Now, there are some important caveats that should accompany that result. One is that he placed third … with 3 percent of the vote. Clinton beat him by nearly 40 points, and she came in second. The other caveat is that Biden wasn’t actually a candidate at that point, having dropped out after finishing fifth in Iowa. His campaign had managed to get him on the ballot in other states, though. So, for weeks on end, he still got some votes in random states.
But never would he finish higher than he did that night in Delaware. It was a mark he didn’t hit anywhere else that year — and it’s a mark that he still hasn’t topped, despite coming into 2020 with a consistent lead in national polling.
This is the third time Biden has run for president. When he ran in 1988, he dropped out before voting began, a function of a plagiarism scandal in which he was accused of purloining a speech from a British politician. In 2008 he was a long shot. He finished fifth in Iowa and then, after having dropped out, came in sixth in New Hampshire. The Michigan primary that year was an oddity, with the state jumping up in line and being punished by the party. Biden wasn’t on the ballot there, nor did he participate in the Nevada caucuses. In the next two primaries, South Carolina and Florida, he came in fifth and fourth respectively.
At no point in 2008 did he get more than his 3 percent in Delaware. So, by comparison, his finishes in 2020, earning 16 percent in Iowa and 9 percent (as of writing) in New Hampshire, are much better. But, again, he came into those contests as the leader nationally, only to finish in fourth or fifth.
Biden knew this was coming. At the start of Friday’s debate in New Hampshire, he said that he probably wouldn’t do well in the state, a bit of honesty that wasn’t entirely related to the question he’d been asked to answer. But it was important to set expectations, so he got that out of the way at the top. His campaign has been suggesting for a while, in fact, that Iowa and New Hampshire wouldn’t be great and that, instead, Biden’s position should be judged by how he fared in the first four contests altogether.
“It is important that Iowa and New Hampshire have spoken,” Biden said at a rally Tuesday in South Carolina, “but look, we need to hear from Nevada and South Carolina and Super Tuesday and beyond.” As the dark-outlined boxes on the chart above show, he still leads in RealClearPolitics’s averages of polls in the next two contests, though there hasn’t been recent polling in Nevada.
Biden emphasized that the next two states on the calendar are much less densely white than Iowa and New Hampshire — important to a diverse party and beneficial to him given that he’s consistently done better with nonwhite Democratic primary voters.
Or, at least, he had been. A new national Monmouth University poll released Tuesday shows a drop in support for Biden overall — down almost half since January — but also with both white and nonwhite voters. In January, he earned the support of about a third of the nonwhite vote. In the new poll, he was down to 20 percent, below Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
In other words, there’s no guarantee that Biden’s lead in those states will continue until voting. After all, Biden led in New Hampshire as recently as mid-January. He was in second in the state last week, until he tanked in the Iowa caucuses.
Worse for Biden, the early state where he does best is South Carolina — and it’s still two weeks away. He needs to stanch his eroding support and hold steady in both states. It’s not clear that he can.
There is, in other words, a non-zero chance that Biden will never place higher than he did 12 years ago in Delaware.