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Politics

Newsletter: Joe Biden’s presidential hopes could hinge on the next four days

Essential Politics
(Los Angeles Times)

The Iowa caucuses — muddled as they were — answered two big questions that have hung over the Democratic presidential campaign since it started more than a year ago: Would Sen. Bernie Sanders hold on to his backing from four years ago, and is Joe Biden as weak a front-runner as he often seems?

Yes and yes.

Between now and Tuesday, voters here in New Hampshire could solve two more big puzzles now on the minds of many Democrats: Can 38-year-old Pete Buttigieg truly take hold as the candidate of the moderate wing of the party, and can Biden survive?

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The leading Democratic candidates will debate, yet again, Friday night. The last couple of debates have felt repetitive, with candidates cycling through now-familiar talking points. This one could be different because it arrives as several candidates face the end of their roads. A campaign of questions has reached the season of answers.

A tie equals a win for one

Sanders and Buttigieg battled to a near-tie in Iowa, as Seema Mehta and Melissa Gomez reported, and, as Michael Finnegan wrote, with all the problems that plagued the state’s caucuses, the question of who truly won may never be known. It doesn’t matter. What does have consequence is that a tie felt very much like a victory to Buttigieg and a bit of a disappointment to Sanders.

Sanders hoped that a surge of new voters would lead to a record turnout in Iowa. That didn’t happen. He also showed little sign of expanding his support beyond the enthusiastic base he gathered four years ago in his race against Hillary Clinton.

The rationale of Sanders’ candidacy is that it’s more than a campaign, it’s a movement that can generate the “political revolution” that he so often talks of. So far, that movement isn’t mobilizing.

As political analyst Ron Brownstein noted, the entrance poll of Iowa voters showed that Sanders won 58% of those who had backed him in 2016, but only 7% of voters who had backed Clinton four years ago and 13% those who had not voted for either of them.

Sanders has continued to raise money at a powerful clip — $25 million in January, alone, from nearly 650,000 individual donors, as Evan Halper wrote — guaranteeing that he’ll have the resources to compete in the March 3 primaries in California, Texas and 11 other states.

But he has yet to show that he can be the candidate of the entire party, rather than a faction.

In New Hampshire, Sanders faces a problem of expectations: He took 60% of the vote in the primary four years ago. He clearly won’t replicate that in a multicandidate field. Polls continue to show him winning here, but by a shrinking margin over Buttigieg.

By contrast to Sanders, Buttigieg shows all the classic signs of a candidate riding a wave, as Melanie Mason and Janet Hook wrote. Voters who had vacillated about supporting him have started to come over to his side; others who hadn’t considered him are giving him a second look.

In Iowa, Buttigieg did better than the polls and voter models projected. As he readily admits, the idea that he could be a top candidate seemed totally implausible as recently as a few months ago. To many it still does. But politics rewards audacity, and Buttigieg has that to spare.

Another strong finish — either beating Sanders or coming close — could cement his position in the top tier. That would raise the next major question Democrats have to confront.

Can Biden survive?

Coming in fourth in Iowa was a “gut punch,” Biden said on Wednesday, as Hook and Halper wrote. Fourth again in New Hampshire might not be survivable.

Presidential politics has several examples of front-running candidates who stumbled into New Hampshire in trouble, righted their campaigns and went on to win their party’s nominations. Walter Mondale did so in 1984, George H.W. Bush did in 1988. Bill Clinton parlayed a second-place finish here in 1992 into a successful “Comeback Kid” narrative that carried him on to victory.

Those examples may no longer provide much help to Biden, though. To start, New Hampshire is a bad state for him, even more so than Iowa. It’s not only nearly all white, but its Democratic electorate tends to be white-collar. The voters who back Biden — older, blue-collar Democrats and African Americans — are scarcer here than in almost any other state on the primary calendar.

Beyond that, party establishments and big donors held more sway in the 1980s and ’90s than they do now. And by contrast to Bush and Clinton, who powered their way through to victory, Biden often appears to lack energy.

