My take on the Biden campaign in Iowa

I wrote a diary for Daily Kos and MyDD about Joe Biden being someone to watch in Iowa. I think it's a mistake for bloggers to be writing him off as a joke.

I put the whole diary after the jump. Be warned: it's long, and some of it is written for an audience that may not understand how the caucuses work.

Bottom line is that none of the front-runners should be taking anything for granted in Iowa. A lot of voters will thoroughly consider all the options before making up their minds.

I'm interested in your comments, either here or at one of the other sites:


UPDATE: I get mass e-mails from most of the campaigns, including Biden's. In my most surreal blogging-related experience ever, this evening the latest e-mail from his campaign links to my DKos diary!

In the blogosphere, Joe Biden's presidential campaign is frequently written off as a joke. Like Kos said a couple of weeks ago,

Ha ha ha ha! Joe Biden can't raise money and no one cares he exists or is running (outside of MBNA/BoA), but don't sweat it — he's got David Broder!

Not long ago Jonathan Singer mocked Biden at MyDD for bragging about the great reviews he is getting from pundits.

I've been saying for months that I think John Edwards will win Iowa and that Hillary Clinton is going to fall behind as undecided voters make up their minds. (For the record, I support Edwards and am a precinct captain for him in the Des Moines suburbs.)

I've felt for months that Barack Obama and Bill Richardson have lots of room to grow their support as well. Either of them could push Hillary into third place in Iowa.

Within the past few weeks, though, I've started to sense that Biden could sneak up on the pack in Iowa. I don't think Biden will finish in the top three, but I am taking him seriously. I sense that he will be a factor in quite a few precincts. Join me after the flip if you care to hear why.



Where does Biden stand in Iowa? In most Iowa polls, he gets between 2 percent and 5 percent. I only know two Biden supporters personally (one in my precinct, one in a different suburb of Des Moines), and I ask active Democrats about their preferences all the time. Five state legislators have endorsed him, but they are not widely known across the state.

I've been called by two different field organizers for his campaign. Obviously, he does not have nearly as large a field operation as the big three campaigns. I live in the largest county and I vote in every election, so it stands to reason that I would be among the early voter contacts made by field staff.

Biden doesn't have much money (he only raised about $2.4 million in the second quarter), but he will have enough to run a campaign here. He won't be able to match the front-runners in terms of staff or field offices or tv ads, but he will be able to run some ads, because tv in Iowa isn't all that expensive.

Why do I think this guy's campaign needs watching?

1. He is getting tremendous word-of-mouth from his campaign events. I've read at least half a dozen accounts of his town-hall meetings and other events in Iowa. Most have been written by bloggers who lean toward Edwards or Obama, but they have conveyed Biden's ability to connect with the audience. As Iowa Voter wrote after attending a Biden appearance before about 100 people in Emmetsburg, “If the caucus were tomorrow, he might win Emmetsburg.”

If you read MyDD regularly, you may have seen one of Nate Willems' pieces on Biden. Nate was a field director for the Dean campaign in eastern Iowa in 2003/2004, so he knows a lot about campaigning in this state. After seeing Biden in May, he wrote,

Perhaps the biggest problem with Senator Biden's candidacy is that I can't convey how impressive he was tonight, only the 100+ folks in the room fully experienced it.

While other candidates sometimes only take questions for 10 or 15 minutes, Biden will often take questions for an hour or more; see John Deeth's account of an event in Iowa City, or Nate Willems' write-up of a recent event in Cedar Rapids, or Walter Shapiro's recent article in Salon.

Iowans like getting their questions answered, and when they walk away from a campaign event impressed, they tell their politically active friends about it.

As Iowa City blogger John Deeth notes, Biden likes to use people's first names when he answers their questions (he spots the names on the nametags people fill out when they attend his events).

Side note: Deeth noticed something that bugged me when I saw Biden last fall–he sometimes gets very close to people when he is answering their questions. I don't recall people doing this when I lived on the east coast. Is this a Delaware thing?

2. He talks like a fighter. If you watched the debates so far, you noticed that Biden is very aggressive. Some found his style effective, while others thought he seemed angry. In person, from what I have seen and heard, he comes across as forceful, but not angry. Look at this liveblog by noneed4thneed over at Century of the Common Iowan. This is the type of comment I am talking about:

Biden says he can't wait to debate Rudy Giuliani on the issue of national security because he will eat him for lunch. The notion of Democrats being weak on terror is totally wrong.

