This isn’t intended as the slam it most definitely reads like. Prior to becoming Trump Era caricatures of themselves, both Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich faced a scenario somewhat similar to what Joe Biden’s team is managing today. They were national polling front-runners a few months before voting began, knowing neither Iowa nor New Hampshire were a perfect fit.
It’s not an exact fit. Biden has led the Real Clear Politics national average for all but a minute since he entered the race. Gingrich leapt to the lead in late 2011 after Herman Cain’s (yes, he was ahead for a couple weeks) implosion. Biden leads almost everywhere outside of Iowa and New Hampshire, Giuliani did not.
But they’re still comparable situations. And they’re becoming increasingly relevant. Over the past couple of weeks, Biden has received an ongoing series of positive results in surveys anywhere outside the first two states. He’s holding or even slightly gaining in support, while Elizabeth Warren is either dropping or barely holding.
Kamala Harris was the most likely candidate to take African American support away from him. When she surged after the first debate, the results showed up in his polling hit. She’s completely dead in the water right now. Cory Booker is more easily acceptable to black South Carolinians than a Pete Buttigieg. Again, the numbers, not just supposition say this. There’s a way greater chance Mayor Pete, not ex-Mayor Cory is still in the contest when the Palmetto State primary happens.
Bernie Sanders hasn’t yet expanded beyond his core base. Warren may have partially impaled herself with her health care proposal. A few weeks ago, she was over 50% odds of winning the nomination on PredictIt. Now she’s at 33%, only a bit ahead of Biden.
The combination of Sanders hanging in, but not surging and Warren stalling increases the chances Biden could win a whole pile of primaries with 28% of the vote. If just more than a quarter gets him a win, Biden doesn’t need to go beyond the voters who are most comfy with him to get the job done in most places.
Except Iowa and New Hampshire. As we all know, there are many fewer voters of color. A higher percentage of Iowa Democrats self-identify as liberal. A higher percentage of New Hampshire primary voters are registered Independents. Though Biden does well with moderates, other candidates like Sanders and Buttigieg who have less of a partisan identification, do better when voters aren’t registered Democrats.
If you look at Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina as one unit, it’s very representative of the wider electorate. Biden is now leading in Nevada, and if you take the combined poll numbers for the four states, the gap with national surveys is pretty small. Buttigieg is a little better off because of his strong position in Iowa and good position in New Hampshire, but not absurdly so.
If the order was Nevada, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, Super Tuesday, etc., we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Biden would be the clear favorite. However, it’s not. Biden is running fourth in Iowa, and given the strength of Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg on the ground, Biden may well underperform his final poll numbers.
That doesn’t account for Amy Klobuchar, who is starting to gain traction, represents a state bordering Iowa, and appeals to the older, more moderate white voters Biden needs to compete there. She’s already in the November debate and very close to qualifying for December. If Mayor Pete trips under greater scrutiny, Biden isn’t in the clear.
New Hampshire is a total wild card. Biden is now sitting in third, but nobody is safely ahead. He could still win, but he’s definitely not safe, and there are plenty of scenarios where he falls out of the top three, maybe the top four. This is an obvious clear and present danger to the campaign.
You’ll hear several things about this. One, that Bill Clinton is the only nominee in either party since 1972 who failed to win either Iowa or New Hampshire. And his case is fluky. Nobody contested Iowa that year. Sitting Senator Tom Harkin was running and everyone ran away from him. Clinton finished second in New Hampshire to a candidate (Paul Tsongas) from neighboring Massachusetts. It was an unusually weak field.
Biden will very possibly finish worse than second in both places. That’s never worked before. Strike One.
Then there’s Rudy’s Florida Firewall that never happened. Giuliani skipped both Iowa and New Hampshire, waiting on all the New York expats of Florida (which voted earlier than usual in 2008) to save him. As we know, they didn’t. Strike Two.
We’ve also heard about Hillary Clinton’s big South Carolina lead, which relied on the same combination of African Americans and older white voters, evaporating seemingly overnight in 2008 after she lost Iowa and opened the door for the then-unproven Barack Obama. Strike Three?
I think we can ignore that final scenario unless Harris or Booker have a miracle recovery and finish in the top two or three in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
Rudy’s situation is less similar than it seems. Biden is actively contesting Iowa and New Hampshire. He’s not all-in the way Buttigieg and Klobuchar are on Iowa, but he’s taking them both seriously. Giuliani did not. He basically announced he wasn’t going to play. You would think the worst thing is to try and fail. It’s not. It’s being afraid to try.
