Joe Biden came into Iowa’s first-in-the-nation nominating contest looking formidable, armed with high-profile endorsements and strong opinion poll numbers. 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 person 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. With a fourth place finish in Iowa, followed by an even more embarrassing fifth place finish in New Hampshire, Biden’s ability to make it across the finish line victorious is beginning to be questioned.
What Went Wrong
As several analysts pointed out, neither Iowa nor New Hampshire was expected to be a prime pickup opportunity for Biden, given that the states’ Democratic primary electorate are considerably whiter, more college-educated, and left-leaning than his base and the Democratic primary electorate.
That disconnect between rosy national poll numbers and the Iowa and New Hampshire reality, 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 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 – 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, Bernie 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.
In town after town across Iowa, Biden was routinely outdrawn by every other major rival. His campaign insisted it was no problem. Besides, aides say, Biden’s supporters are older and less likely to sit through candidate appearances.
But the lack of hooting and hollering wasn’t just a matter of manners; it was evidence of a genuine flaw in Biden’s campaign. Biden really hasn’t given anyone a reason to vote for him.
He’s run as a restorationist candidate, one who will return Washington to normal after Trump, bringing back the good old days of bipartisan cooperation. Biden suffers from the fact that there isn’t a passionate — or, apparently, very large — bloc of voters who want a return to the status quo, except for African Americans who are longing for the return of the days of Obama.
“Let’s be honest; he was the vice president under the first African-American president so his early name recognition was really high and that lifted his numbers,” said John King, a state lawmaker who recently endorsed Tom Steyer.
All the other candidates who did better than Biden are promising some break from the status quo. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are pushing major structural changes and radical policy proposals. Even the more moderate Pete Buttigieg is running as a change candidate in the Obama mode, a fresh face from outside Washington.