They stop short of saying it’s make-or-break for them in the Iowa caucuses, but a pair of Midwestern Democrats is hardly downplaying the importance of a strong finish in the first-in-the-nation state.
“Iowa is vital,” South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg recently said. “Coming from the Midwest, this is a place that rhymes with a lot of my experiences back home.”
Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, sometimes referred to as the “senator from next door,” emphasizes her Midwest bona fides and the need for Democrats not to overlook voters in “flyover country.”
But Klobuchar is quick to add she’s running a national — not just Iowa — campaign.
“I’m going to continue to go across the country because I think it is very important that you don’t just focus on one state,” Klobuchar said and ticked off a list of states she’s visited.
An indication of the importance Buttigieg places on a top-tier finish in Iowa are the resources he’s deployed here. He’s opening 20 field offices before the end of September and will have nearly 100 full-time staffers on the ground in Iowa.
He’s doing that because for all that’s changed in politics, the importance of doing well in Iowa — “where we are getting scrutinized and having the tires kicked on our ideas” — has not, Buttigieg said.
Iowa also is important as a proving ground for his campaign’s organizational strength. Buttigieg believes his Midwest background, his age — 37 — and military experience will help him connect with a wide range of caucus-goers.
Klobuchar acknowledges she’s “not at the head of the pack, but the fact is I’m ahead of a lot of other people based on hard work and grit.”
“You always want to be No. 1, but you don’t want to peak too early,” she said. Referring to qualifying for the September and October nationally televised debates, Klobuchar said “I’m glad I made the playoffs already ... and that’s going to make a good difference for me.”
Doing well in Iowa is important because “it will be quickly pointed out by opponents and the media if a Midwestern candidate doesn’t do well in the Midwest,” said University of Iowa political scientist Tim Hagle. “Being from neighboring Minnesota, if (Klobuchar) doesn’t do well in Iowa, she likely has little chance as the race moves to New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.”
As Midwesterners, Klobuchar and Buttigieg might have an advantage in Iowa because they can “speak to a variety of issues that resonate in similar states, not least of which are those dealing with agriculture,” Hagle said.
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“Folks from the Midwest are often seen as being a bit more low-key regarding issues of various sorts,” said Hagle, who recently published, “Riding the Caucus Rollercoaster 2020.” “They may care about the issues, even passionately, but may not always show it. This touches on the ‘Iowa nice’ or versions from other states. There’s also a certain humility that goes along with being from the Midwest that, when present in candidates, tends to come off fairly well.”
That didn’t help Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh or the presidential bids of Iowans Gov. Tom Vilsack and Sen. Tom Harkin. Chicagoan Hillary Clinton eked out a win in the 2016 caucuses over Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, and Mitt Romney, who claimed Michigan roots, topped the 2012 GOP caucus field.
“Midwest nice” hasn’t propelled either Klobuchar or Buttigieg into the top tier in the 2020 race. Both have been polling in single digits — Buttigieg at 7.5 percent in the Real Clear Politics average and Klobuchar at 3.5 percent.
However, Klobuchar points to Barack Obama as an example of a Midwesterner who made a connection with Iowa caucusgoers that helped him win the 2008 caucuses and carry much of the Midwest in the general election. Obama served three terms in the Illinois legislature before being elected to the U.S. Senate in that state.
“Obama was able to do it and I think I can do it,” she said. “You got to put a candidate out that understands the Midwest.”
Harkin and Vilsack are examples of candidates who have won statewide elections in Iowa by being willing to reach out to voters beyond the Democratic Party, Klobuchar said.
“They tend to be people who independents and moderate Republicans can say, ‘I don’t agree with everything she says, but I do know she’s got my back, she’s going to look out for me and she’s telling me the truth,’” Klobuchar said.
That has helped her to win three terms in Minnesota where three of the state’s eight House members are Republicans. During Klobuchar’s previous terms, it was evenly split between the two parties.
That “Midwest nice” may not be a benefit in 2020 due to Democrats’ anger at the Trump administration, Hagle warned.
“To the extent Midwestern candidates take a low-key approach to how they handle these issues, they may be at a disadvantage (because) more extreme rhetoric seems to get more attention these days,” he said.
Klobuchar plans to keep on grinding it out “the old-fashioned way, focusing in on these bread-and-butter issues.”
“People keep talking about I need a viral moment and I like to point out that’s what that is — just a moment. I want to be in this for the long haul,” she said.