The Biden campaign is downplaying the necessity of winning Iowa. The media is treating this as an early surrender, a sign of weakness. We’ll save the efficacy of Biden campaign strategy and strategic leaking for another day.
Today I’m here to agree with Team Biden. He doesn’t need to win Iowa. Elizabeth Warren does.
Sorry about the whiplash. If you read yesterday’s post, it’s possible to reach the conclusion I think Joe Biden’s candidacy is on the ropes. It’s not. Just because I’m positive he doesn’t have the communication skills to effectively govern the country until January 2025 doesn’t mean voters won’t let him try.
Betting markets are listing Warren as the most likely Democratic nominee. That’s based partly on her skill as a candidate, reinforced by her town hall performance Wednesday. It’s also based on a faulty reading of the early voting calendar.
The logic goes like this:
Step 1: Warren is better positioned in Iowa than Biden. His national poll lead turns microscopic there. She’s better organized on the ground. Unless he’s leading by a significant margin nationally, on the order of 15 points, she’ll beat him. His strength with African American voters is useless here.
Step 2: This punctures Biden’s halo of electability and gets voters to start questioning whether he’s a winner or has what it takes.
Step 3: Riding the wave, Warren wins New Hampshire, a state bordering the one she currently represents. A third of which is in the Boston media market. Biden crumples up into a ball and rolls away into retirement. Or at least is weakened.
Meanwhile, after Warren defeats Bernie Sanders in two states that liked him in 2016, only the most dedicated Berners stay on board. Warren consolidates the progressive side by Super Tuesday and begins marching to the nomination.
Sounds reasonable, right? Let’s look at some history and recent polling data and see if this holds up.
I measured the relative strength of Biden, Warren, Sanders, “Lane 4,” and “Lane 5” in the four earliest voting states (IA, NH, NV, SC.)
Lane 4 is how I’m referring to the group of mainstream contenders who could consolidate their support and actively contend for the nomination. To most, this means Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg. There are support scraps residing with Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro, Amy Klobuchar, and Tulsi Gabbard too.
I’m not sure I have Gabbard coded correctly. She may belong in Lane 5, with Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer, and Marianne Williamson. Unlike them, Gabbard is a member of Congress, but there are still Ron Paulish elements to her candidacy. For now, her support is low enough that a mistake isn’t going to screw with the numbers that badly.
In case you’re wondering what I’m doing with the scrum of semi-moderate white guys (and NYC’s AWOL mayor) who have been elected to something, but don’t get to play on debate or town hall night, they’re fittingly being left out.
It’s tough to find data on who their voters would support if they and anyone like them weren’t around. Assuming they would immediately gravitate to Biden is dangerous. If they liked him that much, they’d get on the bandwagon now. In most states, it’s just a few percent. When those candidates drop out, we’ll see for ourselves where the voters go.
So three big candidates and two additional lanes. Lane 5 isn’t going to create a nominee, but can easily influence early voting results. Early state surveys were compared to national numbers at the same time.
If the pollster did a national survey at the same time, I compared directly. Otherwise, the weighted average. With the exception of Nevada, where I included a June poll to have more data, surveys were taken in the past two months. Each pollster was only counted once per state, with the most recent result getting used.
Then a simple measurement. Plus, Equal, or Minus. There were four surveys for Iowa. Here were the results:
Lane 4: +4
Lane 5: 0
This means in each of the polls, Lane 4 did better than their national equivalent. Iowans have not yet shown a clear favorite among the options, but if they do, that person could win. Remember, there’s a 15% threshold at each caucus precinct. Voters for any candidate who falls short need to pick another option.
Generally, Iowans start doing this ahead of the caucus. It’s part of what leads to late movement in the polls. There’s variance from precinct to precinct, but if no Lane 4 candidate can reach double digits in the final polling, there won’t be a Lane 4 in Iowa.
If one gets there—Harris, Buttigieg, and Beto have all accomplished this in previous surveys, how well they can grab those who were there to vote for the others will determine whether that survivor finishes an acceptable fourth, a surprising first, or somewhere in between.
Warren’s presumed advantage is holding up in the numbers. She’s ahead of her national numbers three times, even once. And this is just polling. The candidate with the best ground game always beats their final numbers on Caucus Night.
You’ll notice Sanders is not similarly strong here. Overall he’s -2, with one survey putting him ahead, but three trailing his overall status. This isn’t a fluke. It also doesn’t indicate much about how he’ll do elsewhere, though we can be pretty sure he won’t have momentum out of Iowa.
In 2016, Sanders effectively tied Hillary Clinton. She received a fractional extra caucus delegate point and got to declare victory. At the time, this was presented as Bernie beating expectations. But it wasn’t a success.
