Vice President Joe Biden returns to Iowa this week, raising questions as to whether the trip may be preparation for something bigger. Biden admitted recently to be considering a third bid for the presidency. Heading into the twilight of his long and successful career in politics, it wouldn’t surprise many if he took one last shot at that brass ring. If he did, would the candidate who only got about 1% in Iowa last time really have a chance at winning the Iowa Caucus?
On the surface, a victory seems unlikely. Hillary Clinton dominates the early polls, pulling the support of 56% of likely Democratic caucus-goers, compared to just 9% for Biden. Other candidates start even lower, but aren’t as already well-known. But Biden earns huge positive ratings, and is the second choice of many Democrats. Were others – like Elizabeth Warren – not to run, Biden could see his stock quickly rise.
“The polls do mean something, especially when they have some known-quantities running,” says Jim Mowrer, Vice Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party and a former Biden 2008 campaign staffer. However, he notes the unpredictability of caucus-goers’ opinions. “Back in 2007, Hillary Clinton was a known-quantity, and the polls showed her leading. Anything can happen a year between now and the caucus.”
To actually win the nomination, Iowa would certainly be the key to Biden’s path to victory. Going one-on-one with Hillary Clinton nationwide would prove nearly impossible. Building momentum through a caucus upset could provide Biden a chance. Early underdogs have won Iowa before, through grass-roots organizing and the retail politicking caucus-goers love, which just so happens to be the Vice President’s biggest strength.
“Joe Biden is the best retail politician in my lifetime,” says State Senator Tony Bisignano, who endorsed Biden during the 2008 caucuses. “Biden has many loyal people that he’s stayed in touch with in Iowa.” That personal charisma and authenticity has many Iowa activists willing to consider a third presidential attempt from the Vice President.
“When Democrats look at him, he’s somebody who is just a decent, authentic human being,” believes Gerene Denning, chair of the Johnson County Democrats. In particular, Denning sees his working-class roots as a way to appeal to the party’s progressive base. “He’s obviously not one of the Democrats who puts corporations ahead of people … As an individual Democrat, I’m going to go with the most populist Democratic candidate available.”
“I think if he does come to Iowa and reestablishes his old campaign contacts that he would certainly have a chance,” says Tom Powers, a political power-broker in Black Hawk County. “I would strongly consider the Vice President in the caucus. I think he’s done a great job as Vice President and in the Senate, especially with his knowledge of foreign affairs.” Several mentioned his roles in international relations as an issue he can win on. “Hillary Clinton has more on any Republican running when it comes to foreign policy, but then you look at his life,” Bisignano points out. “I think he trumps her in foreign experience. He’s the only candidate who neutralizes her strength.”
Many activists in Iowa remember Biden fondly, fans of the way he nurtures relationships and easily relates to anyone he speaks with. It seems everyone in Iowa has a Biden story. Or, more accurately, a “Joe story,” as they are often told. A long hug, a wink, a hokey joke, or one of many “Bidenisms” are often parts of how people affectionately recall their interactions with the down-to-earth Biden.
In fact, one of my own favorite personal stories from the Iowa Caucus involves Biden. While in college, I drove then-Senator Biden and his two staffers to the airport following an event. After the three piled into my small 2002 Saturn sedan, Biden (who is six foot) pulled his seat up as far as it could go so his staffer had leg room in back, spending the fifteen minute trip with his knees at his chest. On the drive, rather than checking his Blackberry or talking shop with his staff, he chatted with 21-year old me about his biggest foreign policy concern: terrorist attacks on soft targets (which is now eerily prescient, as the western world increasingly struggles with lone-wolf and small-cell terrorism). My wife as well fondly recalls getting to an event at Drake early where Biden was speaking. He sat down with her for ten minutes to ask her about what she was studying and what she planned to do after college.
That ability to make you feel like you’re the most important person in the room could allow Biden to slowly chip away at Clinton’s lead, winning over activists in small event settings or working the rope line after big events. His old organization would largely be there again too. “I would support him again,” Bisignano says. “I always have, I always will. It’s a loyalty thing. He’s shown me respect, along with everyone else in Iowa who are his longtime supporters.”
Former supporters, local-level activists, and elected officials would likely form a solid foundation of another Biden run. But would it be enough to form a winning coalition?
Biden would start as the most well-known and likely well-financed alternative to Clinton. If he could push others like Martin O’Malley aside, he could unite the anti-Hillary Democrats behind his candidacy. That alone would comprise about 25% to 30% of caucus-goers. Then he needs to grow out from there. He appeals most to the activist and more-involved crowd, those who show up to see candidates, who have detailed knowledge of policy issues, and who carefully consider their decision of whom to support. That’s a good group to have on your side for organizing turnout for the caucus. However, they would need to convince a lot of their neighbors to back Biden to be successful.
The Vice President’s biggest obstacle would almost certainly lie in persuading the party’s broader base to give old Joe a chance. He would be 74 when inaugurated, the oldest ever of an American president. And that’s if he got through the general election. Some question whether a man so closely tied to Obama’s policies, who doesn’t have the inherent excitement as the first black or female president, would be best to lead the top of the ticket. The lack of that extra excitement factor would probably mean Biden would need a low caucus turnout to succeed. If a well-run Clinton campaign successfully packs precinct rooms with young women who have never caucused before, Biden’s chances would shrink considerably.
Biden’s greatest strength, his authentic charm, can also be his greatest weakness. The press likes to spin his mannerisms as silly or unserious. Democrats certainly love Joe Biden. But do they love him to the extent that they want him as their nominee? How many Democrats would say, “God love you, Joe, but we’re caucusing for Hillary”?
Biden is apparently still deciding on another run. There’s no national reports of rumblings that he’s lining up key national campaign advisors. Though it does sound like he’s inviting many of his old supporters to come see him at Drake University on Thursday. Were he to do it, he would start with a solid base in Iowa among adoring Democrats, in a much better position than any other candidate not named Hillary Clinton. Ultimate success, however, will likely hinge on whether caucus-goers see Biden as “Uncle Joe” or “President Joe.”
by Pat Rynard
Featured photo by Greg Hauenstein. See more of his work here: greghauenstein.com.