You may laugh at the thought of Joe Biden as a fighting Democrat. But put yourself in the place of a Democrat who doesn't read any political blogs and gets information from the newspaper and seeing the candidates in person or on television, during debates or interviews.

Compared to some of our other candidates, who are more smooth in their delivery, Biden comes across as aggressive and even combative, but not way out there like Kucinich or Gravel. As we know, some people are looking for a candidate who will take the fight to the Republicans. Biden may appeal to some in this group.

3. He has carved out a nice little niche for himself on Iraq. Nate Willems sums it up:

Joe Biden's campaign for President could almost be boiled down to one idea: Iraq is the most important issue facing America and I am the only one who can solve it, nobody else has a plan.  Biden seems to see a herd mentality affecting Democratic Presidential candidates in supporting total withdrawal from Iraq as soon as possible; he sees this as irresponsible and argues that we will need to continue to have some troop presence in Iraq so that a regional war does not break out and/or “so we don't have to send our grandkids back to Iraq.”

Most of us in the netroots are angry that Biden supported the war and has voted for all the Iraq War supplemental funding bills. We don't think much of his plan for solving the Iraq mess either. But I think that what he says will resonate with some caucus-goers. Both of the people I know who support Biden have said things to me along the lines of, “But if we just pull out all the troops now, it will cause chaos.”

From the accounts I have read, Biden sometimes spends a full hour speaking about and taking questions about Iraq during his town-hall meetings, before taking questions on many other topics. People walk away thinking, this guy knows a lot about Iraq. Biden likes to say that America does not have time to engage in on-the-job training for the next president. I am guessing that when he does go up on television in Iowa and New Hampshire, he'll be talking up his plan for Iraq.

His son has served in the military (in Afghanistan, I believe), and Biden is passionate about the need to respect the Geneva Convention. Biden likes to mention how he has met with generals, and they also oppose the use of torture by the US military. I think this scores him some points with Democrats, even those who oppose the war.

Reading Biden's recent interview with Walter Shapiro in Salon, I was struck by this passage:

Looking forward to those 20 months, do you have any idea of the residual force levels that would be necessary to be in Iraq in a Biden administration?

If, in fact, you were able to generate a political solution — that is, a federal system of some kind — I can envision a residual force not unlike what exists in the Balkans, but multilateral, that would have to be there for some time to come.

Even all the Democrats are talking, “Get out, get out, get out!” Governor [Bill] Richardson, God love him, says that he is the only one who is going to get out entirely, but he is going to leave enough forces to protect our embassy. He ought to talk to the Marines; they say that's 10,000 troops.

We have one of two options. I think as the next president, I am either having all forces out — all forces out — and try to contain on the borders and keep this civil war from metastasizing, or –

When you say “contain on the borders,” you mean American troops protecting the borders?

Yeah. Or [the second option would be] participating with some kind of coalition of regional forces — including the Turks or the Syrians or whomever — to try to figure out how to keep this war from becoming a regional war.

I guess what I am saying is that this is either going to deteriorate so badly that we're not only going to have our force out, we're going to have to get our embassy out.

Or it is going to be more like Bosnia, where you have a political agreement that is continuous and requires confidence building underpinned by a significant international force made up primarily of Americans.

He put it a little differently in Des Moines last week, according to the liveblog published at Century of the Common Iowan:

When it comes to Iraq the first option is to have a surge or withdrawal troops, so we can have a unified Iraqi government. However, a unified Iraqi government will never happen in anyone's lifetime that is sitting here. Biden knows this because he has the sad background reading history. Our second option is to be an occupier like the British. That isn't in our DNA and it shouldn't be. The third option is to set up a new dictator. Now that would be ironic. The fourth option is split the parties apart. It is what we did in Kosovo and it is the only way to solve the problem. On the Iraq debate, after the candidates lay out their tactic on Iraq we need to ask them one question…then what?

If we don't the civil war in Iraq will metastasize and Turkey will attack the Kurds, Iran will get invade, and France will burn. Why will France burn? Because 14% of their population is Muslim.

Diplomacy isn't about getting 2 people who disagree to agree. It is about finding out what the 2 parties care about and build on those.

