With the impeachment hearings ramping up this week and the democratic primary race now accelerating toward the Iowa caucus in February 2020, it is a good time to take stock of former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and assess where things stand. He will be the focus of Republican attacks and his name will come up throughout the impeachment hearings. Voter’s opinions about Biden in swing states like Iowa could be the deciding factor regarding whether the Senate flips to favor impeachment. Impeachment hearings could hurt or help Biden’s campaign. Biden’s campaign could help or hurt the impeachment effort. Suffice it to say that a lot is riding on how Joe Biden performs in the mid-West.
Biden has a problem in Iowa. He is polling behind both Warren and Buttigieg, and recent polling puts him neck and neck with Sanders for third place. While Biden had been doing well in Iowa throughout the summer of 2019, his lead began to suffer after two poor debate performances and then tanked after the third debate on September 12th, 2019. Looking at the data, it is clear that Iowan’s, in general, responded extremely poorly to his debate performance that week, and found Warren to offer a more compelling message to the American people. He failed to parry several attacks and stumbled over his words, and the other candidates came out looking like far better options that night. By the following week, Iowans had officially dropped Biden down to second and then third place.
He is also losing the money game, raising less money than the other front runners last quarter and spending enough to go into the red. That is bad news for his strategy in Iowa. Most of the money he raised came from large donors who contributed $500 to $1.5 million. On top of that, Biden drew these donations from just 114 former big-money donors for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the third quarter, the most of any Democrat, according to a POLITICO analysis. He is known to be one of the darling candidates of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and other large donors in the political power class of America, along with Harris and Buttigieg. Relying on big money has put him at a severe disadvantage in Iowa and other states to progressives such as Warren and Sanders, who are able to draw on regular small donations to fund their activities. The fact that Biden is not taking in as many small donations in total as Warren and Sanders leads one to reasonably infer that Biden is not taking in as many small donations as they are in Iowa.
To make matters worse, Biden is losing the ground game in Iowa as well. Some of this has to do with his lack of funds. As another candidate who is losing the money game, Harris, announced earlier this month that she is closing all but one campaign office in New Hampshire in order to focus on Iowa, Biden has had to make similarly tough choices. While Biden’s Iowa staff of about 100 is similar in size to other candidates Sanders, Biden has far few volunteers supporting those staff members. At a time when Sanders is flying in Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to fire up his leftist base of supporters, young and old, across the state, Biden’s skeleton staff are focused on turning out senior citizens and working-class Democrats in rural and conservative parts of the state, especially those who voted for Trump. It makes sense for Biden to focus on counties that voted for Obama and then voted for Trump because Biden’s moderate policy positions will appeal to those voters more than progressives. But it also makes sense for Biden to court Obama voters because, after all, he was Obama’s Vice President. That brings us to the final major problem that Biden has in Iowa, the problem which was on full display at the town hall he held in Iowa last this past week.
Biden held a town hall on Veterans Day in Iowa in order to open up new in-roads with Veterans in the state and regain some of his lagging momentum in the polls. It was meant to be the beginning of his sprint towards the Iowa caucuses. The event was also that last time that voters would get to hear Joe Biden speak publicly before the impeachment hearings began. After this event, Iowa voters would hear his name invoked on national television alongside the words “corruption” and “impeachment” relentlessly, and this was a chance for Biden to give a bit of spin to those invocations ahead of time, a chance he will not often have in the coming weeks.
Many of Biden’s campaign events are bland and lacking in energy. That is nothing new. Biden tends to drone on about old stories in a slow monotone. His performances leave much to be desired in comparison to the rousing calls to revolution that Sanders is known for at his events, for instance. Unfortunately, this town hall had an added air of sadness to it that made the entire event unusually depressing. One after another, older veterans and their family members stood up to ask Biden to fix the badly broken United States Department of Veterans Affairs, especially regarding the lack of funding for health and human services at VA hospitals. An older woman stood up and, her voice wobbly under the weight of her emotions, explained to Biden that she was living paycheck to paycheck and begged Biden to help her husband find the care he needed to survive. Other veterans told similar stories.
