Joe Biden has a problem, and it’s not just that no Democrat has finished a weak fourth in the Iowa caucuses and gone on to become the party’s presidential nominee. The problem is Joe Biden the candidate.
Biden was vice president to Barack Obama, the most popular Democrat in the party. He is a veteran of four decades in the United States Senate. He is liked — even loved — and respected by many people in the party. But Iowa suggests that that’s not enough. His candidacy has lacked a spark of enthusiasm, whether that’s defined as vision or energy or fight.
He has run the way others have as the comfortable expression of establishment Democratic politics. He has piled one endorsement upon another, hoping that surrogates will vouch for him in ways he’s not been able or willing to do for himself. But surrogates can do only so much. In the closing days, Biden struggled to make a compelling case for himself. At rallies, he lacked focus and sometimes appeared distracted, interrupting himself with asides or random thoughts.
He talks about the existential threat to democracy posed by President Trump, his desire to “restore the soul of the nation” and to rebuild the “spine of the middle class,” of wanting to help unite a divided county. But his calling card is electability. His advisers point to polls showing him running better against Trump than other Democratic candidates. He tells audiences that the president is scared to run against him. He says he will beat Trump “like a drum.”
What did that get him? In Iowa, more than 60 percent of the people who participated in the caucuses said electability, rather than compatibility on issues, was what they were looking for in a candidate. Only a quarter of them backed Biden, according to the Edison Research entrance poll. In Iowa, not enough voters were buying what he was selling.
Near the end of October, Tyler Pager of Bloomberg News wrote that Biden was at risk of “a humiliating third or fourth-place finish” in Iowa if he and his campaign didn’t turn things around quickly. For that bit of prescient reporting, Pager felt the wrath of the Biden team. Perhaps they will listen next time.
Days after that story appeared, Democrats held their big fundraising dinner in Des Moines. Biden’s campaign bought 1,800 tickets, among the biggest purchases of any campaign, but his section in the arena was a sea of empty seats.
His team would argue that they did listen to complaints about his position in Iowa, that sometime in the fall they placed a bigger bet on the state and shoveled in the resources they thought were needed to avoid a devastating loss. They coughed up more money, and Biden committed himself to spending more time in the state.
His organization proved not up to the task. The operation consistently drew negative reviews from Democrats who were watching all the campaigns closely. Those weaknesses showed up on caucus night, as a former vice president making his third run for the White House found he wasn’t even viable in many precincts and actually lost votes from the first alignment to the second.
Because the campaign had failed to find enough Iowans to become precinct captains, volunteers from out of state were thrown into service. According to one knowledgeable Biden loyalist, none of the names of Biden supporters on a list given to one such person actually showed up at the caucus.
With 97 percent of precincts counted, Biden is running a poor fourth behind former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who are in a virtual tie, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Buttigieg is leading Sanders by a whisker in the race for what are called state delegate equivalents, while the senator from Vermont is ahead in the popular vote. On Wednesday, Biden was calling the Iowa results “a gut punch.”
The race is still in its early stages, and Biden is not the first supposed front-runner to stumble out of the gate. In 1984, Walter F. Mondale had built a campaign much like Biden’s — heavy on endorsements and grounded in the candidate’s long experience. When Gary Hart shocked him in New Hampshire, Mondale was forced to change course to save his nomination. George W. Bush had to do the same after John McCain trounced him in New Hampshire in 2000.
Whether it is in Biden’s character and capability to do the same is what the coming days and weeks will show. He has demonstrated some resilience over the past year. He has personal attributes that he can deploy. No one is a more empathetic figure in the Democratic race than Biden, whose history of loss and grief draws people who also have suffered pain. On rope lines, Biden is pressed for hugs and words of reassurance, and he never fails to deliver them.
During a CNN town hall Wednesday night, he spoke poignantly and personally about his struggles to overcome a stuttering problem as a child, a display of raw emotion that could cut through the fog of campaign rhetoric and touch voters in the Granite State, just as Hillary Clinton’s near-tearful moment in New Hampshire 12 years ago did. That human expression was credited with helping Clinton rebound from a third-place finish in Iowa and prolong her battle with Obama for months.
Biden’s advisers have had a theory about this race and a conviction that their candidate is best positioned to emerge victorious eventually. Their research tells them that Biden is not only well liked and well respected among Democrats, but also that he has support across nearly the entire breadth of the party and, in particular, among two groups that play a big role in the nominating contest, African Americans and older voters. They believe Biden is seen as a safe choice in a year when finding a candidate to defeat Trump is paramount.
Their analysis of the calendar has convinced them that, whatever happens in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, Biden has a firewall in South Carolina. They said before Iowa that the race would not end quickly and that Biden could prevail over time. It’s doubtful, however, that their calculations ever accounted for a fourth-place finish in Iowa.
Biden’s campaign never looked strong in Iowa. Tom Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa and one of Biden’s most effective surrogates, said ahead of the caucuses that he was not troubled by the smaller crowds and evident lack of enthusiasm at Biden’s events. People know Joe, he said, and they don’t have to come to pre-caucus rallies to turn out for the caucuses.
That theory took a beating Monday night. Some of it was the failure of Biden’s organization, and his campaign has begun to make personnel changes as a result. But how much of it was that Biden’s message lacked vision or inspiration or energy, or that the candidate was complacent and could not fire up enough people to prevent embarrassment Monday?
Biden was scheduled to stay off the campaign trail Thursday, ahead of Friday’s debate in New Hampshire and then what will be the final three days of campaigning before Tuesday’s primary. His advisers can offer ideas and strategies, but only the candidate can summon from inside himself the passion to show voters not just why he wants to be president, but also that he will no longer take anything for granted.