This kind of campaign rhetoric isn't going to score a lot of points on Daily Kos, but I think it will resonate with a segment of rank and file Democrats. They think the people who pound the table about getting all the troops out now are not being realistic. They hear Biden and they think, this guy is not just pandering to me, he is telling it to me straight.

4. Partly because of his stand on Iraq, I see Biden as a candidate who might get some newspaper endorsements. Some newspaper editorial boards in Iowa are quite conservative (I'm not talking about The Des Moines Register), and Biden is the kind of Democrat who doesn't bother Republicans so much. Most editorial boards backed the Iraq War, and they are probably sympathetic to the idea that we can't “just leave” without creating chaos.

Also, if editors want to avoid pissing off large numbers of Edwards, Clinton or Obama supporters among their readers, endorsing Biden might be an attractive option. He's not seen as a threat to the front-runners, so endorsing him wouldn't make anyone too angry.

I don't want to make too much of newspaper endorsements, because I don't think most voters are taking their cue from them. However, they can give a signal as to which candidates are “serious” enough to consider supporting. A Biden leaner who isn't sure whether he would be viable might be influenced by these. Candidates often feature these endorsements in final-week tv advertising.

5. Biden is highlighting some issues that progressives are passionate about. He talks about the need for public financing of elections, and he makes this connection in some surprising contexts:

He explains the reason we failed in New Orleans is because the national guard can't communicate with the local police. The FBI can't communicate with the mayor. The reason they can't communicate is the radio companies were given ownership of the bandwidth when radio was switching from digital and analog. These companies don't want to give this bandwidth back and our national security is weakened because of it. If there is no [other] reason to have public financed elections, it is this.

The clean elections issue is huge for many Iowa Democrats and was a signature issue for Ed Fallon, the progressive who had a strong third-place showing in last year's gubernatorial primary. (Fallon himself backed Kucinich in 2004 and has endorsed Edwards this cycle.)

Speaking in Emmetsburg in May, Biden said that he and Iowa Senator Dick Clark co-sponsored the first Senate bill on public financing of elections in the 1970s. He supports the current Durbin-Spector bill on this subject.

When I saw Biden at a small event in Des Moines last fall, he made sure to mention that his lifetime voting record in the Senate is one of the most liberal of all the currently serving senators. I believe he said it was the fourth most liberal record among those in the Senate.

He also engages in some Bush tax cut bashing, which is always popular with Democratic primary voters. For instance, speaking in Des Moines at a 4th of July picnic:

Biden says we haven't implemented any of the national security initiatives from the 9/11 commission because this administration doesn't want to mess up with their tax cuts.

We may mock him as D-MBNA, but that is not the impression voters are getting when they see him in person. When I saw him last fall, I used my question to grill him about the bankruptcy bill. He didn't apologize for his vote and talked about several specific provisions in the bill that supposedly protected debtors, why the bill was better than earlier versions Clinton had vetoed, etc.. Don't get me wrong–I was not convinced by what he said, but it was a pretty strong defense.

6. He's Catholic, and that frankly doesn't hurt in a few heavily Democratic parts of this state. Richardson and Dodd are also Catholic, but none of the front-runners are.

Now, if Biden does inch up to, say, 10 to 15 percent statewide, he is likely to be viable in quite a few precincts. As I've discussed in previous diaries on how the Iowa caucuses work, the winner of the Iowa caucuses will be the person who gets a plurality of the 2,500 state delegates up for grabs.

Each county in Iowa assigns a certain number of state delegates, and the voters who show up at their precinct caucuses are electing delegates to their county conventions. In most cases, a candidate needs 15 percent of the voters in the room in order to win any county delegates out of a precinct.

Precincts have a certain number of delegates to assign, and that number doesn't change, whether there are 20 people in the room or 500 people on caucus night. So if Biden sneaks across that 15 percent threshold, he is not only going to win a delegate, he is going to take a delegate away from someone else.

In 1988, Bruce Babbitt didn't do too well statewide, but he was viable in my precinct, and the upshot was that my candidate, Paul Simon, ended up with 2 delegates instead of 3 delegates out of the 6 my precinct assigned. It's a small thing, but Simon didn't lose Iowa to Dick Gephardt by that much. If Babbitt's support was concentrated in other strongholds for Paul Simon (I don't know that it was, I'm just trying to explain my point), those delegates could start to add up.

