CEDAR RAPIDS — Kicking off an extended campaign tour as Iowans come out of Thanksgiving tryptophan-induced comas probably makes sense for former Vice President Joe Biden.
Although he maintains a sizable nationwide lead in the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Biden has fallen behind in Iowa.
So 65 days before the Feb. 3 caucuses, Biden will embark on an eight-day, 18-county “No Malarkey” bus tour of Iowa that will start Saturday in Council Bluffs and end Dec. 7 in Cedar Rapids.
Given that the Christmas and New Year’s holidays will interrupt campaigning, “now is a relatively good time for him to put on a push to bolster support,” according to University of Iowa political scientist Tim Hagle.
“Push too late into December and the campaign will find an audience of Iowans focused on other things,” Grinnell College political science professor Barbara Trish said.
Eight days is a long time for a well-known candidate polling in the top tier to spend on the road, she said. Along with the fact Biden has about 100 Iowa staffers and has opened field offices around the state, the tour tells Trish that even if Iowa is not a “must win” contest for Biden, “the campaign wants to have a credible performance.”
“With just over two months to the caucuses, campaigns are also thinking about securing second-choice supporters and turning supporters into volunteers who will fuel the ground game,” Trish added.
Biden’s rivals closing gap in polls
Polling numbers are — and have been — all over the place. A year ago, national polls had Biden leading the field by as much as 17 percentage points over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and 23 points over Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Today, the margins are much closer. The RealClearPolitics.com national polling average has Biden at 29.8 percent, Sanders at 19.3 and Warren at 18.5.
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In Iowa, Biden’s numbers have fallen further. He led Sanders by 13 points a year ago, but is tied with Sanders at 17 percent behind South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 23.5 percent and Warren at 17.8 percent in the RealClearPolitics.com average.
The tour should signal to Biden’s supporters and those who have him on their shortlists that he’s competing for a win in Iowa, Hagle said. Appearing to give up on Iowa might encourage his backers to look at one of the other candidates running in the middle lane.
“Buttigieg seems to have moved to the middle lane to try to capture some of that vote, and Klobuchar still is there,” Hagle said, referring to Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “If Biden were to fade entirely or just give up on Iowa, it might give either of them a greater chance.”
In New Hampshire, Buttigieg is polling third at 18.7 percent behind Warren and Biden at 20.7 and 19 percent, respectively. A win or top-tier finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire would make Buttigieg harder to beat down the road, Hagle said.
Tour may yield favorable media coverage
Another goal of the tour might be to earn favorable coverage from local media along the tour route, Trish said. All the communities Biden will visit have local newspapers, and many have local radio, too.
“The press likes to cover bus tours,” added David Redlawsk, a former University of Iowa political science professor now teaching at the University of Delaware. He’s been in Iowa since August following the candidates on the campaign trail.
Even with favorable coverage, Biden has to walk a fine line between his campaign saying Iowa is not a “must win” while he is on an extended campaign tour of the state.
“Trying to tamp down expectations could eat away at the perception of Biden as electable” and put more pressure on him to score big wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Trish said.
“The risk of a poor finish in Iowa is that African American voters in South Carolina, who are supporting him due to electability, may well look elsewhere if Iowans reject him,” said Redlawsk, who spent time leading up to Thanksgiving following candidates in the Palmetto State.
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“Harris in particular, while not polling all that well yet, is really emphasizing her African American outreach in South Carolina, and could be a potential alternative,” he said, referring to Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
Risk of gaffes, poor attendance
There’s no quantitative measure of success, but an eight-day bus tour comes with some risk because “all eyes — including the campaign’s — will be on the size of the crowds and the reception the vice president gets,” Trish said.
“A really bad showing on the campaign trail — gaffes, poor attendance, other problems — could end up hastening Biden’s fade,” Hagle said.
Biden may not need to win Iowa, but failing to meet expectations would make the road ahead harder, Redlawsk said.
“We’re still two months out, and all evidence is that Iowans make up their minds quite late,” he said. “Even with the latest polling, Biden still is in the front-runner group.”
“A bus tour that flops would be a blow for the campaign,” Trish agreed, but given the uncertainty of the campaign, such as the large percentage of likely caucusgoers who haven’t made up their minds, “it might just prompt a campaign to forge on.”
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