vision 2020

Could Biden Lose Iowa and New Hampshire — and Still Win the Primary?

Ready for the long haul? Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Joe Biden has already sustained a lot of damage to his candidacy – and he’s still trucking along. But what if he actually starts losing in early states? I spoke with Intelligencer writers Ed Kilgore and Eric Levitz about whether his “electability” argument would go out the window, or whether he has a strong enough base to support him during truly tough times.

Ben: With a million predictions of his demise not having come to pass, Joe Biden is still doing very well in national and state polls at this late date, with a couple of very important exceptions. He has struggled of late in Iowa, where multiple recent polls have him in fourth place, behind Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg (not respectively in all polls). And he has recently trailed Warren in New Hampshire. These two states are, of course, the first two to vote in the primary calendar. They’re also heavily white, and Biden is expected to do far better in South Carolina and Nevada, states that more accurately reflect the diversity of the Democratic Party. But I wonder: If he fails to win either Iowa or New Hampshire, will he even be in a position to capitalize?

Ed: My quick answer is that it depends on who wins. It may be difficult to keep up with a candidate who wins both Iowa and NH — unless it’s, say, Buttigieg, who could struggle in states with minority voters. If other candidates split Iowa and NH, that’s much better for Biden. It also may depend on who actually does get knocked out in IA and NH. If, say, Warren wins both and Bernie drops out, you’ve got a fast-charging Warren in what may be a one-on-one battle with Biden.

Eric: I think that even in the worst-case scenario for Biden — Warren wins both Iowa and New Hampshire — Joe wouldn’t necessarily be doomed (as the conventional wisdom suggests). If Pete doesn’t win one of those, he’s almost certainly done. Same probably goes for Sanders. Harris shows no signs of turning things around, so let’s assume she doesn’t put in a strong second-place finish in either state. So you’ve got a two-candidate race, with one of those candidates being the bane of a very deep-pocketed wing of the party. I feel like the combination of moderate-donor consolidation behind Biden plus his surrogates blasting a “don’t let lily-white states choose our diverse party’s nominee for us” message might be sufficient to preserve his advantage in South Carolina. And then a big win there changes “the narrative.”

Ed: Yeah, I agree with all that. But historically, candidates who win both Iowa and NH tend to win the whole thing. You know, like ALL of them. One factor is the IA/NH “bounce.”

Ben: I was about to ask if there’s any historical precedent for what Eric just described. It appears there is not. But, hey, a lot of unusual things have been happening in primaries lately!

Eric: Yeah. Also, the sample size for modern presidential primaries is not large.

Ed: I know, I’m just saying that nobody’s derailed a double winner just yet.

Eric: Certainly, I’d put my money on Warren if she emerged with wins in both those states.

Ben: I also think donors — not all of them but quite a lot — might warm to her a bit if they saw she could win a couple of hard-fought races.

Ed: Yeah, I think the blowback to Bernie being the “putative nominee” would be more intense. And as I believe we’ve both said, if Pete catches fire and wins two virtually all-white states, there will be a backlash to crowning him.

Eric: Granted, Liz could seal things up if she really want to

Ben: Haha. I think the big question is whether Biden’s over-65 voters, who mostly like him because they think he can beat Trump, which will be sufficiently shaken by early defeats that they switch their support to someone else.

Ed: And I’m not sure we know the answer to that.Though again, if Warren wins twice, and particularly if she’s been on an upward arc and is dominating later-state polls, I think she will be hard to stop.

Ben: The lack of proximity of many people who work in media to real-life Biden supporters does add an element of mystery to all this in my mind.

Ed: My wife is a Biden supporter. I have a lot of proximity to her. She is neither a senior nor a person of color, however.

Eric: Yeah. That informs my caution in ruling out Biden’s staying power, even if he falls flat in two states with an unusually high share of white liberals in their primary electorates.

Ed: We’ve seen some recent gains by both Sanders (especially) and Warren among minority voters. But not by Pete. I’d have to think that after 2016, Democrats will stay united no matter what.

