WASHINGTON — Despite months of hand-wringing over his vulnerabilities, Joe Biden enters 2020 with the biggest and broadest base of support in the Democratic primary.
But if he is going to win the party’s nomination to take on President Donald Trump, he must first survive the gauntlets of Iowa and New Hampshire.
In a race with four closely divided leading candidates, the most important question has become whether Biden can win — or at least stay competitive — in February’s first two contests. It’s far from assured he will. Even as the former vice president has maintained a lead in national polls, he trails in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Still, if Biden is able to finish near the top of a jumbled field in the two relatively small and overwhelmingly white states, he may be better positioned than anyone to make a run deep into the primary process because of his diverse coalition.
“He doesn’t have to win those primaries,” Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania and a longtime Biden supporter, said of Iowa and New Hampshire. “But he has to be within striking distance of a winner.”
One month out from the Iowa caucuses, the 77-year-old Biden faces stiff competition from two progressive senators, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and the young, pragmatic South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. But Biden’s strength among African-Americans and more moderate white voters — two groups that have loyally stuck with him over the last year — could pay dividends down the road.
Those voters will become far more important towards the end of February and into March, when states with more diverse Democratic electorates and larger sums of delegates at stake like South Carolina, Texas and North Carolina cast ballots.
And even as Trump and the GOP have sharpened their focus on Biden over the course of the impeachment proceedings in Washington, he has continued to maintain an edge in polls as the candidate Democrats broadly view as the most electable in November. A pair of Mason-Dixon polls in Florida and Virginia released on New Years’ Eve showed Biden as the only top-tier candidate ahead of Trump.
“I think we’re intrigued by bold change, but again and again in polls, we hear people say, ‘I just want to beat Trump’, even if that means they don’t necessarily love the candidate,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic consultant who worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
“Biden certainly has maintained a pretty solid position throughout and really sustained many attacks from the rest of the field,” she added. “Now you’ve got Trump and that whole machine going after him and he’s still been able to remain strong.”
Every Democratic nominee since 1992 has won either Iowa or New Hampshire in the primary. Losing both states would carry significant risk for Biden, who has long been viewed as the race’s frontrunner.
Yet some Democrats argue strong second place finishes in those two states could be accepted as symbolic victories for Biden. Third place isn’t ideal, but could be survivable. Fourth place, on the other hand, would set off a significant amount of panic and likely ravage his frontrunner status.
Biden’s team even said in September that wins in Iowa and New Hampshire were not required to be the standard-bearer for the multi-racial coalition at the core of the Democratic Party.
“I think he’s on the uptick, though it’s hard to tell how much,” said Tom Miller, the attorney general of Iowa who originally backed Steve Bullock’s candidacy and is now looking for another option to endorse this month. “If the four of them are pretty well bunched together, that brings the significance down somewhat, both of winning and finishing fourth.”
There are indications that Biden’s braintrust still sees Iowa as winnable heading into the final weeks before the caucuses. In December, Biden spent more days in Iowa than any of his top three rivals, a schedule that was powered by a largely successful bus tour that many Democrats now credit towards resurrecting his chances in the kick-off state.
The tour came soon after he landed coveted endorsements from former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and his wife, former congressional candidate Christie Vilsack.
“I think between his bus tour and the endorsement of the Vilsacks, he’s put a couple of strong weeks together,” said Jeff Link, an Iowa-based Democratic strategist. “And it’s amazing what two good weeks will do to the perception of the national press corps. Three weeks ago, everybody was like, ‘Joe Biden was finished.’”
Meanwhile, the New Hampshire primary looks just as muddled. No Democratic contender from a neighboring state has ever lost New Hampshire and gone on to attain the nomination, raising the stakes there for both Vermont’s Sanders and Massachusetts’ Warren. Polling has been sparse, but averages show Biden in a tight race for third.
After concerns about sluggish fundraising this fall, Biden allies formed a super PAC to offer reinforcements. “Unite The Country” has already spent $2.2 million on television advertising on their candidate’s behalf in Iowa and just added more than $800,000 in commercials to run during the first two weeks of the New Year, according to Medium Buying.
“We want to get him through Super Tuesday in the best shape we can. As the states go on, his support grows,” said Amanda Loveday, a South Carolina-based adviser to the super PAC. “He’s only progressed in states like Iowa and New Hampshire in the last couple of weeks. I think he sees a path.”
What’s more, after raising just under $16 million in the third quarter, the Biden campaign is expecting to report north of $21 million in the final three months of the year. That won’t make him the top fundraiser in the race (Buttigieg and Sanders have already announced they have raised more), but it would arm Biden with resources necessary for a protracted fight.
Of course, even with strong finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Biden wouldn’t be on a glide path to the nomination. If Warren or Buttigieg won in either or both states, their newfound momentum might give them an opportunity to cut into the former vice president’s edge with nonwhite voters.
And regardless of February’s outcomes, Sanders looms as a formidable challenger over the primary’s long haul, thanks to a powerful grassroots fundraising and volunteer apparatus and his strong support from younger African-American and Latino voters.
“Bernie is going to go all the way to the convention, essentially what he did in 2016,” Rendell said.