Six weeks after Sen. Amy Klobuchar joined the Democratic presidential field, voters in states with early 2020 contests are getting to know her — not always on her terms.
Media coverage of her visits to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina has largely defined her as a publicly likable and pragmatic centrist, even if polls show that she is hardly a household name outside her home state.
That low name recognition in early voting states raises the stakes for what political operatives call “earned” press coverage as she tries to gain momentum with party activists and donors.
With more than a dozen candidates running, Klobuchar is a blank slate for many voters as she competes for attention with 2016 runner-up Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, as well as possible candidate Joe Biden, who leads in most polls, and Texan Beto O’Rourke, who has a fundraising advantage.
But it’s too soon to draw any conclusions, said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor. “When will everyday voters who plan to go to the primary tune in? It could be as late as Thanksgiving,” he said.
Still, common themes — some of them added to Klobuchar’s stump speech to carefully frame her candidacy — are already showing up in media reports in key states.
The New Hampshire Union Leader said Feb. 18 that Klobuchar casts herself as “an independently minded Democrat who could bridge the country’s partisan divide.” The Quad-City Times in Iowa cited this quote on March 17: “We have to bridge the divides.” The Cedar Rapids Gazette in Iowa echoed the message.
The stories of her mistreatment of staffers, frequently included in early articles, are often absent from more recent coverage.
Klobuchar is regularly described as a “moderate” or “centrist,” although the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., wrote Feb. 23 that she “voiced support for a litany of progressive policies, including universal health care, expanding voting rights and confronting climate change by rejoining an international pact.” (Klobuchar wants to expand health care coverage with a public insurance option and calls “Medicare for all” a possibility.)
Some coverage raises qualms. On Feb. 16, the Globe Gazette in Mason City, Iowa, noted Klobuchar’s assertion that she has the grit to beat President Donald Trump. The next sentence read, “Whether that grit will be enough to propel Klobuchar to the nomination remains to be seen.”
New Hampshire Public Radio said Feb. 24 that during a visit, Klobuchar emphasized “a more incremental approach” to issues like health care and taxes. The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., reported Feb. 23 that some voters there “wondered aloud whether she has what it takes to win the South Carolina primary.”
Several Democratic officials and operatives, none of whom has endorsed a presidential aspirant, said Klobuchar has a chance to improve her standing among voters.
JoAnn Hardy, Democratic Party chairwoman in Cerro Gordo County, Iowa, said that New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker had a bigger media entourage for his weekday visit, but that Klobuchar drew more people for her weekend appearance.
“When we talk about presidential candidates, her name usually comes up,” Hardy said. But because there are so many candidates, “it’s going to be hard to get some traction.”
Iowa voters caucus on Feb. 3. New Hampshire’s primary is Feb. 11, followed by Nevada caucuses on Feb. 22 and South Carolina’s Feb. 29 primary.
Iowa state Sen. Liz Mathis, a Democrat from Linn County, spent some time with Klobuchar last weekend.
She heard Klobuchar’s stump speech for the first time and liked her humility, descriptions of her family background, policy expertise and legislative successes. Those elements, Mathis said, were meant to “start shaping our view that she is qualified to be in the White House.”
Mike Wyrick, chairman of the Linn Phoenix Club, a Democratic political action committee in Iowa, said that Klobuchar might have an advantage there that her competitors can’t match.
“It’s not like she’s a hometown person, but close enough,” he said. “She comes off as smart and funny and as a person that just has good Midwestern common sense in a way that we can understand.”
But Klobuchar’s early forays haven’t improved her poll rankings. A Des Moines Register/CNN poll this month found her support at 3 percent. That’s exactly where she was in December before she announced her candidacy.
A February poll of South Carolina voters showed her, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown — who has since said he won’t run — and former Attorney General Eric Holder at 2 percent or lower. An average of three New Hampshire polls last month put Klobuchar’s standing at 4.3 percent.
“She’s not a total stranger to New Hampshire, but it’s only the really savvy people who kind of know anything of her,” said Roger Lessard, Hillsborough County, N.H., Democratic chairman. “Unfortunately, there’s still the masses that don’t pay attention at all.”
Nobody is writing off Klobuchar’s chances. A Washington Post columnist last month called her “Trump’s worst nightmare.” Back in January, conservative columnist George Will said she “is the person perhaps best equipped to send the current president packing.” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told Politico last week that Klobuchar and fellow Midwestern candidate Pete Buttigieg benefit from a “strong appeal, particularly among swing voters.”
Scala, of the University of New Hampshire, said the race’s contours will become clearer by Labor Day, and Klobuchar could be in the mix if she’s able to raise sufficient funds and does well in debates.
A strong showing in Iowa would vault her into contention everywhere, he said, and it’s too early to count anyone out. “You can’t underestimate the amount of volatility in the electorate,” he cautioned.