Biden Slump in Iowa May Signal Bigger Campaign Woes

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(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden has staked his presidential campaign on the argument that he is best positioned to ride anti-Trump sentiment to a victory in the general election. But his poor showing in the Iowa caucus raises questions about that strategy and whether he has the campaign structure to drive momentum into later states.

With three-fourths of the precincts reporting, Barack Obama’s vice president was sitting in fourth place, behind 38-year-old Pete Buttigieg, self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, another progressive senator.

Speaking at a rally in Somersworth, New Hampshire, on Wednesday, Biden said the results were a “gut punch.”

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it, we took a gut punch in Iowa. The whole process took a gut punch,” he said. “But look, this isn’t the first time in my life that I’ve been knocked down.”

Moderate Democrats looking for someone to unseat President Donald Trump may be scared off by Biden’s inability to stop Sanders in early states and turn to the fresh-faced Buttigieg, who has painted himself as a centrist alternative from the heartland.

Another moderate Democrat may benefit from Biden’s apparent Iowa stumble. Michael Bloomberg’s campaign announced on Tuesday that it was doubling its advertising budget and increasing its national staff to more than 2,000 to capitalize on the chaos in Des Moines.

Bloomberg has been working toward a decent showing in Super Tuesday states that vote on March 3, including California, Michigan and Texas. While he has picked up endorsements of mayors of several cities in those states, he still lags in standing in public opinion polls there.

Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.

Amid the tension, the Biden campaign is expected to shake up the staff, but officials say the moves are not intended to correct for the mistakes of Iowa so much as to prepare for the pressures of the next four-and-a-half months of voting.

Biden has already hired Dave Huynh, a well-regarded veteran of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and Kamala Harris’s 2020 team, to manage delegate operations, an area where his operation has lacked any real expertise. His campaign also hiring staff to help coordinate the simultaneous political, field and communications operations that are growing in the Super Tuesday states.

“That campaign has got to look at this as a wake-up call,” said Sue Dvorsky, a former Iowa Democratic Party chair who endorsed Warren over Biden largely because she believed Warren’s operation in the state was better. “The GPS on that campaign better start getting recalculating.”

Knowing that the election calendar was against him given his campaign weaknesses among the white and liberal electorates in Iowa and New Hampshire, Biden’s campaign has worked since Labor Day to persuade party loyalists to hold off on judging the fate of his candidacy until after the Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primaries later this month.

“We’re one of the only candidates who’s actually running a comprehensive campaign in all the first four early states and Super Tuesday,” said Jesse Harris, an Iowa-based senior adviser to Biden. “Iowa is one piece of the puzzle -- I’m an Iowan, I want to make sure that the vice president’s doing well in the state -- but you’ve got to have multiple paths to being successful.”

A top Biden official said that when the approach was explained to key supporters, including important donors, they did not protest.

“We fought hard in Iowa,” Biden told supporters Tuesday in a fund-raising email. “Now, we’re well-positioned to make our case to the rest of the country. But there’s no time to rest. We need to be prepared to take this campaign to New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and beyond. And meanwhile, Trump is attacking me non-stop.”

The Iowa caucuses, which award only 1% of the total delegates to the Democratic National Convention, are more than just the first chance for voters to weigh in. They are also the first opportunity for campaigns to show off their organizational strength and operational muscle.

On that test, many Iowa Democratic insiders had warned for months that Biden did not have the kind of campaign they’d expect of a national frontrunner and anticipated a poor showing. Into the fall, the campaign’s state director, Jake Braun, did not live full time in the state.

Biden’s campaign also had a less robust internal data operation across the state, leaving them flat-footed on caucus night and unable to efficiently gather data from precinct captains, a source familiar with his team’s operations said.

Iowa Democrats say Biden’s operation was run with a sense of entitlement, with many potential supporters and activists feeling brushed aside. The campaign ultimately lost the endorsement of a state senator, Tony Bisignano, who supported Biden in his last two bids, but switched to supporting Buttigieg after he felt ignored by the Biden campaign.

Some of the staff, operatives said, didn’t fully adjust to the difference between Biden the vice president and Biden the candidate. As a result, some rank-and-file party loyalists didn’t fall in line behind Biden and many of the endorsements he did secure came later than expected.

Biden’s campaign publicly denied any shortcomings through the summer and into the fall, arguing that by the time it mattered, they’d be where they needed to be. But by caucus day, it was clear that Biden’s operation had never fully scaled up and that his best hope came from others’ weaknesses rather than his strengths.

The campaign sent in some muscle from headquarters to try to steady the operation, notably deploying deputy campaign manager Pete Kavanaugh to Des Moines. But Monday’s results confirmed lingering signs that Biden’s prospects were bleak.

The Biden campaign was so concerned about the results that days before the caucus some of his Iowa advisers reached out to a senior strategist for Amy Klobuchar’s campaign and floated an alliance. Justin Buoen told a Bloomberg News reporter roundtable last week that his campaign “laughed off” the suggestion.

Biden was one of just a few candidates in Iowa last week as the three senators in the race stayed in Washington for Trump’s impeachment trial.

Buttigieg used that time to focus on visiting small towns that had voted for Obama and Trump, often appearing at five or six events a day. In many towns, he drew larger crowds than any other candidate, a point his campaign proudly celebrated.

Biden, meanwhile, took a bus around the state, appearing at about three events each day where the crowds occasionally topped out around 100 people. His events were larger on Saturday and Sunday, culminating with an 1,100-person rally in Des Moines that was meant to end before the Super Bowl kickoff but instead stretched through the first quarter of the game.

Biden’s team said it made a conscious choice not to over-schedule him so that he would have time for one-on-one interactions with any voter who wanted to meet him on the rope line after his speeches. He generally spends half an hour or more posing for photos and often hearing Iowans’ deeply personal stories of struggle and loss.

“It’s very, very valuable,” said senior adviser Harris, who spent the final stretch before caucus day on the campaign trail with the candidate. Those interactions, he said, have helped Biden secure supporters, volunteers and precinct captains he wouldn’t have otherwise attracted.

But at his stops, there was rarely a sense of overflowing enthusiasm, although his supporters weren’t concerned.

“One caucus is not going to decide the nomination because you need a lot of delegates” to become the nominee, said former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack.

He compared Biden supporters in Iowa to “American Gothic,” the famous 1930 painting of a stern-looking woman and her pitchfork-wielding father.

“They’ve got conviction, they’ve got commitment. They’re going to show up because it’s a duty, it’s a responsibility. They take it very seriously,” he said. “It’s not a ‘Hey, this would be fun to do’ or ‘Wow, this is really exciting.’ It’s an ‘Oh my god, our country’s at stake here, I’m showing up. It’s what I’m supposed to do, I’m going to be there.’”

“It felt like a campaign for old people, by old people, with old people,” Dvorsky said.

--With assistance from Ryan Teague Beckwith.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jennifer Epstein in Des Moines, Iowa at jepstein32@bloomberg.net;Tyler Pager in Des Moines, Iowa at tpager1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at wbenjaminson@bloomberg.net, Magan Crane

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