We may never know who “won” the Iowa caucuses—not definitively, at least. But we know who lost: Joe Biden.
The former vice president’s campaign did not set expectations especially high heading into a contest typified by rules and demographics that did not favor his candidacy. Nevertheless, Biden’s fourth-place finish has put his campaign on its heels. Despite early efforts to downplay the results, the candidate isn’t sugarcoating anything. “We took a gut punch in Iowa,” Biden confessed on Wednesday. “But look, this isn’t the first time in my life I’ve been knocked down.”
Biden advertised a new pugnacity, and his campaign appears ready to deliver. On the stump in New Hampshire, the Democrats’ erstwhile frontrunner took aim at one of Iowa’s co-victors, Pete Buttigieg. “Mayor Pete likes to attack me as well,” Biden noted. “Calls me part of the old, failed Washington . . . Is he really saying the Obama-Biden administration was a failure? Pete, just say it out loud.” He went after Bernie Sanders, as well. “But if Senator Sanders is the nominee for the party,” Biden warned, “every Democrat will have to carry the label Senator Sanders has chosen for himself.” He added that the self-described socialist has been lobbying for nationalized health care for the better part of 30 years but “hasn’t moved the ball a single, solitary inch.” Indeed, public support for such a program is moving in the opposite direction.
Biden’s freshly sharpened elbows were deployed with even more abandon on Twitter, suggesting that this is a tactical, not rhetorical, shift. If Biden is truly committed to a reboot, Friday night’s debate in New Hampshire will present plenty of opportunities to go on the offense. But this about-face involves its own set of risks. As John Podhoretz has observed for several months, Biden’s conspicuously conflict-averse style of campaigning was likely the only kind of campaign he could run. The Mr. Nice Guy routine is not an act. When Biden tries to play rough, as he did on Barack Obama’s behalf in 2012, he overshoots the mark and humiliates his allies.
What’s more, his campaign’s emphasis on empathy and decency wasn’t just a personal preference but an effort to strike an implicit contrast with Donald Trump. Highlighting the failures, inconsistencies, and ill-preparedness of his competitors may be necessary at this stage of the campaign. But doing so risks sacrificing the favorable comparison he sought to draw between himself and the president.
Biden’s more obtuse Democratic opponents are quick to leverage the vice president’s poor performance in Iowa in their effort to undermine his claim to be the most “electable” candidate in the race. This is, to be charitable, nonsense. Biden’s claim to be the most “electable” candidate in the race was always buttressed by early general-election polls that showed him to be the most likely candidate to defeat the incumbent Republican president. Claiming to be the most electable candidate in a primary race is a non-sequitur. Who cares?
And yet, Iowa’s results do lend some legitimacy to the arguments made by Biden’s opponents that his candidacy does not energize enough Democrats to compensate for the newly populist GOP’s strength in the Midwest. Even if Iowa’s demography is a bad approximation of voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, Biden cannot answer that charge now. And Democratic primary voters who were and remain attracted to Biden’s campaign because he presents a favorable juxtaposition to the president may be disconcerted by an attempt to compete in the outrage primary. That’s a contest Biden cannot win; he will always be outbid. And as the Republican Party’s faltering presidential aspirants learned in early 2016, a pale facsimile is no substitute for the real thing.
Despite the news cycle-induced panic that has overtaken Democratic establishmentarians, the fundamental factors that prevailed before Monday’s caucuses are still predominant. The argument for Biden’s nomination was and remains that his coalition of voters is best suited for the long haul into March and April. Elizabeth Warren’s decline in polls and apparent fundraising troubles and Pete Buttigieg’s lack of any appreciable support among black Democrats crystalizes the choice before the Democratic donor base, which has thus far been cool toward Biden. Showing some vigor on the debate stage may help him secure the contributions necessary to campaign beyond the early states, which analysts have known for months would be rough terrain for Biden’s candidacy. But success on the fundraising front could come at the expense of his campaign’s core competency.
“You’re supposed to leave a Sanders or Warren rally suffused with righteous anger,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently observed. “You leave a Biden rally sort of misty and choked up.” This dynamic doubtlessly contributes to Biden’s overall message: In sum, these guys are all bonkers, and I’m not. Biden may feel compelled to abandon that message, and that adversity-fueled conclusion may not be wrong. But in the process, he’ll be sacrificing what made his candidacy unique among the field of Democratic presidential aspirants. It’s a risky bet, and everything is now on the line.