Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks on stage during a forum on gun safety at the Iowa Events Center on August 10, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Compromise got Amy Klobuchar this far. Will it work in 2020?
06:23 - Source: CNN
Nashville CNN  — 

As South Carolina Democratic voters head to the polls on Saturday, one name on the ballot has been noticeably absent from the state for nearly 48 hours ahead of the vote.

“Something is going on right now in the South, and I hope you know that, and it is a big thing,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said to a large crowd Friday night here in Nashville – hundreds of miles from South Carolina.

Klobuchar, who has built her campaign on reaching moderates and Midwesterners, had left the Palmetto State the morning after her CNN town hall on Wednesday night and has yet to return. Instead, she looked toward Super Tuesday, flying to North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Maine.

In the five days leading up to the South Carolina primary, the senator held only one public event: a grassroots rally on Wednesday inside a plush wedding venue at a historic site in Charleston. The event attracted fewer than 10 black people out of the roughly 100 who attended.

The turnout at that engagement, sources close to the campaign say, is a reality of a campaign not prepared to make inroads with voters who differ from their candidate – namely people of color. The lack of vision to draw in diverse voters from the beginning, in part because of limited funds, led to a strategy that prioritized Iowa and New Hampshire, the two early states with predominantly white voters. That plan effectively abandoned the next two early states on the calendar, which have larger black and brown democratic populations: Nevada and South Carolina.

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“When you look at the campaign, do the people who have been there from day one, did they think they would last this long?” a South Carolina source close to the campaign said to CNN. “They never built a plan. Now they are here and they have been doing just what they’ve always been doing. There wasn’t a course correction.”

That strategy may ultimately spell doom for her campaign as Klobuchar fights to remain viable after Super Tuesday.

“I’m dumbfounded,” says former South Carolina Democratic legislator and CNN analyst Bakari Sellers, who noted Klobuchar has effectively cut off her chances with the base of the Democratic Party. “I’m trying to figure out how she thinks she can be the nominee without the black vote. Pete Buttigieg has at least tried. Amy Klobuchar doesn’t even try. It’s evident. South Carolina voters are paying attention and are going to punish her in the primary.”

That notion extends past the primary into the general election. Democrats vying to take on President Donald Trump have said they need to re-create the Obama coalition, which included energized black and brown voters, in order to claim victory come November.

Carlie Waibel, national press secretary for the Klobuchar campaign, said in a statement to CNN, “Senator Klobuchar has visited the Palmetto State often since entering the race and the campaign has had staff on the ground since June conducting sustained outreach to community leaders, activists, and elected officials across the state. After her strong finish in the New Hampshire primary, the campaign put additional resources into South Carolina and continued to staff up in every Super Tuesday state.”

In a memo released Monday, campaign manager Justin Buoen argued Klobuchar is the best candidate to unify the party because she remains “a top choice for persuading Republican and Independent voters we need in order to beat Donald Trump in the fall.”

Buoen also announced in the memo a $4.2 million ad buy in Super Tuesday states.

But Sellers wondered if it is money spent too late.

“Amy Klobuchar is an uber-effective legislator and talented politician,” says Sellers said of the senior senator from Minnesota. But he described her lack of reach to people of color “utterly depressing.”

Without the black vote in the Democratic Party, “this is a self-imposed cap on her success.”

Early focus

A little-known candidate nationally before last month, the senator built her campaign on the shiny object: Iowa, a predominantly white state that neighbors her own.

The campaign banked on Klobuchar’s Midwestern values and ability to appeal to moderates, Republicans and independents to win over Iowans. A famously tenacious grassroots campaigner in Minnesota, Klobuchar deployed the same strategy in Iowa: She’s the only remaining candidate to visit all 99 counties, pulling a “full Grassley” (named after Klobuchar’s Iowa colleague in the Senate, Chuck Grassley).

Klobuchar kept her staff and infrastructure small, not expanding beyond Iowa and New Hampshire. On the campaign trail, she has often boasted about her “scrappy” team, which operates on “grit and determination.”

But the decision to run lean was unavoidable, a Klobuchar campaign adviser said.

