This is the sort of thing candidates normally say when it’s two weeks before the caucuses and they’re down 10 points in the polls. Doom is impending, so you shift to damage-control mode in hopes that the media won’t write your political obituary before New Hampshire gives you a shot at redemption.
What are we to make of a “soft” frontrunner who’s flirting with that sort of damage control five months before Iowa votes?
Also: What if he’s right? What if Iowa doesn’t much matter?
“Do I think we have to win Iowa? No,” a senior adviser told campaign reporters Tuesday in a background briefing. The adviser said Iowa, which holds the first nominating contest in the nation, will be “critical.”…
“We feel we are going to be in a very dominant spot,” after the first four early states, another adviser said.
Still, the campaign downplayed expectations in first-in-the-nation Iowa as well as in the first primary state, New Hampshire, which borders the home states of Warren and Sanders.
“As you all know, historically, there’s an incredible home field advantage for a Massachusetts candidate or a New Englander,” an adviser said.
Early damage control for losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, eh? Team Joe is preparing for the worst — understandably, as his polling in each of those states is worse than it is nationally. In national polls he’s averaging 30.4 percent, good for a 13.5-point lead over Elizabeth Warren. In Iowa that lead shrinks to eight point over Warren, with Biden at 26 percent. In New Hampshire it shrinks further to just 1.7 points with Grandpa Joe pulling a mere 21 percent. (Note, though: There are far fewer state polls of IA and NH at this stage than there are national polls so the state averages may not be as reliable.)
Bearing in mind that nearly the entire case for Biden is his perceived “electability,” what’ll be left of those perceptions if he ends up losing both early states? What’ll be left of them if he doesn’t just lose but ends up clobbered?
This is the second time in just a few days that someone in the campaign has undermined its own electability argument. The other was Biden himself telling WaPo that “almost anybody” in the field can beat Trump, a point he made because (in context) he was reluctant to endorse the interviewer’s suggestion that only an old white guy can beat another old white guy. Even so, that’s strange messaging. The Iowa comment is more revealing than Biden’s offhand remark, though, since it may signal that Team Joe thinks they’re headed for a long, contentious primary fight, not a quick blitz in the early states that ends with Biden running away with the nomination by Super Tuesday.
“We expect this to go one for a while,” the adviser added.
During Biden’s previous two presidential campaigns, Iowa was a thorn. In his first race, it was the scene of him plagiarizing words from a British politician, which led him to drop out of the race in 1987, well before the next year’s caucuses. During the 2008 campaign, he received less than 1 percent of the vote and soon dropped out.
The state does not line up with Biden’s perceived demographic strengths, lacking a substantial population of black voters, who have provided a strong base of his support nationally and in other early-voting states such as South Carolina.
A caucus state like Iowa rewards candidates with good organization and passionate fan bases, people who’ll tolerate a night out in the cold of Iowa in February to represent their guy/gal. That is … not the Biden fan base. It’s the Sanders/Warren fan base. Berniebros turned out in Iowa and put him on the map nationally three years ago by coming within a whisker of upsetting Hillary there. They’ll be tough to beat there, as will Warren’s fans. New Hampshire is in Warren’s and Sanders’s backyards, meanwhile, and Bernie crushed Clinton there in 2016 so beating them will be a tall order there as well. South Carolina is Biden’s potential “firewall,” the state with a huge black majority in the Democratic primary; because of Biden’s popularity with black voters his lead in South Carolina polling is actually bigger than it is nationally. South Carolina saved Hillary against Sanders too, giving her a landslide win that put her back on track for the nomination. But “Hillary vs. Bernie” was a binary choice. This year’s field isn’t.
How resilient will Biden’s lead be if he flames out in Iowa and New Hampshire, especially if he performs dismally? Will black voters give up on him and take sides in the Sanders/Warren fight? Will they take a hard look at Kamala Harris or Cory Booker instead? It’s easy to see how the entire house of cards collapses for Grandpa Joe if he does badly in the first two elections. Even if it doesn’t, emerging from the early states with only one win in his pocket will badly damage his electability pitch in the many remaining primaries to come. Imagine Warren winning Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada (where she reportedly has a stellar organization), earning a huge bounce in the polls and a raft of new donations, while Biden comes away with just a win in South Carolina. Who would you bet on to take the nomination at that point?
In lieu of an exit question, some trivia for you from Steve Kornacki: The last Democrat to lose Iowa *and* New Hampshire and go on to win the nomination was Bill Clinton back in 1992, and that carries an asterisk because it was Iowa native son Tom Harkin who won the caucuses that year. Iowa was basically uncontested because of his home-field advantage. To find a Democrat before that who won neither Iowa nor New Hampshire but won the nomination, you need to go back to George McGovern nearly 50 years ago, at the dawn of the modern primary system. Biden would need to make history to become the nominee if he gets shut out in the first two states.