Five years ago, when Donald Trump’s political reach extended only to a shoestring yet paradoxically popular primary campaign, Joe Biden thought long and hard about running for President. As Barack Obama’s popular and well-respected Vice President, Biden enjoyed a built-in base of support. Yet he was an old man, one who harbored his own embarrassing history of failed Presidential runs. More pressingly, his son Beau had a brain tumor and was dying.
So Biden’s indecision dragged on from the spring to the fall, as the Democratic establishment—including Biden’s boss—lined up behind Hillary Clinton. The stated reason for Biden’s choice not to run is undoubtedly true and understandable: that the weight of his son’s recent passing was too much to bear on the campaign trail. Yet it was also true that Biden’s window to enter the race had passed. As the architect of Obama’s 2008 victory, David Plouffe, bluntly told Biden, “do you really want [your career] to end in a hotel room in Des Moines, coming in third to Bernie Sanders?”
This week, in Des Moines, Biden came in at a distant fourth to Bernie Sanders.
At every turn, Biden has appeared to be an underperforming candidate. His fundraising numbers often trail below his rivals, he meanders and slurs his way through stump speeches, and he consistently appears uniquely ill suited for this political moments. Yet his support nationally, in early states, and in the all-important south has remained consistent, prompting many (including myself, admittedly) to wonder: could this all not matter? Could Biden, clearly out of his prime and arguably in a noticeable decline, coast to victory simply on name recognition and his comfortable association with Obama?
This belief is shattered after this downright horrific performance in Iowa. One of the most popular Vice Presidents in modern history was defeated by a former mayor, a wonky New England senator, and a Democratic Socialist.
Through a certain prism, Biden’s failure in the state is unsurprising. His campaign’s strategy has long felt incoherent there: lackluster crowds in the state led to a brief attempt to write off the caucus entirely. Then a bus tour seemed to serve as a reset for Biden’s Iowa operations, right up until Trump’s impeachment renationalized Biden’s campaign and whisked his attention away. All the while, his campaign staff meandered through the state, failing to build up an operation on par with his standing in the polls.
Biden’s staff could’ve seen this coming and tempered expectations. But right up until the end, they seemed convinced Biden would perform strongly, setting up a shocking defeat that has rattled Biden’s chances in even comfortable states in the South. FiveThirtyEight’s election model now forecasts losses for Biden in every single Super Tuesday state and in South Carolina, a downright unthinkable situation just weeks ago. What else would you expect when a candidate who claims to be the most electable loses an election?
It’s unclear where Biden goes from here. After a few humbling appearances in New Hampshire, the Vice President is bunkered down in Delaware, prepping for a debate performance tomorrow night that may be his most consequential yet.
For the first time in the race, Biden suddenly must fight to prove himself. There is little evidence he can do so.