One veteran simply asked Biden point-blank: “How are you going to fix the VA?” The man explained that the doctors at the VA make half of what is available in the private sector, and as a result, the VA struggles to attract and hold onto top talent that veterans badly need. In response, Biden said he would, “get rid of the outrageous tax cut for the wealthy so we can pay doctors a competitive wage.” The crowd approved of this, but Biden went on. He also explained that he would wipe out the student debt of doctors who work at the VA so that they wouldn’t have to worry about how they will pay for the educations they received if they work for the government. That was a crowd-pleasing message that they could all get behind, even if Biden has not provided much in the way of details to back up these otherwise somewhat empty promises.
The fact that veterans were asking Biden about healthcare is fitting and gets back to the main problem that plagues Biden’s campaign in Iowa and generally, namely his connection to Obama. Biden has intentionally structured his entire campaign around the memory of the Obama presidency and on the question of healthcare reform, Biden is quick to invoke the hard-won victory of the Obama administration’s signature legacy, the Affordable Care Act. Biden’s credibility on this point rides on his ability to connect himself to Obama’s legacy. The veterans at the event clearly got this connection.
But at a time when large sections of the Democratic base want a forward-looking policymaker, this inherently nostalgia-based campaign message is risky. Biden is banking on the strength of Democrat’s desire to return to Obama-era politics. That would generally be a good strategy given the sentiments that many establishment Democrats express these days. But harkening back to the Obama era comes with a double-edge sword. The arguments that the Biden offers to Veterans about fixing the VA come with the uncomfortable reality that many of the VA’s problems have not been fixed by Obamacare. Biden has to argue that, despite the failure of the Affordable Care Act to solve the VA’s problems, veterans should trust him that with some more incremental improvements to the system, all will be well. That is a tall order.
Biden’s reliance on Obama’s legacy comes with other uncomfortable contrasts as well. At the town hall event, prominently displayed behind the stage, was a sign that read, “Fired up, ready for Joe,” an obvious play on Obama’s favorite slogan, “Fired up, ready to go!” The problem was that, unlike the palpable energy in the crowds that Obama attracted to his campaign events, Biden’s town hall was anything but fired up. In another uncomfortable contrast, the audience was almost entirely composed of older white people, unlike Obama’s diverse mix of old and young people of every race. Unlike Obama, who offered hope and change, Biden offers safety and no change. Unlike Obama’s eloquence and charm, Biden could not properly enunciate his words and would lose the audience on long rambling tangents. He even cut himself off a few times when he realized he was going on too long with a curt, “anyway...” At times, he would suddenly elevate the force and volume of his voice as if he realized that his monotone was making people drowsy, only to slip back down into a dull drone after a few moments.
If Biden wants to do better in Iowa, he needs to change a lot of things. First, he needs to get out from under the Affordable Care Act’s shadow and offer new ideas about health care to a public who is hungry for change. He can campaign for incremental change while explaining more about how he will build on the ACA and add to it, not just continue doing what has been done for years. Second, he needs to engage in more grassroots fundraising and work to attract a younger crowd. Trump has the energy of younger generations behind him, and so does Warren. Sanders and Buttigieg do too. These younger people do not have as much money to donate individually, but they trust candidates who do not only focus on large donors, and when they do get on board, their regular donations are more consistent than the large lump sums that large donors give. Third, he needs to practice his stage presence and surround himself with advisers who will give him honest feedback when his performance leaves something to be desired. He has never had a fantastic stage presence, but if he wants Democrats to trust him to take on Trump, a guy who has spent a lifetime in front of cameras and a veteran of the social media and reality TV industries, he needs to show Democrats that he has what it takes. Right now, he clearly does not. If he makes these changes, his numbers in Iowa might go up despite the onslaught of negative press that will come out of the impeachment proceedings over the next few months.