CONCORD, N.H. – Former Vice President Joe Biden is embarking on an extended journey through rocky political seas following a weaker-than-expected performance in the Iowa caucuses, with his safe harbor of the South Carolina primary nearly a month away.
Oh, and his Democratic political rivals are ready to lob some cannonballs in his direction.
The preliminary results of the Iowa caucuses, released Tuesday afternoon following the prior night’s reporting debacle, showed Biden earning just 15% of the state’s popular vote, well behind the three other leading Democratic contenders in the state ― Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
While Biden’s strength in rural areas allowed him to earn 16% of Iowa’s delegates, the result still has both his progressive and moderate political rivals hoping New Hampshire ― a state Biden allies have previously suggested was uniquely unfriendly to him ― could deliver a knockout punch to his chances.
Adding to his problems: Biden faces increasing threats to his hold on two different key groups of voters. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Buttigieg are both challenging him for the votes of electability-obsessed moderates, and can now point to the Iowa results to argue that Biden’s support among working-class white voters is overstated. And recent polling indicates that investor Tom Steyer is chipping away at Biden’s support from Black and Latino voters in Nevada and South Carolina.
Almost every other candidate’s allies are taking the opportunity to argue that Biden’s inevitability bubble as a former vice president and national front-runner has burst.
“What these results make clear is that this is a five person race. Some of Amy’s strongest counties haven’t been fully reported and the current data doesn’t tell the full story,” Klobuchar campaign manager Justin Buoen wrote on Twitter. “We’re in a virtual tie with VP Biden and we look forward to making our case in New Hampshire.”
“Biden’s finish around fourth sends a signal to voters in future states that if your only reason for supporting him was the electability bandwagon or thinking he was inevitable, that is dead,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which backs Warren. “We expect former Biden voters to take a look at others, vote their heart, and ultimately support stronger candidates like Elizabeth Warren.”
Biden himself acknowledged his poor showing as he campaigned Wednesday in New Hampshire.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it. We took a gut punch in Iowa,” he said, according to Politico.
Biden still maintains a lead in most national polling, with only Sanders providing a real challenge. His unique strength with African American voters gives him an electoral firewall in the South that could prove frustratingly difficult for his rivals to break through. But with Sanders leading in New Hampshire and Nevada a toss-up, Biden is facing the potential of not winning a single state until perhaps South Carolina on Feb. 29.
At an event at an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers hall here, Biden seemed to acknowledge Iowa hadn’t gone the way he hoped and the Feb. 11 New Hampshire primary would be key to his future success.
“It’s good to be back in New Hampshire,” he told the crowd. “More than you know.”
“There’s nothing to come back from yet, but I’d like you to rocket me out of here to make sure this thing works, OK?” he continued.
John Lynch, a popular former Democratic governor who helped introduce Biden, seemed to set a high bar for the former Delaware senator’s performance in the Granite State.
“Is Joe Biden going to win New Hampshire?” Lynch asked the crowd, before noting a poll released Tuesday night showing Biden tied with Sanders in the state. (Most polls show Sanders with a fairly healthy lead in New Hampshire, with Biden, Warren and Buttigieg grouped together behind him.)
Biden’s team spent much of the day downplaying the impact of the vote in Iowa, and some of his surrogates went further to inaccurately suggest the caucus results couldn’t be trusted. Iowa, they argued, is inconsequential to the broader delegate count. And there are real reasons to think the Hawkeye State was a poor fit for Biden: Iowa is the nation’s fifth-whitest, essentially the opposite of Biden’s diverse coalition. And while there was no large turnout surge in the state, the electorate was younger than typical for a caucus, according to entrance poll data.
“We competed hard and hoped for more, but this was never a state that made a lot of sense for us demographically,” a Biden aide said. “We’re not surprised and not deterred.”
Before their spin Tuesday, however, Biden and his allies had long suggested he could win Iowa. “I plan on winning Iowa,” he told reporters in November.
New Hampshire, comparatively, was always supposed to be difficult for Biden: He was facing challenges from two senators from neighboring states in Warren and Sanders, and its electorate is even whiter than Iowa’s. Unite The Country, a super PAC backing Biden, suggested in late January it saw little need to compete in the state.
In a shift that signified Biden’s increased need to turn in a strong performance in New Hampshire, Unite The Country announced Tuesday it would spend $900,000 on television and digital ads focused on Biden’s ability to beat Trump and pass gun control legislation.
Voters interviewed at Biden’s event here were typically leaning toward voting for him, though most were still considering Klobuchar or Buttigieg. Many expressed fears about Sanders, in particular, winning the nomination, suggesting he would lose to Trump. Almost all, however, were prepared for Biden to lose the state’s vaunted first-in-the-nation primary and suggested he would do better in more diverse states later on in the voting process.
“Doesn’t affect me at all. That was kind of a mess,” said Bob Weiner, a college athletic coach from Concord, when asked if he was worried about Biden’s Iowa performance. “The first two primaries are not representative of his support.”
And before any results had been reported in Iowa, the Biden campaign had already switched gears to focusing on the races in Super Tuesday states — 16 primaries, all taking place on March 3, that will decide the fate of more than one-third of the delegates going to the Democratic convention.
The Biden campaign spent Tuesday morning touting endorsements in Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas ― three Super Tuesday states that are largely seen as part of his electoral firewall in the South. The former vice president has won the support of former Arkansas Gov. Mark Pryor, former Arkansas Sen. David Pryor, and several mayors in Super Tuesday states. Biden has already hit the campaign trail with Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) who endorsed him during a South Carolina campaign swing over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend.
While those states have seen little public polling, Biden’s strength with African American voters is expected to power him to victories there.
Black voters in South Carolina don’t wait for voters in Iowa and New Hampshire and then make a decision. Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC
Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, said Biden’s struggles in early states likely won’t hurt his standing with Black voters. But she did say Biden would be smart to worry about how a lack of momentum could hurt Black turnout.
“Black voters in South Carolina don’t wait for voters in Iowa and New Hampshire and then make a decision. The idea that ‘I win Iowa, and then Black people will like me,’ is absurd,” she said. “Black voters are aware of momentum, but I don’t think the results in the early states will show that anyone has momentum.”
While recent polls have shown Steyer taking away portions of Biden’s support from Black voters in South Carolina, Shropshire was skeptical Steyer could hold on to it. “I just don’t know how durable that is,” she said.
Biden could also face a financial problem. FEC records released shortly before the caucuses showed his campaign with just $9 million cash on hand, far less than Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg’s totals.
Biden’s financial position looks even weaker when compared to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a multibillionaire who is self-funding his campaign and has been explicit in his hopes that his candidacy can offer a moderate alternative if Biden crumbles in the early states.
In the first three weeks of January, the billionaire spent $262.9 million on advertising across the Super Tuesday states, according to data from Advertising Analytics. For comparison, the Biden campaign spent $11.2 million in that same time period. On Thursday, Bloomberg’s campaign announced plans to double its television advertising output and to hire more than 2,000 field organizers.
“After more than a year of this primary, the field is as unsettled as ever. No one has made the sale or even come close to it,” Bloomberg spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said. “Meanwhile, Mike is taking the fight to Trump every day, doubling down on the national campaign strategy we’ve been running from the beginning.”