I don’t think that Joe Biden winning the Iowa caucuses would effectively end the Democratic primary after the first contest, but it would probably turn him from merely the front-runner to the prohibitive favorite. Yes, all of the top four candidates are pretty close together, but the last two polls in Iowa both have Biden ahead by six percentage points. Often in politics, winning begets winning. At this point, Nevada looks pretty solid for Biden and South Carolina looks like it will be a big win for him. Biden winning three of the four would put him in great shape heading into Super Tuesday, where candidates really need a nationwide organized campaign to compete. If Biden does well in the Super Tuesday states, then by the night of March 3, Americans may feel like the Democratic contest is effectively over.
The last two polls in Iowa put Amy Klobuchar at 11 percent and 8 percent. If she’s at 15 percent or close, she might be able to justify sticking around. If she’s at 8 percent and gets no delegates . . . Democrats may start reasonably asking whether she’s joined the ranks of the irrelevant also-rans. Candidates with support in the high single digits aren’t going to win, but they can make an impact by withdrawing from the race and endorsing their preferred rival.
Right now, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg are only a little ahead of the 15 percent threshold for delegates in Iowa. A fourth-place finish won’t knock either one out, but they’ll come out of Iowa in rough shape and need something better in New Hampshire. It’s not that 15 percent or so in the two earliest states is a bad finish, but these are the states where these candidates have spent the most time and resources. At some point, candidates have to stop beating expectations and start beating other candidates.
Bernie Sanders is probably going to stay in this thing until the end, but there are a few ominous signs for him. That latest poll in Iowa has him at 14 percent, below the delegate line. Right now, Sanders appears to be winning New Hampshire, but the numbers for the big four are all pretty close. He’ll probably do well in Nevada, if not quite win, and then get slammed in South Carolina. He can, for the second straight cycle, get into a long slog of a campaign against an establishment front-runner who worked closely with Barack Obama.
Ironically, Biden winning Iowa might lessen his chances of winning New Hampshire. The two early states have this odd sibling-rivalry contrarianism, and the last thing New Hampshire voters want to do is merely assent to Iowa’s choice. Last cycle, Hillary Clinton very narrowly won Iowa, and then Bernie Sanders won 60 percent in New Hampshire. Barack Obama won Iowa in 2008 and Hillary Clinton slipped to third, and then Clinton came back and won New Hampshire. John Kerry was one of the few to win both states in 2004; Al Gore won both, but Bill Bradley came within four points in New Hampshire.
The non-Biden candidates should probably stop waiting for that campaign-ending Biden gaffe that many Democrats seemed to believe was inevitable. Biden is a flawed front-runner and beatable, but overtaking him will require a more direct argument of why he’s the wrong choice to represent the party. His rivals need to convince Democratic primary voters that even if he beats Trump, Biden would represent the worst parts of the Obama presidency — coasting along with a pre-Trump status quo, with his garrulous charm papering over the fact that blue-collar voters don’t trust his policies on China and trade and environmental regulations, the kind of Democratic president who would be warmly welcomed at the Davos summit and that would restore the Howard Schultz vision of the Democratic party — socially liberal but resisting any sweeping change to an economic system that they truly believe is a meritocracy. It’s a risky choice for Biden’s challengers: To beat him, they probably have to make arguments that would echo some of Trump’s arguments in the general election.