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Election Update: Is Klobuchar Having A Last-Minute Surge In Iowa?

To quote Buffalo Springfield, “there’s something happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear.” What is clear, though, is that Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s poll numbers are on the rise in Iowa — she’s now at 10 percent in our Iowa polling average, and her chances of winning the most votes in Iowa have ticked up to 3 percent in our primary forecast.

[Our Latest Forecast: Who will win the Iowa caucuses?]

That’s quite the last-minute surge, considering she was polling at 6 percent just a little over a week ago, but she’s also still several points behind Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, so don’t read too much into this yet. That said, the Iowa caucuses are known for last minute surprises, and our forecast reflects this uncertainty: Not a single candidate has more than a 37 percent chance of winning the most votes in Iowa (Sanders).

And Klobuchar has picked up some really good polls in Iowa this week, breaking the double-digits in seven of the nine polls we’ve gotten since Sunday. Two of those polls dropped today and held especially good news for Klobuchar:

  • First, Park Street Strategies, a liberal public relations firm, found a four-way crunch at the top, with Biden at 20 percent, Sanders at 18 percent and both Buttigieg and Warren at 17 percent. But not far behind was Klobuchar, who scored 12 percent in the poll, which is also roughly where Emerson College and Morningside College put her earlier this week. Notably, she also was tied for second with Biden in that poll as the top second-choice option for caucusgoers with 16 percent, behind Warren’s 21 percent. This could benefit Klobuchar during realignment if voters’ first choices fall short of the viability threshold — usually 15 percent — at their respective caucus site and they have to switch to a new candidate.
  • American Research Group also offered its first take on Iowa this cycle and found Klobuchar in third place with 16 percent. This put her behind Sanders’s 23 percent and Biden’s 17 percent, but ahead of Warren’s 15 percent and Buttigieg’s 9 percent. But don’t read too much into this one survey. Primary polling is inherently tricky, and ARG, in particular, has faced some criticism in the past.

But taken together with other Iowa polls that have dropped this week, we can’t dismiss the possibility that Klobuchar is having a last-minute rise that could put her in contention to finish better than fifth, where she’s been ranked in Iowa for a while now. And a higher-placed finish could have long-term ramifications if it keeps Klobuchar in the race well beyond Iowa and hurts someone else’s standing in the process.

A late surge for a candidate in Iowa wouldn’t be unprecedented either. Some notable past shifts include the 2004 Democratic race, in which John Kerry and John Edwards ended up capturing 38 and 32 percent of the vote, respectively, after polling at 24 and 19 percent going into the caucuses. And then, of course, there is the 2012 GOP contest, when Rick Santorum made a remarkably late push and actually won the caucuses with around 25 percent support despite polling at 13 percent going into caucus night. (It took a couple of weeks for the voting count disputes to settle.)

[Our Latest Forecast: Who Will Win The 2020 Democratic Primary?]

So we’ll be very interested to see whether the final survey from Selzer & Co. on behalf of CNN, the Des Moines Register and Mediacom also shows a notable improvement for Klobuchar tomorrow. (She was at 6 percent in their last survey from earlier this month.) Other polls, too, could show more Klob-mentum — or tamp it down. But for the moment, it does look like there’s something to Klobuchar’s upswing in the polls, and it’s a reminder that Iowa still is pretty wide open.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.