Former Vice President Joe Biden is the frontrunner to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. Which is why his campaign’s purposeful lowering of expectations on Tuesday won’t work.
“Do we think we have to win Iowa? No,” said one Biden campaign aide speaking to reporters. “Do we want to win Iowa? Yes, we do. We think we’re going to win; we know it’s going to be a dogfight. The same thing is true in New Hampshire.”
Uh … well, no.
Here’s the thing: When you are the frontrunner, you are expected to win. Everywhere. Otherwise, you aren’t the frontrunner anymore. That’s how it works.
Remember back in 2008 when Rudy Giuliani, who polling suggested was the frontrunner for the nomination, based his entire campaign strategy on skipping Iowa in order to definitely win in New Hampshire? And how when New Hampshire started to go south on Giuliani, how Florida became the new New Hampshire for him? And how Giuliani never won a single primary or caucus and, relatedly, didn’t get elected president?
Right. There is simply almost no evidence in modern political history of a frontrunner losing Iowa and New Hampshire and coming back to win the nomination.
That’s not to say I don’t get Biden’s logic: His strength is among black voters – and until the South Carolina primary, African-American voters don’t comprise any significant bloc of votes. The theory is that no matter what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire, black voters are going to go to bat for Biden. So he’s not going to bet the farm on Iowa or New Hampshire.
Biden said as much in a swing through South Carolina last week: “I hope that whatever Iowa would bring, what we’ve done here would strengthen the prospect that we can continue to win here.”
That make sense – in theory. But in reality, if Biden loses Iowa and New Hampshire, he is almost certainly cooked. Imagine if, say, California Sen. Kamala Harris won the Iowa caucuses and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren won in New Hampshire. Would black voters stick by Biden – if someone else suddenly looked like a potential nominee? What about if Warren sweeps both early states? Is there ANY chance that Biden stops her in South Carolina? Hard to see.
Biden enjoys lots of advantages for being the frontrunner in this race. Money, polls, debate placement, media attention. But being the frontrunner is not without drawbacks – one of which is you don’t get to make excuses if and when you lose.
The Point: Biden might be able to survive a split decision in Iowa and New Hampshire – a win and a top three finish, for example. Losing Iowa and New Hampshire, however, almost certainly spells G-A-M-E O-V-E-R.