Looks like you’re using a browser we don’t support.

To improve your visit to our site, take a minute and upgrade your browser.

Joe Biden’s Confounding Candidacy

The former vice president is drawing tiny, unenthused crowds in Iowa. So why is he still one of the front-runners?

Al Drago/Getty Images

A lunchtime town meeting in the college town of Ames, home to Iowa State, should attract a sizable crowd less than two weeks before the Iowa caucuses—especially when a former vice president, who is leading in some of the recent Iowa polls, headlines the event.

But Joe Biden is perhaps the most confounding candidate in this Democratic race. By my charitable count, only 250 would-be caucusgoers attended his event in Ames on Tuesday.

They were treated to such Biden staples as a paean to dead senators he once worked with: Iowa’s John Culver died in 2018, Ted Kennedy in 2009, and Tom Eagleton in 2007. He offered a somewhat exaggerated version of Richard Nixon’s victory margin in Delaware in 1972, the year that the 29-year-old Biden upset expectations, winning his Senate seat by a narrow margin. And there was a moving reference to his late son Beau’s military service in Kosovo during the NATO military operations in the 1990s.

As is typical with Biden, the applause after an hour of stump speech and questions was affectionate yet perfunctory. On the way out, I ran into Alan Vandehaar, a retired adult education professor, whose opening words were, “That was uninspiring.”

This is the Biden perplex.

As Jeff Link, a leading Iowa Democratic strategist who is neutral in the presidential race, put it, “The curious thing to me is that Biden continues to be so resilient in the polls, because the other indicators are a mixed bag.” And a key figure in a rival Iowa campaign said, “We just aren’t seeing Biden organizers.”

Maybe Biden can win Iowa with a stealth campaign that depends heavily on TV ads and the warm feelings that almost all Democrats have for him, notwithstanding some mild sniping from a few Sanders surrogates. But despite the aura of inevitably that has come to surround Biden as he has held onto his lead in most of the national polls, I wonder if the former vice president is more vulnerable than he seems.

Biden, for example, is drawing significantly smaller Iowa crowds than Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren. In fact, Biden may have played to more packed rooms in the run-up to the 2008 caucuses, in which he limped home with an embarrassingly weak fifth-place finish.

The traditional justification for the privileged position of the Iowa caucuses is that, unlike primaries, they measure the enthusiasm of party activists. Even in the record turnout year of 2008 (with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton vying for supremacy), fewer than 30 percent of Iowa Democratic voters ventured out on a wintry Monday evening to invest an hour or two in attending a caucus.

Crowd size is often overhyped in politics (see Trump, Donald), but turnout at candidate events matters in Iowa and New Hampshire. A significant fraction of early-state voters go out of their way to see candidates in person. The respected Iowa Poll, conducted earlier this month, found that 33 percent of Democrats say that an “extremely important” factor in making their decision is how a “candidate has engaged with caucus-goers at events.”

Biden supporters would argue that turnout at town meetings represents a flawed gauge since Iowa voters know him so well. But Sanders is also a familiar political figure—he is even recycling many of the same lines he used on the campaign trail in 2016—and yet he still draws huge crowds. His familiarity hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm for his candidacy. (A New York Times/Siena College poll released Saturday morning showed him pulling ahead of the other candidates.)

The Impeachment Factor also hangs over the Biden campaign. The legal wizards running President Trump’s defense team have signaled that Biden and his son Hunter will be at the center of their high-decibel rebuttal early next week.

Forget, for the moment, the merits of the Democrats’ steel-trap case against Trump and the false equivalence of the Republicans’ vicious attacks on the Biden family. Instead, focus on the short-term political question: How will Iowa Democrats react on caucus night, February 3?

Will the Republican “But the Bidens …” drumbeat make caucusgoers nervous about nominating the former vice president? Or will the screeds and screams convince Iowans, questing after the most electable pick, that Biden is the candidate the Trump team fears more than any other Democrat?

Turnout estimates for the caucuses range from a low of 225,000 (a tad under the 2008 record) to almost 300,000. I find the argument for lower turnout persuasive: It is easy to imagine Iowa Democrats—many of whom are still undecided about the candidates—staying home when the babysitter doesn’t show up, a child gets the flu, or they feel overwhelmed by work.

All surveys, even the respected Des Moines Register/CNN Iowa Poll, which is due to be released on the eve of the caucuses, involve guesswork about the rate of participation. With the plausible range in turnout varying by almost 25 percent, polling is an even less reliable crutch in Iowa than it is in most presidential primaries.

As a result, reporters have to rely more on instinct than hard data in deciphering the caucuses. This is not to encourage the kind of voice-of-God predictions that fill dead spots on cable TV. But there is value in leaning into a few hunches, as long as you approach them with humility.

One of mine relates to Pete Buttigieg, who shot to the top of the pack in Iowa last fall. I have attended two large Buttigieg rallies over the past 10 days—one in Des Moines earlier this month and the other in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday night. Despite the crowds (and more than half the roughly 1,000 people in Cedar Rapids stood for nearly an hour as they listened to him), I had a sense that the former Indiana mayor wasn’t quite closing the deal.

Maybe I have heard the stump speech once too often, with Buttigieg talking about “the first time that the sun comes up over Cedar Rapids and Donald Trump is no longer president.” Maybe it’s the disembodied way that Buttigieg pulls written questions out of a hat rather than calling on the questioners directly as Warren and Biden do. Or maybe Buttigieg (like Howard Dean in 2004) is beginning to suffer from the Icarus Problem as a once unknown candidate who flew too near the sun.

The Iowa airwaves have been mercifully free of attack ads, with their grainy pictures and the-end-is-nigh voiceover suggesting that a rival candidate has cloven feet. In fact, most Iowa Democrats whom I have interviewed offer positive assessments about most presidential candidates, which is why they find it so difficult to make a decision.

In contrast, Twitter, as well as a significant percentage of the pundits who write op-eds and engage in online commentary, appears to be feeding a Democratic outrage machine. Left-wingers denounce moderates, and establishmentarians moan that the Democrats are yielding to extremists. The scrum online leads me to worry that these attacks will become bitter and shrill as Iowans prepare to caucus.

At this point, there is little we don’t know about the leading candidates. On Friday night, CBS News trumpeted an interview with Sanders in which the Vermont socialist confessed that it is “impossible to predict” the cost of his Medicare for All health care plan.

A gotcha moment?

Not really, since, when it comes to issues, Sanders has always believed in magical realism. Actually, it’s more magic than realism. Speaking Monday at a rally in Des Moines, Sanders promised, “Within the first week of our administration, we will introduce, and we will finally pass, a Medicare for All single-payer plan.” Left unmentioned is how Sanders intends to pass this landmark legislation with a (best case) 51 to 49 Senate majority and many Democrats staunchly opposed to eliminating private health insurance.

Four decades ago, I first came to Iowa to cover a candidate named George Bush who did pushups at the downtown YMCA in Des Moines to show that he was “up for the Eighties,” unlike 68-year-old Ronald Reagan.

In that time, I have never seen an Iowa caucus as baffling as this one (not even in 2004, when the Democrats had four serious candidates). My hope is that the candidates win and lose the caucuses on their merits rather than falling victim to some last-minute media controversy or a long-ago news clip dramatically revealed through opposition research in the final hours.