Joe Biden is never more energized than when he’s defiant. When challenged by voters or reporters, he plows through with gruff perseverance. In an interview with the New York Times editorial board last December, Biden sounded like he was mocking even death itself. “You all declare me, not you, editorially in a broad sense, declare me dead and guess what?” Biden said. “I ain’t dead. I’m not going to die.” Kathleen Kingsbury of the Times responded by noting, “Everybody dies.” Biden clarified that he meant “I’m not going to die politically.”
That claim might be questioned after the Iowa caucus, which left Biden, if not dead, then at least severely wounded. Because of the now-infamous fiasco involving an app, a full tabulation of the Iowa results still isn’t available. But by Tuesday night, the Iowa Democratic Party had released information on 71 percent of the voting.
Biden, at the 71 percent mark, stood at a distant fourth in both the final vote and the state delegates. Bernie Sanders got the highest share of the popular vote (26.2 percent), followed by Pete Buttigieg (25.2 percent), Elizabeth Warren (20.6 percent), and Biden (13.2 percent). In terms of state delegate equivalents, Pete Buttigieg had 26.8 percent, followed by Sanders (25.2 percent), Warren (18.4 percent), and Biden (15.4 percent).
These are dismal results for Biden, who is often treated as the front-runner in the race. To be sure, Iowa was long considered a tough state for him, given that the Democratic voters there are both more liberal and more white than in most other states.
But it’s not like Biden had no advantages in Iowa. Unlike Sanders, Warren, or Amy Klobuchar, Biden wasn’t tied up with the impeachment hearings. This meant he could appear at many more campaign events. Pete Buttigieg also had that lucky break, and fully exploited it.
Biden’s trouble was that his base was less passionate than that of his rivals. Biden’s speaking events were sparsely attended, and he himself wasn’t eager to take to the hustings. As CNN reported, “The 77-year-old 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.”
Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, who endorsed Biden, tried to push back on reports that supporters were lukewarm. “I am incredibly passionate about Joe Biden, but I’m not hootin’, hollerin’ guy,” Vilsack explained to CNN. “I’m just not. I never have been, never will be. But don’t tell me I’m not as passionate as any one of those folks that’s going to those Buttigieg events or Warren events. And that’s true of a lot of these folks who are here today.”
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.
Even those who find this a worthy ideal must, in some part of their mind, know it is a fairy tale. Biden’s own status as the main target by Trump in the Ukraine scandal is itself proof of the limits of restorationist politics. Trump broke all the rules to smear Biden. The upshot was that the Republican Party stood by Trump and even used the impeachment hearings for more mudslinging against Biden. Given the GOP’s endless appetite for partisan warfare, Biden’s talk of across-the-aisle cooperation seems like pure fantasy.
All the other candidates who did better than Biden are promising some break from the status quo. Sanders and Warren are tabling major structural changes and radical policy proposals. Even the more moderate Buttigieg is running as a change candidate in the Obama mode, a fresh face from outside Washington. 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.
Politico’s Blake Hounshell thinks the Iowa loss is damaging to Biden. “If these Iowa results hold, it seems to me that Biden is in the worst of all possible worlds,” Hounshell argued. “No Bernie freakout driving the anti-socialist vote into his arms. And with Buttigieg winning, there’s a moderate alternative. How’s he going to raise money? South Carolina is weeks away.”
Dave Wasserman of Cook’s Political Report is more sanguine. Wasserman tweeted, “A split decision between Sanders & Buttigieg—as seems likely right now—is hardly ‘catastrophic’ for Biden. Iowa’s caucus electorate played into virtually all of Biden’s weaknesses, and now there’s a bigger spotlight on the chaos than [on] him.”
Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight also tried to find some consolation for Biden. “My take on Biden is that 4th place is bad,” Silver admitted. “There are no good scenarios when three candidates finish ahead of you. However, he’s been pretty resilient to setbacks so far and given his position in national polls he has a fair bit of runway (NH, NV, SC) to make a comeback. To put it another way, while from an actuarial perspective Biden’s chances of winning the nomination have substantially decreased, he still ‘controls his own destiny.’ If there’s a Biden coalition out there, he ought to be capable of finding it in one of the next 3 states.”
It’s not clear what sort of coalition Biden has, aside from people who have fond memories of the Obama era and assumed that Obama’s vice president was electable. Losing badly in Iowa will shake the impression of invincibility. Nor is Biden well-positioned for the next few states. A recent Emerson poll put Sanders on top in New Hampshire (32 percent), followed by Buttigieg (17 percent) and Biden (13 percent). Nevada is difficult to poll, but the fact that it’s a caucus state should give Biden pause. A caucus vote requires the kind of eager and engaged supporter that Biden seems to lack. Even Biden’s much-touted firewall in South Carolina has been showing cracks recently.
The Biden campaign has been trying to reassure donors about the prospects for both Nevada and South Carolina. But there’s every reason to think that Iowa is the start of a downward spin that will continue even when Biden fights on more favorable ground.