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Don’t sleep on Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders rising, and more takeaways from the Iowa campaign trail

Over a weekend in Iowa, Sen. Amy Klobuchar leaned into her Midwestern roots and Sen. Bernie Sanders showed why many working class voters like him.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks during a stop at the Corner Sundry, on Dec. 6, 2019, in Indianola, Iowa.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks during a stop at the Corner Sundry, on Dec. 6, 2019, in Indianola, Iowa.Read moreCharlie Neibergall / AP

MANCHESTER, Iowa — As dark as American politics have turned, talking to regular, everyday voters is almost always reassuring.

On a recent four-day swing through Iowa, away from the paid political gladiators and social media zealots, almost all of the three-dozen voters I spoke with about the Democratic presidential race had thoughtful, measured views. People managed to explain why they liked one candidate over another, without tearing down their less favored option.

Many said they respect former Vice President Joe Biden, even if they prefer Pete Buttigieg. Others like both the liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren and the more moderate Buttigieg, despite the tribal battles online. None seemed worried about their Twitter mentions.

Along the way, I saw signs of a potential dark-horse candidate in Iowa, of Sen. Bernie Sanders mounting a comeback, and got a feel for how Iowa’s vast geography shapes presidential campaigns.

Klobuchar rising?

Voters brought up Amy Klobuchar much more than expected.

The senator from neighboring Minnesota has invested big in Iowa, and she leaned into her Midwestern roots at a forum sponsored by the Teamsters. Klobuchar joked about her home state Minnesota Vikings, the rival Green Bay Packers, and Big Ten football.

The senator, 59, would seem to split the difference in age and experience between others competing for the moderate mantle: the 77-year-old Biden and 37-year-old Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind.

Polling suggests rising interest: Klobuchar has consistently placed fifth in major Iowa polls since mid-November, a kind of “best of the rest" status after the Big Four (Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren). She hit 10% support in an Emerson College survey released this week, her best showing yet. She has set herself up as a potential dark horse in the state.

Klobuchar leaned into the electability argument, stressing that she has won every election she has run in a closely balanced state, securing majorities in even deep red congressional districts.

“The most important thing is going to be to win,” Klobuchar told the Teamsters."I have won every race, every place, every time.”

People who support Biden and Buttigieg typically point to winning Pennsylvania and Upper Midwest states as a priority in 2020. Klobuchar might be a middle ground for those middle-of-the-road voters.

Sanders on the rebound

Sanders closed out the same Teamsters event, and got the most enthusiastic reception, even after the union members had spent hours listening to candidates.

The Vermont senator talked about his history of joining picket lines and, when one union local was mentioned, instantly knew its members had been on strike.

“My job as president isn’t to say, ‘Well, on one hand we have the corporate interest, and on the other hand we have the workers’ interest.’ That ain’t my style,” Sanders said in his Brooklyn accent. “If elected president, we’re going to have a workers’ government in Washington D.C.”

It was a demonstration of how tone, tenor, and gut reactions can trump policy specifics in elections, because earlier, most Teamsters in the room cheered when one of their members criticized Medicare for All, which has been Sanders’ signature policy. The Teamsters, like many labor unions, oppose the idea of abolishing private health insurance. They already have strong health coverage and don’t want to give up a benefit they negotiated.

>>READ MORE: Medicare for All is dividing a key Democratic constituency

Yet the room clearly loved Sanders, who is enjoying a rebound after a heart attack that threatened his campaign. While still below his early highs in polling, Sanders has climbed back to second place nationally and in Iowa, according to an average of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics.

Medicare for All falling short

As Warren has tumbled from earlier highs, party officials and analysts point to her Medicare for All plan and calls to eliminate private health insurance as key factors.

Interviews with Iowa voters bore that out. Over and over, people brought up Medicare for All as something either they oppose personally, or fear would be politically devastating in a general election.

To be fair, my travels took me to more moderate areas. But even self-identified liberals raised the concern.

“I’m as far left as you can find, but I want to find someone we can elect,” David Marolf said at a Cory Booker event. “We’ve gotta get somebody that’s not extreme, even though I would like to see extreme.”

>>READ MORE: Elizabeth Warren and “the People’s Electric Law School.” How Rutgers and Penn shaped a 2020 contender.

The same sentiment came up frequently: A number of liberal Democrats argued that in this election, they need to prioritize pragmatism, if that’s what it takes to win. Though it wasn’t universal.

“There are lots of voters who are overthinking it and they think they have to go to a centralist and electability,” said Jim Kernan, who was leaning toward Warren. “Just vote your gut.”

Mind the ground game

Political jargon can often sound like sports clichés, only more boring.

In Iowa, you hear a lot about “ground games” and “field operations” and you wonder if it’s just talk that insiders use to try to sound smart. Then you get out on the road in Iowa and you realize why those things are real factors.

In trailing candidates through rural Northeastern Iowa, near its borders with Wisconsin and Minnesota, you see just how much ground campaigns have to cover. It can be hours of driving between population centers, with vast open skies and sweeping fields dominating the landscape — not houses and voters. Even smaller towns are 30 to 40 minute apart, if not more. Voters at some of the events had driven more than an hour, and when I mentioned that was a long trip, they shrugged it off as normal.

For a campaign, that means it takes time to personally connect with voters. Even a candidate going pedal to the metal can only reach a few cities a day in a state that stretches roughly 300 miles. It’s bigger than Pennsylvania, and without pockets as dense as Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and their suburbs.

So having people on the ground to act as surrogates — whether paid staffers or active supporters — makes a difference. Buttigieg and Warren are widely said to have the strongest staffs in the state. Visiting, you can see why it matters.