Larry Sabato is an analyst, author and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. His students are currently embedded in various presidential campaigns. Two were working for Joe Biden in Iowa. Before caucus day, they texted Sabato to say they expected to lose badly.
Sabato asked why. The answer: “No energy at all.”
And so it proved. Biden, who was Barack Obama’s righthand man for eight years and long the Democrats’ national frontrunner to take on Donald Trump, trailed in fourth. A week later, he fled New Hampshire before the votes were even counted, to escape the public humiliation of finishing fifth.
Now, in the words of one commentator, Biden “needs a miracle” to stay in the race. A man whose candidacy a year ago seemed to be predicated on his appeal to the white working class is depending on African American voters to rescue him from the oft-quoted maxim that all political lives end in failure. What went wrong?
“I’ve watched Joe Biden since he was first elected [to the Senate] in 1972,” Sabato said. “He was full of energy and joking around and had a big personality but I don’t think anyone has associated the word ‘vision’ with Joe Biden. Democrats are looking for a vision; Biden’s vision is to go back to Obama’s policies. I understand it, but it doesn’t get you standing up and cheering.”
The 77-year-old’s debate performances have failed to inspire and his rallies have drawn small crowds. His rally in Des Moines on the eve of the Iowa caucuses was in a more compact venue than Pete Buttigieg’s across the city and, while delivering a heartfelt critique of Trump, offered fewer policy specifics and generated less electricity.
Sabato added: “People are charged up and incensed about Trump. But if you’re standing there talking and they go to sleep, it doesn’t suggest you’re the best one to beat Trump. People keep saying he’s lost a step or two but this is the same Joe Biden I remember from the 1970s. He’s a meanderer. Some speakers get you fired up but Joe’s not that.”
There is a distinct whiff of déja vu. Biden’s first run for president fell apart in 1987 when he quoted British politician Neil Kinnock but forgot to credit him, prompting charges of plagiarism. His second attempt went off the rails in 2007 when he described Obama as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”. (His third-place finish in his home state, Delaware, remains his best performance in a primary.)
The 2020 effort was meant to be different story with Biden, who served with distinction as Obama’s vice-president, cast as the antidote to Trump and restorer of normalcy. But he was poleaxed by Senator Kamala Harris of California in the first Democratic debate in June, when she challenged his past views on desegregated school busing.
He fared little better in a debate in September when, asked about what responsibility Americans have to repair the legacy of slavery, he gave a rambling answer that included “make sure you have the record player on at night, make sure that kids hear words, a kid coming from a very poor school, a very poor background, will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time we get there.”
Debates came and went. Trump’s attacks on Biden’s son, Hunter, over his business dealings in Ukraine generated media scrutiny, both fair and unfair, that in some minds may have planted seeds of doubt. In Iowa it was clear the Obama magic, which swept the caucuses in 2008, had not rubbed off on his running mate. The blame seemed to lie with both an underwhelming candidate and a poorly organised campaign.
Moe Vela, who was director of administration and senior adviser to Biden at the White House, said: “In Iowa I saw one of the most inferior ground games in politics. I have never seen anything so inept. He’s not being served properly by his campaign.”
Vela, now an LGBTQ and Latino activist and board director at TransparentBusiness, added: “He had been the front runner for so long that I think the campaign staff became complacent. You got a sense they were so busy talking about electability and pitting him against Trump they forgot they have to deal with these 15 people first. You could see this rude awakening in Iowa as the night was slipping away.”
In New Hampshire, where Biden called a student a “lying dog faced pony soldier”, he fared even worse. A comeback win in Nevada looks unlikely, setting up a potential last stand in South Carolina, the first contest in a state with a significant African American population – a constituency where he has consistently polled strongly. (Biden has been at pains to point out that 99% of the African American population have not yet had a say.)
But even this advantage appears to have been eroded by Senator Bernie Sanders and billionaire Tom Steyer. Then comes Super Tuesday, where another billionaire, Michael Bloomberg, has spent nearly $350m on ads focused on the 16 states and territories that vote, eating into Biden’s support among moderates and African Americans. Several black members of Congress and city mayors have endorsed Bloomberg despite the discriminatory “stop-and-frisk” policy he supported as mayor of New York.
Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), said: “Biden has lost half the black support that he had. It’s bled off and is now largely with Mike Bloomberg. Some of it has gone to Bernie Sanders, a little bit maybe to Elizabeth Warren, none of it to Pete Buttigieg. So he’s sitting there holding 22, 23% of the black vote now. Mike Bloomberg is behind them at what, 21?
“Clearly whatever the decision-making process was that led them to run the first leg of this race the way they have has cost him dearly. They have to make up a lot of ground in a very short period of time. When you swing into Super Tuesday, you’ve got to have bankroll.”
‘If you’re saying you’re a winner, you’d better win’
Is there still time to turn it around? Yes, but it will be an uphill struggle. Since 1972, no candidate from either party has finished below second in both Iowa and New Hampshire and won the nomination.
Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist who was an adviser to the Al Gore and John Kerry presidential campaigns, said: “For him to recover from this would be a political miracle unlike anything we’ve seen in modern presidential politics. I don’t think it’s impossible but it’s unlikely and would fly in the face of all our knowledge of political history.”
Biden’s main pitch had been that in this moment of national emergency, he was the steady hand best placed to prevent Trump winning a second term. To centrists, he would be less of a gamble than progressives Sanders or Warren. But after the heavy losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, he is caught in his own electability trap.
Shrum, a political science professor at the University of Southern California, said: “The centrepiece of the campaign was, ‘I’m going to beat Trump like a drum’. The public said, ‘If you’re saying you’re a winner, you’d better win’.”
“Al Gore had this line: elections are not a reward for past performance. I think they are always about the future, not just the past. In Democratic primaries, you’ve got to have a future offer to people, no matter how dissatisfied they are with the Republican incumbent. Joe Biden has a lot of policies on his website but that’s not what comes over on the debate stage.”
In a small but telling measure of a campaign in a downward spiral, Biden’s press team did not respond to multiple phone and email requests from the Guardian seeking comment. The Trump, Bloomberg and other campaigns are generally far more responsive.
Shrum added: “I suspect they have many pressures and I have nothing but sympathy for the candidate and the people around him. It’s hard to start at the top of the mountain and end up in the valley.”
Biden’s struggles have dismayed supporters in his home state, where he remains immensely popular. Coby Owens, a local civil rights activist whose family has known Biden for years, and who is still trying to decide between Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, said: “There are a lot of people who are shocked and concerned about it and want to know what’s going on.
“They have been hearing the message that he’s the most electable so they thought he was going to cruise through the first two states, which are predominantly white. There’s still a lot of room left for him to recover but if he’s not willing to restructure his campaign, I don’t think he can bounce back.”
Biden has frequently referenced his partnership with Obama but America’s first black president has remained notably silent.
Obama reportedly discouraged Biden from running in 2016 because he believed Hillary Clinton had a better chance of winning. This time, rumour has it that he nudged Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts, to make a late bid because again he was dubious about Biden’s viability (Patrick dropped out after a poor showing in New Hampshire).
Steele, the ex-RNC chairman and former lieutenant-governor of Maryland, commented: “The telltale signs were there: the lack of interest that Barack had in the Biden campaign, the fact that the word on the street was that Deval Patrick was in the race was because Obama encouraged him to get in the race. Why would you do that with your vice-president already in the game?”
While cautious about writing Biden off just yet, Steele added: “For me, just watching the Biden campaign, I get the sense that he’s kind of walked through it. I think he’s going through the paces of it. I’m not convinced at this stage that he really wants it any more. I don’t think you take the front runner status that he’s held for over a year, anchored by 50% of the black vote in a party where that is a very important and huge demographic edge, and just leave it on the table.
“I’ve never seen a candidate do that the way it’s been done. Maybe there’s a little bit of hubris and you assume that you’ve got the weight to throw around to win this thing. But then again, at the same time, I think at a certain point the gas is out of the tank and you just sleepwalk your way through it.”