Joe Biden is flooding Iowa with more organizers than any of his rivals. He’s spending big on TV ads highlighting his personal tragedies. And he’s wooing former supporters of Bernie Sanders to tout his progressive bonafides.
Five months out from the start the 2020 Democratic primaries, the former vice president is attempting to lock down his softest support in the early voting states as quickly as possible as he braces for a fluid fall campaign. Biden’s consistently led in most polls, but his campaign is already tamping down expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire as local Democrats warn that he is falling behind other candidates in organizing.
“The fact is everyone’s vote is precarious,” said one Biden campaign adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We have the biggest universe to go after. … Our strategy is to get there first.”
Ahead of the third Democratic presidential debate in Houston this week, Biden faces twin threats. Elizabeth Warren is steadily on the rise in Iowa, thanks to her robust organizing efforts and liberal policy plans. And Sanders’ allies are eyeing a repeat of 2016 in New Hampshire, when the Vermont senator won by double digits over Hillary Clinton. Even Biden’s top campaign lieutenants have name-checked Sanders and Warren as likely to be in the race for the long haul.
Biden’s standing appears precarious in the first two nominating states, according to interviews with more than a dozen activists there. Most said Warren was well ahead in local organizing and that Sanders’ core support would be hard to chip into.
Biden’s aides have suggested that he doesn’t need to win Iowa to attain the Democratic nomination, while acknowledging that he will need to at least be competitive there to advance.
“I don’t think the vice president has a lock on Iowa and I think that’s why they’re trying to make sure the bar isn’t set too high,” said Bret Nilles, the Democratic chairman of Linn County, Iowa. “The outreach from the VP’s staff hasn’t been the same level as the Warren and Sanders campaign.”
Nilles pointed to the campaign’s Iowa newsletters as a small, but noticeable difference between Biden and Warren’s organizing precision. Some activists just received their first email blast from Biden’s team last week and it featured events from all around the state, while Warren’s updates are customized to specific counties with a hyper-local focus.
Nathan Thompson, the Democratic chairman in northern rural Winneshiek County, said he hasn’t met a single person supporting Biden. Warren, who he acknowledged many Democrats were initially skeptical of, was the first to plant staff and an office there.
“They were reluctant to support her for the DNA thing or support an older woman against Trump, but that seems to have evaporated over the last six weeks,” Thompson said. “People are getting more comfortable supporting her. I think that’s been really effective, just being present ...I think she could win Winneshiek County very easily. I think she could win Iowa very easily.”
On Biden, Thompson wondered, “The whole thing is that he’s safe and electable. But if it turns out he’s not electable, what’s he got left?”
It’s the question most dangerous for Biden’s calculus. Aides have strongly inferred he could sustain losses in Iowa and New Hampshire and be resurrected by support from nonwhite voters in Nevada and South Carolina. Speaking on a recent conference call with reporters, one Biden adviser stressed the party should not nominate a person who can’t win Latinos and African-Americans, a reminder of Biden’s strong standing with two groups that don’t have significant populations in the first two nominating states.
A separate adviser pointed to internal focus groups that show how strongly Iowans are factoring electability into their votes, which the campaign views as a long-term advantage. “They’re all Jake Tapper. They’re all Rachel Maddows. They’re literally analyzing this as talking heads,” said the second Biden adviser. “It’s also a geriatric ward. And those are our voters.”
Still, the early deployment of a commercial in which Biden invokes the haunting deaths of his wife, daughter and son to defend his health care position represented a dramatic move usually saved for the closing weeks of a campaign. In 2016, when an outside group referenced the tragedies in an advertisement designed to lure him in the race, Biden asked for the spot to be pulled down. This year, he embraced the tactic himself.
“As long as he finishes in the top two,” said Jim Lykam, an Iowa state senator who has endorsed Biden. “It’d be nice to have the win, but if the super progressives really show up for Elizabeth Warren …” he added before his thought trailed off.
Tim Bottaro, a Sioux City attorney backing Pete Buttigieg, offered the nightmare scenario for Biden. “Joe could pull a Hillary and end up third,” he said, referencing Clinton’s finish in the 2008 Iowa caucuses.
As New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley said recently, the movement in support between the week of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary next February is usually “breathtaking.”
A loss in Iowa could prove particularly problematic for Biden, since neighboring senators Sanders and Warren are expected to be primely positioned in New Hampshire.
A new poll in New Hampshire released Sunday found Warren, Biden and Sanders essentially locked in a three-way tie for first. Roger Lessard, chairman of the Hillsborough County Democrats, said it’s Warren and Sanders who are putting together the most aggressively visible efforts.
“A lot of people are not real thrilled with Biden,” he said. “They’ll support him if he’s the eventual nominee. But right now it’s mostly between Warren and Sanders.”
And some 2016 Sanders supporters, like Devin Wilkie, a Democratic town chair in New Hampshire’s Upper Valley, are finding their loyalties tested by Warren.
“I haven’t seen much support in my area for Biden,” he said. “The Biden campaign doesn’t seem to be reaching people as effectively.”
Biden’s campaign contends its increasing their level of engagement at a time when more people are tuning in to the 2020 race. On Monday, it announced it now has 110 full-time staff in Iowa, with more than 80 field organizers and 22 offices around the state. Rather than flooding local events like the Warren campaign, its leadership said it is focused on the less visible work of finding a captain for each caucus precinct and identifying persuadable Republicans and independents, an overlooked caucus segment that made up 23 percent of participants in 2008.
With the Democratic contest calcifying around three top candidates, Biden aides believe their candidate’s positioning as a centrist will ultimately serve as a bulwark against two progressives.
“No one has ever won the Iowa caucuses without being competitive among moderate and conservative voters,” said one Iowa aide to Biden.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t making a play for the progressive wing.
Frantz Whitfield, a Baptist minister in Waterloo, Iowa, backed Sanders in 2016, calling him “the perfect choice” for president.
This cycle, he’s switched his alliance to Biden. After regular calls and texts from Biden staffers, he agreed to be a surrogate for the campaign.
“This time we need to be realistic,” Whitfield said. “Realistically, Joe Biden is the only one who can beat Donald Trump.”