Biden’s Biggest Weakness? Iowa. But Some Rivals Don’t Seem to Know It.


On April 3, Joe Biden held 30 percent of Democratic support in national polls. That week, he faced allegations that he touched women without their permission. And over the next few months, he faced criticism over his attempted rapprochement with Anita Hill; his reminiscences of his past closeness to white supremacist senators; and his at times halting performances in two debates.

After all that, Mr. Biden is essentially where he started: with 31 percent of the vote in the RealClearPolitics average. His resilience in the polls makes many of his seeming weaknesses — at age 76, he has a long record for his rivals to attack — seem not as serious as many believe. But he has one weakness, of a very different kind, with the potential to unravel his candidacy: Iowa.

Mr. Biden will be there Thursday for the start of the Iowa State Fair, which draws a parade of primary candidates every four years. He enters at 24 percent in Iowa polls, according to the RealClearPolitics average, seven points less than he holds nationwide. As the first contest in the nation, the Iowa caucuses present a natural opportunity for a candidate to emerge as his principal rival early next year, and perhaps knock him back in the polls for good measure.

But for now, some of his rivals seem less interested in taking advantage of the opening in Iowa than in exploiting his record on the debate stage. Many candidates are making a concerted effort in Iowa, but not all of the major candidates have been especially focused on the state.

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CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

The cause of Mr. Biden’s weakness in Iowa is fairly obvious: His national edge is mainly attributable to a wide advantage among black voters, and relatively speaking, there aren’t many black voters in Iowa. African-Americans represented a mere 4 percent of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 supporters in Iowa, according to Upshot estimates. (They represented 22 percent of her support nationwide.) The latest Quinnipiac poll gives Mr. Biden a mere three-point lead nationally among white voters, who could make up around 90 percent of the caucus vote in Iowa.

The state’s Democratic voters are also relatively young, and caucuses tend to favor ideologically consistent, progressive candidates with highly engaged grass-roots support.

Most of this is true of New Hampshire as well. But because Vermont and Massachusetts are next door, Mr. Biden would have a convenient excuse if he lost to either Bernie Sanders (a Vermont senator) or Elizabeth Warren (a Massachusetts senator).

That story could start to look very different if Mr. Biden lost Iowa and New Hampshire. Historically, candidates who fall short in both states lose about half of their support in an average of national polls conducted between Iowa and Super Tuesday, compared with national polls taken after December of the prior year. A strong second-place finish might be enough to prevent a candidate from losing much support, especially if it were a well-known and established candidate like Mr. Biden. But plainly it would pose a substantial risk.

At the same time, candidates who win one of the states tend to gain in the polls, particularly when they start with relatively low support. Even factional candidates without wide appeal — like Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz — managed to ride Iowa wins to second-place finishes in the last three Republican primaries. A candidate with broader potential appeal, like Barack Obama in 2008, overcame a double-digit deficit in national polls after winning in Iowa.

Of Mr. Biden’s visits to the four early states, 39 percent of them have been to Iowa, according to data from Fox News, which tracks the number of days candidates spend in each state. He has gone there more than any of the other early contests so far.

But most of his major opposition has spent a smaller share of its time in the state than he has.

The candidates with an Iowa-specific strategy are, for the most part, white and relatively moderate candidates like Steve Bullock, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke and Amy Klobuchar. All four have spent at least 45 percent of their early state visits in the state, and they could see themselves as natural fits for Iowa, thanks to some combination of geographic proximity and reformist idealism — factors that seem to mesh with Iowa’s past caucus preferences. But for now, these candidates are not particularly strong challengers to Mr. Biden.

Kamala Harris, perhaps the biggest long-term threat to Mr. Biden because of her greater potential to flip his advantage among black voters, has spent a smaller share of her time in the state than any of the major candidates. Of her visits in the four early states, she has spent just 26 percent of her time in Iowa.

Cory Booker, another black candidate who could pose a serious threat to Mr. Biden over the long term for similar reasons, has spent just 27 percent of his time in Iowa among the early states.

To be clear, both candidates, particularly Mr. Booker, have spent substantial time in Iowa. But the two have spent more time in South Carolina. This is understandable at first glance: Black voters represent a majority of the South Carolina primary vote, and Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker could reasonably believe the black vote represents their strongest opportunity. The state comes right before Super Tuesday on March 3, and campaigns might imagine that a win in South Carolina would propel them to a strong showing.

It would be very risky to count on South Carolina to bail out a candidate who lost Iowa and New Hampshire. It would be particularly risky if neither Ms. Harris nor Mr. Booker enter February 2020, when primaries and caucuses begin, with a strong lead in South Carolina. Newt Gingrich did manage to win South Carolina after losing the early states — thanks in part to a strong debate performance and the long-delayed verdict on Mr. Santorum’s narrow victory in Iowa — but historically it is likelier that their already weak position would simply weaken further as momentum and attention accrued to the winning candidates.

This year, the benefit of winning South Carolina might be less valuable than in the past. The contest is held on the Saturday before Super Tuesday, just a three-day gap. There is not much time to capitalize on a victory in South Carolina, especially in an era of early voting. That’s not to say there would be no benefit at all, just that it would seem harder to upend a race so close to an election.

Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders, on the other hand, have spent about the same share of time in Iowa as Mr. Biden has. Iowa and New Hampshire would appear to be fairly fertile ground for both candidates, for many of the same reasons that Mr. Biden is vulnerable. But for now, neither holds a lead in an average of polls in either state.

There are still months to go until Iowa. There is plenty of time for Mr. Biden’s opponents to home in on the Hawkeye state. But for now, the state looms as Mr. Biden’s biggest weakness. It remains to be seen whether any of the candidates will take advantage of it.



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