Joe Biden came into Iowa’s first-in-the-nation nominating contest looking formidable, armed with high-profile endorsements and strong opinion poll numbers. His major rivals, U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, had been stranded in Washington for weeks for Trump’s impeachment trial.
But during all that time in Iowa, it was not easy to find Biden yard signs even in the final crucial weeks in the run-up to the caucuses, while signs for Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, who led the field in Iowa with, were plentiful.
That disconnect between rosy poll numbers and the lack of enthusiasm on the ground is emblematic of the single biggest question that has dogged Biden’s campaign from the start: Can a 77-year-old White male moderate who spent more than 40 years in Washington excite Democrats increasingly eager for bold change?
For his entire campaign, Biden’s core argument has been that given his stature as a former vice president and his widespread appeal to voters of all stripes, he is the best position to defeat Trump in a general election.
For a while, the strategy was a smart bet, given that Democratic primary voters routinely rank nominating a candidate who can beat Trump above all else. But to be successful, it relies on Biden actually winning elections.
What Went Wrong
As several analysts pointed out, Iowa was never expected to be a prime pickup opportunity for Biden, given that the state’s Democratic primary electorate is considerably whiter, more college-educated, and left-leaning than his base and the Democratic primary electorate.
For months, there were signs that the campaign – raising little money and less excitement from the sorts of people who knock on doors to lobby their neighbors to support Biden at a caucus – was not going to build a statewide organization as strong as several candidates in the wide Democratic field.
Biden started his campaign late and did not have the staffing and volunteers to compete with rivals such as Warren, who snapped up top talent and hired staff before Biden even got rolling.
The third-time presidential contender took a sluggish, front-runner’s approach there. He held no more than two or three events per day, and the crowds at those events — consistently dwarfed when his leading rivals campaigned in the same cities and towns — were a sign of trouble: Democratic voters there lacked enthusiasm for the former vice president.
The political punditocracy typically downplays crowd size as a measurement of candidate support. After all, in 2016, Sanders drew 26,000 people to a rally in New York, and then was walloped by 16 percentage points by Hillary Clinton in the state’s primary.
But crowd size can have strategic importance: Candidate appearances are a major way campaigns attract precinct captains and door-knocking and phone-banking volunteers. And it remains one gauge of enthusiasm for a candidate — and in town after town across Iowa, Biden was routinely outdrawn by every other major rival.
His campaign insisted it was no problem. Biden’s supporters are older and less likely to sit through candidate appearances, aides said.
Plan to Finish on Top
Plotting an Iowa comeback after the Thanksgiving holiday, he would board a bus and trek largely from rural town to rural county seat with an average population of 9,000 and reconnect with his rural, working-class base.
The bus tour was not without flaws, however, with some of Biden’s performances inconsistent and turning off some voters.
The very first event of the tour was an event in Council Bluffs, one of the state’s largest cities, but it was cold, sparsely attended, and the energy of the crowd was low as Biden stumbled through written remarks and dabbed his nose with tissues.
That energy level was mirrored at several Biden events over the following months, including one in Muscatine in January, where several chairs sat empty as Biden stared out onto an icy Mississippi River.
His campaign crowds generally skewed older and relatively conservative. Young voters were in short supply even at a swing through college campuses, and Biden largely avoided urban centers and college towns until near the end of the campaign.
Is he Doomed?
This descent into the unknown isn’t where Biden and his team thought they’d be when he got into the race last spring . The former vice president must now answer new doubts about his core argument: If a candidate who has framed his campaign around the notion that he’s more electable than his rivals loses the first election of the nominating process, where does that leave him?
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: We took a gut punch in Iowa. The whole process took a gut punch. But this is not the first time in my life that I’ve been knocked down.”
He now is going on into absolute uncertainty after spending a year as the frontrunner who could consistently survive attacks or slipups. He’s already in New Hampshire, where Sanders, who represents neighboring Vermont and dominated the primary four years ago, is in a strong position, as is Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who’s also from a neighboring state. Buttigieg’s strong Iowa showing makes him a factor too. South Carolina, which Biden and his allies have called his firewall, doesn’t vote for another 25 days.