefse—rolled flatbread with butter and sugar—for dessert. Before eating, attendees heard from a celebrity endorser: Phill Drobnick, who coached the gold-winning U.S. Olympic curling team at the PyeongChang winter games in 2018. At one point, the host stopped the proceedings to explain the odd noises we kept hearing from overhead—a weasel had attacked their ducks, she explained, so the ducks were convalescing in the master bedroom until she had time to weasel-proof their enclosure.
There was only one thing missing from the intimate gathering: a candidate. As campaign staffers were hobnobbing with the locals over beers and hot dish, Amy Klobuchar was a thousand miles away, stuck in the Senate as the questioning stage of President Trump’s impeachment trial drew to a close.
Fortunately, there was someone else on hand to provide a jolt of Klobuchar energy: her daughter Abigail Bessler, who’s taken some time away from her day job in New York to function as a sort of avatar for her mother at shindigs like these.
“We started in New Hampshire the weekend before last,” she told me. “The week started with me getting in a car in New Hampshire and the staff person there to pick me up asking if I was comfortable with public speaking, and then by the end of last week ended with me speaking at a hot dish party to the national press corps.” She says she’s eaten a lot of hot dish.
Bessler pulls off the role well. In fact, if you’ve ever seen Klobuchar’s stump speech, the effect is a bit uncanny—the two women look similar, sound similar, and are of course drawing from the same bank of campaign slogans and phrases. It’s as good a candidate-less event as any candidate could hope for.
Yet at the same time, the routine underscores the absurdity of Klobuchar’s situation. More than any other candidate not named Pete Buttigieg, her 2020 strategy has relied on her ability to punch above her weight in Iowa. And yet she’s been forced to spend the last two crucial weeks cooped up in Washington, forced to rely on “tele-town halls” and the occasional last-minute charter plane to Des Moines on a short impeachment day to keep her momentum going.
And there is momentum there. The Iowa caucuses have frequently looked like a four-horse race, with Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Buttigieg all polling atop the pack at one point or another in recent months. But in recent weeks, Klobuchar has been closing. This week’s batch of Iowa polls are her strongest yet: 10, 12, 13 percent showings that put her in striking distance of the rest. And with Warren and Buttigieg both suffering through months-long polling slumps, the lane seemed to be open for a possible Iowa surprise.
Perhaps it still is—Klobuchar’s staffers, while admitting the last few weeks have been incredibly hectic, maintain that their campaign operations haven’t suffered at all. Still, it’s hard not to see how the logistics are working against her here. Neither of her main rivals in the moderate lane, Biden or Buttigieg, are in the Senate; they’ve had the run of the state while she’s been out. And neither of the other senators still running—Sanders and Warren, both with deeper war chests and stronger downfield ground games to lean back on—are quite so reliant on getting momentum out of Iowa.
The biggest problem is the same as it’s always been: Joe Biden. Whereas Buttigieg has developed his own message of generational change, Klobuchar and Biden are pursuing a lot of the same voters. They’re moderate Democrats who prize pragmatism, level-headedness, and experience getting things done in D.C.
Klobuchar has some real advantages matching up with Biden: most notably her relative youth and her reputation both for winning tough races and for being a smart, shrewd legislator. But Biden went into the race with a massive advantage in terms of name recognition as Barack Obama’s former VP. Earlier in the day, at a Biden rally in nearby Newton, I’d met a few of those voters: people who started out tentatively planning to support Biden, and simply never left.
To get the voters she’s after, in other words, Klobuchar was going to have to take them away from Biden.
The last few weeks, with more and more Iowans tuning into the caucus for the first time or making up their minds, would’ve been a golden opportunity to work on that. As things stand, Klobuchar may have to be content with what she’s got.
Still, it’d be unwise to count the Minnesota senator out completely going into Monday. While it’s true that she’s in a crowded moderate lane, Klobuchar hopes to make up some lost ground by being competitive in precincts where others spent less time. She was the only candidate, for instance, to hold an event in every one of Iowa’s 99 counties—a feat they’d fortunately just squared away when Klobuchar was whisked back to D.C. for the trial.
“I think we’re going to see a turnout for her in rural Iowa,” said Scott Thompson, a local labor economist who is a volunteer for the Klobuchar campaign. “It’s been my experience in the past month that the non-Democrats who will caucus are looking towards Amy…In 2018, in the primaries, we had this large influx of non-Democrat voters voting in the primaries. And I think we will see a lot of that type of behavior on Monday night.”
How good is good enough? The odds of an outright delegate win in Iowa remain very slim. If Klobuchar can break into the top three or four, however, that may give her enough juice to carry on—and then, who knows?
“The conversation in Iowa has been Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, right?” Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright said. “Well, if she happens to surpass one of them in any way shape or form in Iowa, that gives her automatic credibility and momentum going into New Hampshire. Because that means that people have made up their mind that she brings something to the table.”
If that were to happen, Iowa wouldn’t be the end of the line for Amy Klobuchar. Here’s hoping the good people of New Hampshire like hot dish.
Photograph of Amy Klobuchar in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24 for impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump by Mario Tama/Getty Images.