And his competitors were well positioned to appeal to the Florida electorate. Mike Huckabee had considerable strength in the northern (more culturally southern) part of the state, where he now has a big home. John McCain resonated with older voters and military veterans. Mitt Romney was there to appeal to traditional, business minded Republicans, many of whom left New England for Florida.
With Rudy taking the first couple contests off, they had plenty of time to focus on these other choices who were getting free media, and in the case of Huckabee and McCain, winning. Even had Giuliani done well, he had the problem of Florida being Florida. It’s a unique place, like Texas or California. Success there doesn’t necessarily translate elsewhere.
Biden’s situation is different. He’s running very well in polls of all southern states. Much the way Hillary did in 2016. Unlike in 2008, her support did not crumble when Sanders tied her in Iowa and obliterated her in New Hampshire. Bernie wasn’t more suited to those states than she was, so she hung on.
He’s clearly not as safe as she was. This isn’t a two-person race, where he has all the endorsements and most of the super delegates lined up. Super delegates don’t count until a second ballot, and most of them haven’t endorsed Biden yet anyway. He has the most endorsements, but all the candidates combined have fewer than Hillary did on her own four years ago. So this isn’t a great comp.
The best comp is Newt Gingrich, 2012. And it’s not bad news for Biden. Newt finished a distant fourth, closer to sixth than third in Iowa, with 13%. He finished in a distant tie for fourth in New Hampshire at 9%. This is pretty close to what a worst-case outcome would look like for Biden.
Gingrich very much contested both states. A couple months prior, he was leading in both. Romney and his PACs pummeled Newt with negative ads, and he didn’t have the funds or message discipline to effectively push back. It looked like his campaign was cooked.
Heading in to South Carolina, he had to deal with Romney coming off a strong New Hampshire win, and likely to appeal to suburban professionals. There was Rick Santorum who had won Iowa and was focusing on Christian cultural conservatives. Ron Paul had his specific audience. There wasn’t much room for Newt.
He won easily, grabbing 40%. He took a week reminding South Carolinians why they liked him, and had a really strong debate, using CNN moderator John King as a punching bag. Ok, we probably shouldn’t count on Biden saving himself in a debate, but he may well perform differently when sharing the stage with only a few competitors.
More importantly, the stench of losing didn’t seem to encourage South Carolina voters to pick candidates less in line with their preferences. With none of Biden’s opponents having a naturally large constituency there, the Gingrich example shows we shouldn’t expect previous losses to ruin his chances.
Yes, Newt didn’t win many more times after South Carolina. But that wasn’t because of what happened in Iowa and New Hampshire. He wasn’t as well positioned in the other states as Biden currently is. Santorum was strong in caucuses, being able to take advantage of an overly motivated, if not large, base. There are many fewer caucuses this year.
Romney was the establishment choice. Warren has won a conspicuously small share of endorsements so far. Bernie certainly isn’t the choice of the party or donor hierarchy. The party elders aren’t going to rally around Buttigieg until he starts winning votes of color.
While Biden has serious funding issues, he’s not as outgunned as Newt, who existed solely on the whims of Sheldon Adelson’s wallet, was. Biden has far more national and individual state organization than Gingrich did. There’s also the electability argument. Biden continues to run a couple points ahead of Sanders and Warren, even more ahead of others, against Donald Trump.
Even if this changes, it’s not likely he’ll be seen as the greatest risk, as polls indicated Gingrich was in 2012. As I’ve mentioned many times, I have grave doubts about Biden’s ability to hold up over the next year, let alone the following four. There are elements of his current communication capacity I find disqualifying.
But I’m not picking the nominee. Plenty of voters have seen exactly the same debates and interviews I have. And decided Joe is their guy. If I was betting, I’d take the field over Biden, the same way I would have for the past year. But he’s far from done, even if he seemingly embarrasses himself in Iowa and New Hampshire. Especially if different candidates win each state.
NOTE: Nevada is before South Carolina. I didn’t forget. Both polls (where Biden looks good), and the caucus process itself are notoriously opaque. I’d expect him to be able to shake off the first two states well enough there, and unless he finishes a distant fourth or worse for the third straight state, have it not impact him much in South Carolina.