“Given our limited resources throughout a lot of this race, we had to prioritize early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, which obviously don’t reflect the full diversity of the party or the country,” the adviser said.

In the Iowa caucuses, Klobuchar placed fifth, with about 12% of the vote. That buoyed the campaign into New Hampshire.

There, it seemed like the tide could turn in her favor. The state’s moderate and independent voters stood shoulder to shoulder inside packed halls at nearly all of Klobuchar’s events. That phenomenon grew exponentially after a strong showing in the Granite State debate.

A few days later, the senator exceeded expectations: She came in third in New Hampshire, behind Sen. Bernie Sanders of neighboring Vermont and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

“We have beaten odds every step of the way,” said a jubilant Klobuchar as returns rolled in. “We are on to Nevada!”

Democrats across the country took notice. Klobuchar’s campaign announced it had raised millions of dollars after her debate performance and her third-place finish.

For the first time in the primary season, the influx of donations allowed the campaign to start building out nationally. The campaign redeployed and hired new staff right after New Hampshire, announcing 25 staff hires in Nevada and another 25 in South Carolina.

The problem: The clock long had been ticking in those states. The campaign found itself behind a majority of its competitors in on-the-ground organizing and outreach.

The Klobuchar adviser said the campaign was at a disadvantage with voters of color – but the adviser blamed this on a lack of funds, not desire, by the candidate.

“The challenge for us now, as the race goes national, is to introduce Amy to new audiences and to demonstrate that her message is one that can appeal to a diverse coalition of voters,” the adviser said.

Klobuchar has also been scrutinized for her criminal justice record during her two-term tenure as county attorney of Hennepin County, Minnesota’s most diverse.

The South Carolina source close to the campaign wondered whether Klobuchar held an allure for voters.

“When you are from the Midwest and you’ve won repeatedly in the Midwest,” asked the source, “do you have a connection to voters in South Carolina, to Georgia, to Florida or Alabama?”

While the source doesn’t think Klobuchar’s lack of extended presence will hurt her with longtime Democratic voters in South Carolina, “It doesn’t help grab new voters.”

Trying to make up time

Inside Charleston’s Memminger Auditorium on Wednesday, Klobuchar answered a simple question posed by a voter in South Carolina: “Why should black America vote for you?”

The senator acknowledged that racism permeates every faction of society and offered a few solutions.

“I think, as you know, there is still racism in society at every level,” the senator responded, citing the black maternal mortality rate, unequal black and white poverty rates and racial profiling in stores, a story she heard in Minnesota.

“I would make sure that people have the ability to vote, because to make all the changes that we have been talking about, all of the candidates you’ve heard have been talking about, you can’t do it without the ability to vote,” she said, also floating improving “economic opportunity” and investing in education.

CNN’s Dana Bash, moderating the town hall, followed up: “Why should black America choose you over Joe Biden?”

“I respect the vice president’s long-standing work with the African American community. He’s very well-known, maybe more well-known than me, I understand that. So it’s on me to earn the support of the people of South Carolina,” Klobuchar replied. “I think there have been so many broken promises to the African American community. And I’m not that person,” adding that she wasn’t referring to Biden.

For state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, Klobuchar doesn’t suffer by comparison with Biden but from an inability to connect to South Carolinians due to the lack of time she invested in the state.

“I think that sends a very bad message to South Carolinians,” Norrell said of Klobuchar’s absence. “I’ve gotten the impression from her campaign that she had a hard time connecting with voters here in South Carolina.”

Norrell, who has stayed neutral throughout the primary race, said the Klobuchar campaign had contacted her in November. The campaign asked her to take Klobuchar around a neighboring county to her own, Lancaster, and introduce her to local businesses.

She declined, but invited Klobuchar to her rural county. The campaign agreed – then canceled the fully planned tour with local businesses the day before. The campaign never rescheduled.

“That left a bad taste in my mouth,” Norrell told CNN. “It would have been smart for her to come to Lancaster, Chesterfield and Darlington,” since her platform leans so heavily on attracting rural voters. Norrell added that Klobuchar would have been the only candidate to visit the county, most likely reaping the benefits of that visit with votes.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell’s last name. A statement from Klobuchar’s campaign about the senator’s time in South Carolina also has been added.