Ben: If Biden comes roaring back and this turns into a knock-down, drag-out, monthslong fight, is that bad news at all for Democrats?

Eric: The sooner the primary ends, the better the party’s prospects for winning in 2020, I’d think.

Ed: But if elbows get sharp, it will give some ammo to Trump.

Eric: Unless, I guess, one stipulates that a long primary would have a “survival of the fittest” effect, and thus produce a stronger nominee.

Ed: Or Bloomberg on a late sea of money. Just kiddin’.

Eric: Seems more likely to me though that resources would be diverted, and a lot of promising attack lines for Trump beta tested.

Ed: I dunno. The strengths and weaknesses of candidates in primaries don’t necessarily transfer to a close general election. Remember when HRC was the toast of the white working class in the 2008 primaries? She even drank a beer on camera.

Fat lot of good that did her in 2016.

I am curious about how voters will measure “electability” after a few primaries are in the can. Will winning primaries make candidates look more electable against Trump? That’s probably what voters will think, whether it’s right or wrong.

Ben: Right, but that’s probably not such a rational calculation, is it? The aura of winning matters.

Ed: Ah, the golden halo of victory in South Dakota (or wherever). Hey, when Rick Santorum went on a brief winning streak in 2012, people briefly though the sweater vest was cool, not idiotic. As someone who owned several, I was grateful.

Ben: Ha, right. As Eric wrote today, Michael Bloomberg’s possible entry into the race seems like bad news for Biden. Do you think it’ll make his Iowa/New Hampshire problems significantly worse — or make it more difficult to win the states he would need after?

Ed: Depends on what “it” is. If Bloomberg just runs a bunch of ads attacking Bernie and Warren, without really promoting himself, it could help Biden.

Eric: My view is if Bloomberg has any impact, it will be to hurt Biden and Buttigieg. I’m skeptical that he won’t land with roughly the same thud as Steyer.

Ben: That is basically my view — it’ll have very little effect.

Ed: But if he goes all out, sure, it will affect somebody. Probably Pete. Not 100 percent sure it will strictly hurt Biden. I look at the profile of the SC Biden voter, and I do not see a Bloomberg fan.

Eric: Yeah. I don’t know. I just have a hard time wrapping my mind around the Bloomberg candidacy.

Ed: Me too. Or the Steyer candidacy. With which it has a certain similarity; can’t quite put my finger on it, though.

Eric: If New York held the first-in-the-nation primary, maybe I could discern a logic to it. But I don’t see any significant constituency for him among Democratic primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina … really anywhere outside of New York’s orbit that doesn’t have a significant Jewish population.

Ed: Do we agree Bloomberg (or for that matter, Steyer) offers a nice punching bag for Warren and Sanders?

Eric: He’s a better punching bag than Steyer, who at least has ostensibly progressive politics. Bloomberg’s made a prolonged public case for the necessity of having the police systematically harass young black men, and against the idea that the financial industry bore any responsibility for the 2008 crisis (which he blamed on Congress forcing banks to loan to poor people). Also, for cutting Social Security.

Ed: Yep. Yep. And Yep.

Eric: Ideal foil for Bernard and Elizabeth.

Ed: Believe I said this yesterday as well, but Bloomberg (and Steyer, and all the others of their class talking about it) running for president has given me new respect for Bernie’s position that billionaires should not exist.

Eric: Michael, if you’re listening, please know that you can definitely buy my silence.

Ed: I’ve seen those Brooklyn real-estate brochures on your desk, Eric. That stuff doesn’t come cheap.

Eric: I’m a simple man with simple tastes, who simply wants to buy the Barclays Center.

Ed: Haha.

Ben: So, to wrap up, all is not lost if Biden blows IA and NH — just some.

Eric: Yeah, that is my take.

Ed: Agree.

Could Biden Lose IA and NH — and Still Win the Primary?