It's too early for me to have any clue of where Biden's support might be concentrated, and caucus math is complicated. But in the case of my precinct with its 6 delegates, let's say that without Biden in the mix, Edwards might end up with 3 delegates, and Clinton, Obama and Richardson might get 1 delegate each. Now if Biden were also viable, he would get a delegate too, causing Edwards to drop down to 2 delegates from my precinct.

Or, let's say without Biden, Edwards would get 3 delegates from my precinct, Clinton would get 2 and Obama 1. If Biden were viable, depending on the size of the other groups, it might go Edwards 2, Clinton 2, Obama and Biden 1 each–or it might go Edwards 3 and Clinton, Obama and Biden 1 each.

It's possible that having Biden in the mix could help Edwards in my precinct, or it could hurt Edwards, if our group ends up losing the delegate. All I can say for sure is that every delegate Biden wins comes at a cost to one of the other candidates.

Even if Biden is not viable in very many areas, his supporters could affect the outcome in Iowa. A lot of precincts had a handful of Kucinich supporters in 2004. He didn't get very many delegates, but his backers mostly went to Edwards (some for Dean) as a second choice. That helped Edwards in a lot of precincts.

Let's say 200 people show up at my precinct caucus, and 20 of them support Biden. That's short of the 30 people he would need to be viable, but if all 20 went to Edwards, it might help us get an extra delegate. If they went to one of the other candidates, Edwards might lose a delegate. I want to work on any Biden supporters I identify to persuade them to lean toward Edwards as a second choice.

This may seem confusing. What I'm trying to say is, Biden could affect the outcome of the Iowa caucuses even if he only gets 5 percent of the state delegates or less.

But don't Iowans know that Biden (D-MBNA) is a punch line? The guy who mishandled the Clarence Thomas hearings, the guy who called Barack Obama “clean” and “articulate,” the guy who has called for us to give it “one last shot” in Iraq on way too many Sunday morning talk shows?

This is conventional wisdom in the blogosphere, but most voters are not reading blogs. Iowans who attend a Biden event hear about his plan for Iraq and his support for clean elections. They can see his command of the issues and his willingness to take questions, even if he has to sit there for an hour.

This Edwards supporter is not writing off the Biden campaign, especially if Bill Richardson is not able to raise his game in the later debates that more voters will be watching.

P.S.–Two months after I noticed this by accident and inadvertently started a flamewar with my too-hastily-written diary on the subject, the websites, and all still redirect to

I would have thought that by now the Biden campaign would have purchased these domains from “Fallon O'Brien” (the owner was identified by sleuthers in the comments to my diary at Daily Kos and MyDD).


  • I tend to agree with you

    Besides Richardson, Biden may be the only one with any kind of chance to mess with the top three candidates.  I’ve even heard R’s appreciate his straight-talk approach.  Of course, he does tend to talk too much and he may be too much of a straight talker to really succeed in this race.

    • Well I had a long

      well thought out post and I got an error and lost it.  AARRGGGHHH!!!!

      My point was I agree with you Chris.  Thank you for writing about this.  I think two of the top three will cancel each other out and Biden will slip into one of the slots.  He is too strong on foreign policy and national security not to.  I know Richardson has experience in that area, BUT, Biden is also extremely charismatic and a powerful speaker and that goes a long way. 

      The honeymoon is ending between the press and Obama and his campaign will collapse under its own weight.  I love Obama but I want him to be Pres in 8 yrs.

      I would like your thoughts on my blog about Biden on the daily kos, the Catch-22 Candidate, http://www.dailykos….


  • fascinating post

    I think that’s some damn good insight, DMD.  And his style may have been why he was so intriguing as a candidate in 1988, before the whole fiasco with plagiarism and everything.  I’ll ponder a bit more over my thoughts on his campaign for the next few hours.

    Oh, and for any readers out there who are interested, Biden will be speaking at the Iowa Historical Building on Friday.  More details soon.

    • I saw him campaign in 1987

      He was speaking in someone's living room. There were about 35 people there, I think. I was in high school and was excited, because the 1988 caucuses were my first opportunity to vote.

      I don't remember many specifics except that Biden overall made a good impression with the group. I hadn't made up my mind by the time he withdrew from the race. In the end I went with Illinois Senator Paul Simon. Great guy.

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