He only lost two caucuses (Nevada was the other) during the entire nomination voting season. In many cases, Sanders won by 30 or 40 points. Clinton’s big advantage was in primary states, especially those with a high percentage of voters of color.
Iowa is neither of those. Berners were active on the ground. What happened? It’s a closed caucus. Only available to registered Democrats. Sanders did far better than Clinton among non-affiliated voters.
That’s a key distinction between Bernie and Warren. We’ve talked about how his support skews younger, less educated, lower income, and lower levels of attention to the election.
We’ve noted that his supporters mention Biden as a backup and Biden’s supporters Bernie, while Warren interchanges more with Harris or Buttigieg. Observers have written about Warren grabbing a good amount of the Hillary Coalition. At least the Caucasian part.
A big part of this is Warren’s greater willingness to present herself as a partisan Democrat, working within the party. As we know, Sanders isn’t that. It hurts him with party loyalists. But it helps him with independent voters.
Hillary had an enthusiasm gap with Bernie. Warren doesn’t and won’t. So his overall caucus advantage would have evaporated. I say would because most caucuses were converted to primaries for 2020.
Biden’s numbers are what we’d expect. Even twice, trailing national polls twice. Nobody is imagining his disadvantage here. Add on Warren’s voters being more motivated and and her campaign more organized. It’s very easy to see how she would beat him. The conventional wisdom is dead on.
The catch is what happens next or what happens if she doesn’t win.
If Warren doesn’t win Iowa, I have a really hard time seeing how she wins the nomination. If Sanders gets her in a closed state, she’s not finishing ahead of him in an open (anybody can vote in either primary) or mixed (independents can go where they want) state.
Warren is more reliant on white voters than Bernie is this time, so again, if not here, then where? New Hampshire, where he’s as much of a local as she is, independent voters can help him, and he won by 20+ points in 2016?
If she can’t defeat Biden in Iowa, what happens in South Carolina? Wipeout.
Several Lane 4 candidates will compete in Iowa. To beat Warren, one needs to outshine the others by a ton. By Super Tuesday, most of these choices will have quit. If Warren can’t defeat them while divided, a survivor will conquer her later.
She *has* to win. It’s much like Ted Cruz in 2016. If he couldn’t beat Trump in Iowa, where he had the best ground game, key conservative and evangelical endorsements, and a closed caucus, where exactly was he going to?
A loss there and he was done. A win, as we saw, was no guarantee.
Assuming Warren wins, I’m very skeptical of the assumption that this mortally wounds Biden. We heard the same thing in 2016. Trump was ahead because he was ahead. He said he was a winner. What happened when he lost? Nothing. He won New Hampshire by almost 20 points, just like the pre-Iowa polls said he would.
Many a front-runner was eviscerated in Iowa only to revive in New Hampshire. Ronald Reagan lost to George H.W. Bush in 1980. It was a blow to the leader. Bush had the “Big Mo.” And then Reagan won New Hampshire and sailed to the nomination.
After winning in 1980, Bush was expected to do well in 1988. Bob Dole clobbered him. Bush finished behind evangelist Pat Robertson too. And then won New Hampshire.
This isn’t just a Republican thing. Hillary Clinton was left for dead after losing to Barack Obama in 2008. New Hampshire gave her a shot of adrenaline. You might point out Obama won the nomination.
He did this on the strength of winning caucus states that are now primaries by a wide margin, catching Clinton unprepared. Combined with winning a majority of superdelegate support. In 2020 they don’t get to vote on the first convention ballot.
If Biden finishes a distant fourth, or worse, he’s finished. It’s not like it doesn’t matter at all how he does. He can’t ditch the state the way Rudy Giuliani did in 2008. That’s fatal. But it’s more an opportunity than a trap.
Should Biden win, the game is pretty much over. He’s not guaranteed to win New Hampshire next, and I’d bet against it if he wins Iowa. Should he get that one too, it’s completely over.
He’s running better in Nevada than nationally (ahead twice, even once.) South Carolina is his best early state. Keeping his African American support isn’t guaranteed. Except losing it is predicated on Harris, Booker, or maybe Sanders doing really well in Iowa, which wouldn’t happen if Biden won.
Who really needs the early states after Iowa? Glad you asked. New Hampshire is up next.
Spoiler: Warren has issues.
Here are the final Iowa requirements:
Biden: A strong fourth. Second would be much better.
Warren: A win. Ideally by several points.
Sanders: A strong fourth. Third would be nice.
Lane 4: A strong fourth. Anything else is extra.