Sen. Amy Klobuchar emerged from the Iowa caucuses Tuesday on track to finish in fifth place, a showing that keeps her in contention for the next contest in New Hampshire even as it casts doubt on her ongoing viability in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
With less than a third of the precincts still not counted, Klobuchar trailed a quartet of race leaders led by former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a Midwestern rival vying for the same slice of moderate Democrats.
But the numbers — delayed because of technical issues in the counting — showed Klobuchar not far behind former Vice President Joe Biden, a national poll leader who showed worrying signs of weakness in the Hawkeye State.
With more than 70% reporting after a second batch of results was released Tuesday night, Klobuchar logged 12.6% of the delegate count, trailing Biden, with 15.4%. Buttigieg topped the field with 26.8%, followed by Sens. Bernie Sanders, at 25.2%, and Elizabeth Warren, at 18.4%.
Aides to Klobuchar, who was campaigning Tuesday in New Hampshire, cautioned against drawing hard conclusions from an incomplete count, even as they expressed satisfaction with her apparent standing in the race.
“What these results make clear is that this is a five-person race,” her campaign manager, Justin Buoen, posted Tuesday on Twitter. “Some of Amy’s strongest counties haven’t been fully reported and the current data doesn’t tell the full story.”
Klobuchar also emphasized the narrow margin in an interview with CNN on Tuesday night, saying she’s “800 votes from the vice president.”
However some analysts outside her campaign portrayed a fifth-place finish — if it holds — as less than optimal for a senator from a neighboring state who had always seen Iowa as her most favorable ground.
With votes still being counted, Klobuchar “had better wish for fourth,” said Steven Schier, a retired professor of political science at Carleton College. “Money flows and stops pretty abruptly in the nomination process,” he said. “Fourth place keeps the spigot open; it reduces it to a trickle if it’s fifth.”
Still, a subpar night for Biden could help Klobuchar, who has crafted her appeal to the same electability-minded Democrats.
“For Amy Klobuchar to be in there and move ahead, Joe Biden is going to have to falter more,” said Dan Hofrenning, a political-science professor at St. Olaf College. “I think Biden is betting his race on a firewall in South Carolina — and there’s some evidence that firewall isn’t as strong as it once was.”
Hofrenning, who recently returned from a class trip to New Hampshire, said Klobuchar faces a bigger challenge there; Warren and Sanders are from neighboring states and enjoy the familiarity that Klobuchar has with Iowans.
But he suggested that Klobuchar can’t be counted out in a wide-open race. “She’s in the top five, and five is not two — but there were 30 candidates running in this race at one point and for her to stand on the stage and be in the top five is, I think, a significant development.”
While the conventional wisdom is that there are only three tickets out of Iowa, this year’s crowded field might change the dynamic, Hofrenning said. “This year you could argue there maybe are five tickets, and Amy Klobuchar has one. But it’s not quite the premium seats Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders have,” he said.
Iowa was expected to clarify the Democratic race, but the muddle caused by the delayed results has given Klobuchar and her rivals room to craft their own narratives of the horse race. Klobuchar pointed to a new poll in New Hampshire on Tuesday that has her in a four-way tie for second with Warren, Biden and Buttigieg, all hovering at 12-13% support, trailing Sanders, with a commanding 32% lead.
Some in New Hampshire question whether her Iowa results will be enough to sway new voters.
“Unless these numbers change significantly, I think it’s going to be hard for Klobuchar to get the attention she needs here to really try to capture momentum and move and really surge,” said Dante Scala, an influential political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. “I don’t see that she’s got the fuel to launch here.
“Where she is now is not good enough,” Scala added. “That remaining 38% of the precincts I think would have to have really good news that would vault her forward at least into the top three, at least. And that seems like a tall order.”