It’s been an unsettling few weeks for the Joe Biden campaign. As recently as last month, his people were describing a strategy for the nomination contest in which the former veep, with his universal name ID and relatively broad base of voters and donors, would outlast multiple candidates in a “dogfight” that wouldn’t really sort itself out until well down the road. But in the wake of Elizabeth Warren’s polling surge, particularly in the early states, along with a weakening of Biden’s position, the spin from his campaign has subtly shifted, as reflected in this report from Politico:
Joe Biden’s campaign is ramping up its investment in the Super Tuesday states, anticipating a Democratic race that narrows to two candidates by early March.
The increase in staffing across the 14 states that will vote March 3 comes as Biden’s polling numbers have declined and Elizabeth Warren’s have surged, particularly in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where she’s heavily invested in field organization …
[I]n the event of weaker-than-expected performances, a built-out Super Tuesday organization would provide a fail-safe for Biden.
Many of the states on the Super Tuesday map — which includes a handful of Southern and Border states — play to his strengths among African-Americans and more-moderate Democrats.
What this really means is that Team Biden is afraid he’s going to get skunked by Warren in the early states (or at least in three of them; he’s still doing well in South Carolina). Unsurprisingly, its story is that the real fight will begin later, once it has all boiled down to a two-candidate race centered in states where Warren’s upscale white lefty base isn’t as dominant. So don’t look at Biden’s falling poll numbers in Iowa or New Hampshire as meaning much; it’s all just an elimination contest in which Biden has a bye and a ticket to the finals.
This makes some sense, although it’s also reminiscent of what we’ve heard over the years from failed candidates who tried to stage a “comeback” or build a “firewall” after losing early. This dates to the beginning of the modern primary-dominated Democratic nominating contest, with an “ABM” (Anybody But McGovern) rallying cry in 1972 and an “ABC” (Anybody But Carter) effort in 1976 and 1980. There was similar talk on the Republican side in 2016, when someone was forever going to beat Donald Trump in the late going. Truth is, particularly for Democrats, a win in Iowa or New Hampshire has been a condition precedent for recent nomination wins, with the asterisked exception of Bill Clinton ’92, who didn’t really compete in Iowa because favorite son Tom Harkin took the state right off the table.
It is also true that Biden is particularly ill suited for Iowa and New Hampshire, states with strong progressive activist traditions and few of the African-Americans so central to his coalition. But the strategic questions for him are (1) whether the early states produce a competitor for him among party moderates and/or minority voters, and (2) whether early wins blow up someone like Warren into a world-beater who simply cannot be stopped.
So far, Biden has been very lucky that no other “moderate” or black candidate has gotten a lot of traction. Kamala Harris, who showed some potential to appeal both to white moderates and to fellow minorities, is increasingly being perceived as a Democratic Marco Rubio — all potential but no performance. Cory Booker is down in the low single digits everywhere. Pete Buttigieg has raised a lot of money and built some buzz but, unlike other white candidates, seems to have a real problem with black voters. Amy Klobuchar’s proximity to Iowa and excellent electoral history haven’t lifted her into contention. Beto O’Rourke is lucky to still be in the race, and Andrew Yang is sui generis and not yet demonstrating any path to the nomination.
But Biden’s biggest fear is that if Warren wins the first two contests, she could become unstoppable, as has every other candidate who won both Iowa and New Hampshire. The biggest Super Tuesday (March 3) state is California, where early voting will begin the day of the Iowa Caucuses. A new, high-quality PPIC poll from the Golden State shows Warren taking a narrow lead there. In the next-largest Super Tuesday state, Texas, Warren moved into second place in a mid-September Quinnipiac poll, in which she trailed Biden by a less-than-formidable ten points. If Team Biden is right and candidates like Bernie Sanders and O’Rourke fade early on, there’s no particular reason Warren might not gain even more ground there. Yes, there are an array of southern states voting on March 3 (Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia) where Biden’s strength among white moderates and African-Americans will make him the early favorite. But Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Utah, Vermont, and Warren’s own Massachusetts also vote that day. The latest high-quality national Monmouth poll shows Warren with an identical three-point lead over Biden in both the early and later states
And while Warren does need to expand her support among minority voters (much as Sanders did in 2016), she’s already making progress. The aforementioned Monmouth poll shows her attracting 20 percent of minority voters nationally, eight points behind Biden. Assuming she wins in Iowa and New Hampshire and gets the usual short-term “bounce,” such Biden margins could disappear.
None of this peril for Biden takes into account the impact of impeachment proceedings, which is hard to predict. Biden could attract some sympathy from Democratic voters as the victim of Trump’s impeachable efforts to get a foreign government to drop a hammer on him. But sustained attention for his son Hunter’s overseas adventures and sketchy lifestyle may not help, and Warren was the Democratic field’s first impeachment champion.
It’s also not at all certain that Team Biden’s two-candidate prophecy will come true. Yes, there’s some uncertainty about Sanders’s health at the moment, but he shows every sign of recovering and he can boast of impressive third-quarter fundraising (as can Buttigieg and, to a lesser extent, Harris and Yang). And there will be three more candidate debates between now and the Iowa Caucuses, which could upset many applecarts.
Biden’s media whisperers are smart to get a strategic narrative out there to counter the evidence that he’s losing ground to Warren. But he also needs to ensure he doesn’t get embarrassed in Iowa and New Hampshire. However much you spin, the real world still turns according to its own impervious rhythms.