Why Iowa is vital to Klobuchar's presidential hopes

Amy Klobuchar speaks at a presidential campaign stop
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks to the crowd during a presidential campaign stop on Saturday at Lorados bar and grill in Mason City, Iowa.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has downplayed talk that her presidential run hinges on Iowa. But there's no doubt that without a strong showing there, it'll be hard to gain the money and momentum she'll need to win the Democratic nomination.

Iowans will be the first to weigh in on the 2020 presidential nomination when they hold their caucuses in a little a less than a year. Klobuchar's Midwestern roots are viewed as an asset.

She's traveled regularly from Minnesota to help Democrats, and her next-door neighbor status offers her a slight advantage over others seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

That advantage, though, also raises expectations she'll do well and could hurt her prospects if does not, he added.

"She wants to take advantage of any familiarity Iowans have with her. But she doesn't want to puff up expectations too much because all candidates want to be seen as exceeding and not failing to meet expectations," he said.

There is some speculation that Iowa and New Hampshire will not play as important roles in the nomination process as they have previously because some other states have moved up their primary dates, most notably California, which switched from June to early March.

Goldford doesn't buy that argument and says Iowa and New Hampshire are more important than ever before because "you don't have time to recover from a disastrous, or at least a weak, start" coming out of those contests.

Klobuchar "can't depend on disappointing in Iowa, but then New Hampshire will be her backup. It won't," said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala.

In her early campaigning, Klobuchar has staked out a moderate path relative to the other declared Democrats. She's not for free college for everyone. She says universal health care is something to work toward but that it won't happen overnight.

Amy Klobuchar campaigns in Iowa
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks with journalists at the Marion County Soup Luncheon at Peace Tree Brewing Company in Knoxville, Iowa, on Sunday.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

She considers the push by some lawmakers to create an environmentally focused Green New Deal aspirational rather than a blueprint of how to move forward.

She's been framing herself as the most electable Democrat to put up against President Trump next year, noting that she's won every congressional district in Minnesota in her past three elections, including the district represented by conservative Republican Michele Bachmann.

Asked on Saturday how critical Iowa is to her presidential fortunes, Klobuchar demurred.

"I want to do well in Iowa, and I want to do well in every single state," she said during a recent Wisconsin stop. "This is going to be a 50-state strategy not just focused on one state. But, clearly, guess where I'm going next? Iowa."

Polling late last year suggests Klobuchar might be in a good spot, said Ann Selzer, who conducts polling for the Des Moines Register newspaper.

Her poll late last year found likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers are more focused on electability than ideology as they look for a 2020 candidate.

The same poll — taken long before Klobuchar got into the race — found 54 percent of likely Democratic Iowa caucus-goers didn't know enough about Klobuchar to rate her. Of those who did, the vast majority said they had a favorable opinion of the Minnesota senator.

Those likely caucus-goers want electability, but they also want a candidate with the passion and intensity to drive turnout, Selzer said. "I think you can argue that that kind of passion and intensity might not always come with someone who's practical."