Iowa, a decade ago, humbled Joe Biden. Now it has a chance to redeem him.
His last presidential race ended abruptly in 2008 after he placed fifth in the state’s crucial Democratic caucuses, garnering less than 1% of the vote in the first contest of the primary season.
This week, the former vice president returned to Iowa for a four-day campaign swing, hoping to solidify his lead and recover from inconsistent performances in this summer’s presidential debates.
In a tribute to the state’s political importance, nearly all the major Democratic candidates are crisscrossing Iowa this weekend to attend events including the Iowa State Fair, a party fundraiser called the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding, and a timely forum on gun control Saturday in Des Moines.
For Biden, Iowa presents a unique mix of risks and opportunities — and he faces more pressure than any candidate to come out on top.
A poll of Iowa Democrats released Thursday by Monmouth University — its first since the last round of debates — shows support for Biden holding steady at 28%, about the same as when Monmouth last polled Iowa in April.
But Biden’s margin over his rivals narrowed due to a big gain by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, whose support jumped from 7% in April to 19%, allowing her to surpass Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont for second place.
“Biden’s support is durable,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, but he said Biden’s rivals may have more room to grow. “It doesn’t look like Biden has the potential to surge in Iowa like someone like Elizabeth Warren.”
Biden, with his centrist political brand, faces a special challenge here: Iowa’s caucusgoers tend to be very liberal. They nearly delivered victory to Sanders in 2016.
What’s more, the state is overwhelmingly white, so it does not play to Biden’s strength among African American voters, who are a big part of his polling lead in national and other state polls.
Asked why he is doing better in Iowa this time than his failed effort in 2008, Biden points to his improved fundraising and a more robust campaign organization in the state.
“I can afford to do it now, “ he said Thursday at the Iowa State Fair, surrounded by a jostling scrum of reporters and cameramen who followed him around the annual festival of farm products, carnival rides and fried-foods-on-a-stick.
“I’ve been able to raise almost 300,000 contributors, who have allowed me to be able to compete. ... You’re going to see me put together a full-blown organization.”
Biden also holds a political asset that he didn’t have before — his eight years as vice president to Barack Obama. There are probably few places where Obama is personally more popular than in Iowa, where many Democrats still are proud that their caucuses delivered the surprise victory that began Obama’s successful White House run in 2008.
“It helps Biden,” said Judy Hawk, 73, a retired librarian from Burlington. “Obama was great. A class act. An impossible act to follow. But those two men had a great deal of respect for each other. They worked well as a team.”
After some 2020 rivals in the second round of debates last month challenged Biden over certain Obama-era policies — on immigration, healthcare and trade policies that drew fire from progressives even during Obama’s presidency — Biden treated it as an attack on Obama himself. He warned of a political backlash for going after one of the Democrats’ most popular leaders.
A recent Biden fundraising email asked supporters to participate in a survey on the question: “What did you think of President Obama’s historic presidency?”
The Obama tie-in “is more helpful in Iowa than any other state,” said a senior Biden campaign official. “Iowans are very protective of the Obama legacy. They take credit for the Obama presidency. There is a special feeling here that plays to our advantage.”
Still, Biden is hardly monopolizing support among Iowa Democrats who were key to Obama’s breakout victory. Some are looking, as they did in backing Obama, for a fresh face to lead the party into battle with Trump.
“We are all so eager to move forward, but I’m afraid the vice president doesn’t represent that,” said Jan Bauer, an influential former Iowa Democratic county chairwoman and one of Obama’s earliest backers, who is supporting Montana Gov. Steve Bullock in the 2020 race.
Iowa made another unfortunate appearance in Biden’s political history, during his first run for president in the 1988 campaign.
It was at the Iowa State Fair in August 1987 that Biden gave an infamous speech that included uncredited language from British politician Neil Kinnock. After other allegations of plagiarism emerged, Biden dropped out of the race the following month.
When he ran again in 2008, Biden struggled in Iowa against a big field of better-organized rivals including Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Obama. Like the rest of the field, he was eclipsed by Obama’s charisma.
“He was a 60-watt bulb in a field with a 200-watt bulb,” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines and co-author of a book about the Iowa caucuses.
Biden ran then on many of the same themes he is voicing today, including the virtues of his experience, but Obama’s message of hope and change better fit the time.
“I’ve got more experience than all of them,” Biden said at one point during the campaign. “I’ve changed more things than the guy who is talking about change.”
Biden and his aides now say they have learned a lesson from 2008 about the importance of organization in Iowa. After a late start, they now claim to have the largest Iowa campaign staff — 75 full-time people.
That’s more than Warren, who has about 65 in what has been widely seen — even among her rivals — as the best organization in the state.
The Biden campaign has 12 offices, including one that Biden visited in Iowa City on Wednesday for its opening. Among the crowd that packed into the strip mall on a sweltering evening to catch a glimpse of Biden were several veterans of his past campaigns, a sign of how he inspires enduring loyalty and affection.
“Joe represents solid foreign policy, good experience, healthcare reform and bringing this country back together,” said Laura Lacombe of North Liberty, Iowa, who supported Biden in 2008.
But more than anything, Democrats backing Biden say they believe he is the safest bet for the party in accomplishing job No. 1: beating President Trump. That is why job No. 1 for the Biden campaign is maintaining his aura of electability.
The two sparred Friday, with Trump mocking Biden for telling a crowd in Iowa “poor kids are just as bright and talented as white kids.” Biden quickly corrected himself and finished, “wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids.”
“Joe is not playing with a full deck. He made that comment, I said, ‘Whoa,’ ” Trump told reporters as he left the White House for a fundraiser on Long Island before starting a 10-day vacation at his golf club in New Jersey. “This is not somebody you can have as your president, but if he got the nomination, I’d be thrilled,” he added.
Biden’s campaign shot back, “Donald Trump’s deck is all jokers.”
Whether that kind of attention helps or hurts Biden isn’t clear. He still has to persuade some Iowa voters who are not yet sure he has what it takes.
“I want whoever is going to beat Donald Trump,” said Lucy Giehl, 57, a teacher in West Burlington who worries Biden won’t appeal to younger, more progressive Democrats. “I’ve always liked Joe Biden. They say he is the front-runner because people think he is the one who can beat Trump. I’m not convinced yet.”