Biden spent Thursday off the campaign trail, meeting with advisors at his home base in Wilmington, Del. On Friday, like the other candidates, he did debate preparation. And this weekend, although his campaign has added events to a previously bare schedule, he’s still not campaigning with anything like the vigor Buttigieg has brought to the trail.

Biden’s backers insist that as long as he doesn’t suffer a wipeout here, he’ll do fine later this month when the campaign gets to Nevada and South Carolina, two states with much more diverse electorates than New Hampshire’s. But for that to work, he needs to do well enough here to persuade voters in those states that he remains a plausible winner.

A New Hampshire voter I spoke with on Thursday summed up many conversations that my colleagues have had with Democratic voters over the past few weeks.

“Joe is comfortable,” David Hennessey, said, explaining why he’s leaned toward Biden until recently. “I’m all but certain he could beat Trump.” And, yet, he said, something seems not quite right to him. “He’s plenty fit. But I admit I’ve lost a step,” said Hennessey, who at 73 is four years younger than Biden. “I’m not the guy I was 10 years ago. I think that matters.”

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Washington moves into deep freeze

Three images captured Washington this week: Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah standing, alone, on the Senate floor explaining why he would cast a vote to convict President Trump on one of the two impeachment counts against him; President Trump refusing to shake House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s outstretched hand before his State of the Union speech; and Pelosi tearing in half the speech text as she stood behind Trump on the rostrum.

As Jennifer Haberkorn wrote, any semblance of regular order or prospects for bipartisan legislation between now and the election seemed to be rent almost beyond repair.

Even during the Senate trial, lawmakers in both parties had talked about certain legislative efforts moving forward this year. Democrats and Republicans both have strong incentive to pass legislation on prescription drug prices, for example, and on a measure to end surprise medical bills. The idea of an infrastructure bill has come up so often as a bipartisan nostrum that it’s become a punch line.

But as he has done consistently during his presidency, Trump showed again this week that he sees partisan division as a feature, not a bug. His first speech after his acquittal lasted more than an hour and, as Eli Stokols wrote, “toggled between brash triumphalism and maudlin self-pity, at times vindictive and vulgar.”

What it did not do is offer any sense of contrition or an opening to reconciliation, as Clinton did after his impeachment in 1999.

Trump is a president elected with a minority of the vote, and his success depends on keeping that minority highly mobilized. War with the other side provides the clearest means of achieving that end.

Pelosi’s ripping of his speech clearly showed that Democrats, too, have decided their best bet lies with exciting their base.

In that atmosphere, amid a divided government, the prospects for advancing any legislation are dim.

Impeachment’s aftermath

We won’t know until November — and maybe not even then — whether the bitter fight over Trump’s impeachment provided political benefit to either side.

Trump’s prospects for reelection have always been a very close call: He won by tiny margins in a few key states in 2016 and his party lost badly in the 2018 midterm elections, but a healthy economy continues to offset his many liabilities.

Acquittal in the Senate has ginned up Trump’s supporters, and his standing in polls has risen a few points. Whether that lasts remains to be seen.

For now, however, as Noah Bierman and Sarah Wire wrote, strategists in both parties think that impeachment has helped them by keeping their supporters energized. They could both be right, and if they are, impeachment may become normalized as a political weapon.

The other unknown is what additional information may become public in the weeks or months to come, starting with John Bolton‘s account of what he learned as Trump’s national security advisor.

New evidence isn’t likely to sway many voters — so far, nothing has — but as House impeachment manager Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) repeatedly admonished during the trial, eventually, “the evidence will come out.”

Hometowns that shaped the candidates

We’re running a series of stories on the hometowns that have helped form the Democratic presidential candidates.

Last week’s entry was Joe Mozingo’s dispatch from Burlington, Vt., which shaped Sanders even as it launched his career.

This week, we bring you Cambridge, Mass., the home of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and “home to some of the most educated and opinionated people on Earth,” as Mark Z. Barabak aptly described it.

If you haven’t read the pieces already, take a look this weekend. They’re well worth your time.

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Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter at @latimespolitics.


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