Joe Biden. Fourth place in Iowa, going in to a hostile state.
Some claim this is devastating for him, some that it’s virtually nothing. Neither is correct. Here’s why.
Two of Biden’s strengths have been his moderate tone and his polling against Trump. So far, neither of those have changed. His third strength, that of being the perceived frontrunner, has taken a hit. It’s not simply that he didn’t win Iowa; there have been many eventual Presidential candidates, especially in recent decades, who did not win the initial caucus. It’s that he came in fourth place in Iowa, and that’s after leading in some of the polls just three weeks ago.
That type of drop-off, combined with poor fundraising, has been the death knell for many prior campaigns.
In this case, he is aided by his opponents. Two of the three who beat him, Sanders and Warren, are correctly seen as being “hard left”. Their appeal is to the activists in the Democrat party. Caucuses favor activist candidates over moderate ones, because the multiple-vote format requires people to commit more time than simply walking in and casting a single vote. In Iowa, Sanders and Warren split about 45% of the attendee vote and the three most prominent moderates, Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar, rang in with about 55%. This is important, because it means that the majority of the Iowa democrats willing to caucus were moderates. While many in both Democrat-favoring and Republican-favoring media will present the Democrat base as hard left, the actual vote tallies indicate the opposite; the hard left are the most vocal and they are over-represented by some news and opinion outlets. If voting was representative, they are not a majority.
This means that Biden has a significant advantage over Warren and Bernie, but first he must defeat the other people running as centrists.
Amy Klobuchar, having come in fifth, is very unlikely to rise. She does not have the advantage of being a perceived front-runner nor a huge campaign war chest. When she drops, her votes will likely drift toward Biden or Buttigieg, with some of the single-issue feminist supporters moving reluctantly to Warren.
This leaves Buttigieg and and asterisk.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg has youth, dynamism, a fair grasp of policy, a recognition of basic economics, good fundraising skills, a great record as a collegiate student, decent debate skills, a military history and experience as a successful public administrator. He has only two major drawbacks, but they are significant: he’s gay, and his experience is limited to South Bend, Indiana.
His record as a mayor is superb, but South Bend is around the 300th largest U.S. city. Burbank, CA; Lakewood, NJ; Billings, MT and High Point, NC are all larger cities. It is not unreasonable to question his readiness, particularly if he is to follow what is arguably the most destructive President in American history.
His sexuality is a bigger problem, though. Buttigieg came in first in Iowa and will likely see a large boost in New Hampshire. These are both states which are overwhelmingly Caucasian. It’s not overgeneralization to say there is a cultural animus against gay people in American black society. It exists. A more complete rejection exists among Muslims, which will likely affect Buttigieg’s outreach to that segment of Asian-Americans. Gays have historically had trouble with Catholic-leaning Hispanic communities as well. All of this is independent of Evangelical support, because many Evangelical communities are all-in for Trump at the behest of their leadership, anyway. Simply put, Pete may ride high for two states and proceed to crash with South Carolina.
Oh, did I say TWO states?
The Nevada caucuses arrive a full week before North Carolina, and they have the potential to be devastating to Biden. While he was never expected to win New Hampshire, if he cannot beat Buttigieg in Nevada, he will likely be relegated to third or fourth place again. Nevada is about 2/3 white, 10% Hispanic, 9% black, 8% Asian. Assuming Pete gets no black votes and loses 1/4 of the Asian community at the start, he still has the potential for a caucus win, particularly after strong showings in two states and with Bernie and Warren siphoning off some of the black/Asian Democrat vote anyway.
Sure, Pete could crash and burn in South Carolina… but by that time, the knife may already be buried deep in the heart of the Biden campaign.
It is at this point that Mayor Bloomberg will be stepping in. He has already been campaigning nationwide, with a particular focus on the Super Tuesday states. Bloomberg has brushed aside Iowa and New Hampshire and has only given a little of his focus to Nevada and South Carolina. He wants to be seen as having growing momentum going into Super Tuesday. This strategy has been tried before, and it has had terrible results for those attempting it. The difference is that Bloomberg, unlike them, has no fear of running out of funds for this approach. If anyone can pull it off successfully, it will be him.
All of this bodes poorly for Joe. It would have been bad enough, but it becomes much worse because Biden was in the lead for many polls going into Iowa. The caucuses demonstrate that his support is wide, but not particularly deep. There is like, but little love, for Joe Biden.
What boost he gets from Iowa comes from their reporting errors. By having Iowa’s caucus results framed – correctly or not – as suspect by people who only casually follow politics, Biden gets a partial pass on what could otherwise have been terrible numbers. Again, it’s not that he didn’t win in Iowa which would have been the problem for him; it’s that he came in fourth… but having an asterisk by that number in the minds of many voters gives him an avenue to bull through the problem and leave it in the past. It also cements his need to come in either first or second in both Nevada and South Carolina.
So, no, Iowa is not the end for Biden. But it does signal turbulence ahead, and it would be unwise to ignore those signs.