This week, the Biden campaign put reporters and political insiders on notice: despite being the longstanding frontrunner in national polls, they are not counting on winning the Iowa caucus.
The Biden campaign seems to have taken notice of Sen. Elizabeth Warren's steady rise in the polls over the summer. In Iowa, she's drawing big crowds and big buzz. The Iowa electorate, overwhelmingly white and liberal, is also a much better fit for the progressive former Harvard professor than it is for Biden who does better with a more moderate and diverse electorate.
In a conference call held with reporters, a senior adviser from the Biden campaign tried to reset expectations for the first-in-the-nation vote in February. "Do I think we have to win Iowa? No." This advisor went on to say that "[w]e think we're going to win. We think it's going to be a dogfight...But we think there are several candidates in this field, there's probably three or four, that are going to go awhile."
Here's how to interpret this quote: Look, we may not win in Iowa. We get it. But, we don't want to see you guys write headlines the next day saying that this is a huge 'setback' for the campaign.
It's a classic low-bar setting. But can it work?
"If someone is expected to win and falls short," says Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist in Iowa, "it causes a real momentum problem in the national narrative."
Matt Paul, a Democratic strategist and the 2016 Iowa campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, was blunter, telling me that "everyone knows that Biden needs to do well in Iowa."
But, both Paul and Link think it's also too early for anyone to be gaming out win/lose scenarios. "You can play expectations game all you want," Link told me, "but it's still pretty early."
"Momentum," said Link, "is hard to hang onto for more than six months."
Paul agrees. "It's not great to be a frontrunner in the summer," said the former Clinton campaign manager. In the summer, folks are shopping with their hearts. But, by the late fall, they are listening to their heads. "Thanksgiving," said Paul, "is when people look around and say, ok, who is presidential timber?"
Paul, who also worked on the 2004 Howard Dean campaign in the state, knows a little something about peaking too early. In the summer of 2003, Dean had all the momentum. He was up big in the polls, his campaign had built an impressive ground game, and the Vermont Governor was seen as the de-facto caucus winner and frontrunner for the nomination. But, by early December, his campaign had stalled, and Sen. John Kerry ultimately overtook him in January.
I was also reminded of another Democratic frontrunner who tried to game the Iowa expectations game. Back in 2007, Hillary Clinton was widely seen as the frontrunner for the nomination. But, in Iowa, she was struggling. Sen. John Edwards, the 2004 caucus runner-up, was ahead in the polls, while Clinton was locked with then Sen. Barack Obama for second place. In May of that year, deputy campaign manager Mike Henry penned a memo encouraging the campaign to skip the caucus altogether and instead focus on the later states. That memo was leaked to the press. "My recommendation is to pull completely out of Iowa and spend the money and Senator Clinton's time on other states," Henry wrote.
The Clinton campaign tamped down any suggestion she would abandon the state and continued to spend time and money there. By early fall, that looked like a good decision. Clinton was up by six points in the October Des Moines Register poll, and was once again considered the frontrunner. But, by late fall, Obama had seized the momentum, and by November took a narrow three point lead in the Des Moines Register Poll. By, December, Obama's lead had grown to 7 points and the conventional wisdom said he would win the caucus that January.
Even so, coverage of the day after Iowa focused as much on Hillary's loss as it was on Obama's victory. Here was the lede in the New York Times the next day: "The victory by Mr. Obama, 46, amounted to a startling setback for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, 60, of New York, who just months ago presented herself as the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination."
This was CNN's take: "The finish was a blow to Clinton — the presumptive frontrunner in the months leading up to this year's campaign who had hoped a win in Iowa would be the start of an uninterrupted run to the nomination."
And, the Washington Post: "Sen. Barack Obama, riding a message of hope and change and buoyed by extraordinary turnout, decisively won the Iowa Democratic caucuses Thursday night, dealing a significant setback to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the battle for the party's 2008 presidential nomination."
So, even though Clinton never built a clear — or lasting — lead in the Iowa polls, she was still considered the frontrunner. As such, her loss was defined as a huge setback to her campaign.
Biden is in a similar situation to Clinton's. Like the former New York senator, Biden is leading in national polling. Unlike Clinton, he's also been consistently on top of the Iowa polls. More importantly, he's based his candidacy on his electability. Once you lose, that's a harder message to sell.
Those of us who follow and study politics understand the demographic challenges facing Biden in Iowa and Warren in the more diverse states like Nevada and South Carolina and those who vote on Super Tuesday. But, normal people do not study this stuff. Nor are they tracking delegate totals at home on an excel spreadsheet. Instead, they will scan the headlines the day after the caucuses, and if they see that someone not named Joe Biden won, the narrative of the nomination fight would be rewritten from "this is Joe Biden's race to lose" to "the race for the nomination is up for grabs."
Also with a lot to lose is Sen. Bernie Sanders. Sanders came within a whisker of winning Iowa in 2016 and easily carried his neighboring New Hampshire. If he loses both states in 2020, every question asked of him from the day after New Hampshire until Nevada and South Carolina will be: "if you can't win in places you won in last time, how are you going to win in states you lost in 2016?"
Warren's challenge is to be able to survive the summer frontrunner curse that befell Dean and the 2008 Clinton campaign.
And, given that there are — at best — three to five tickets out of Iowa, a lot of second-tier candidates are going to be playing hard for votes this fall. And, one or two of those candidates could benefit from increased scrutiny of, and/or infighting among the top three contenders. In 2004, for example, as frontrunners Rep. Dick Gephardt and Dean attacked each other, Sen. John Edwards positioned himself as the folksy candidate with the "relentlessly cheerful message." That contrast helped propel him to an unexpected second-place finish.
In the end, despite the hand-wringing that Iowa and New Hampshire exert too much influence in the process, how candidates perform in Iowa will set the stage for the rest of the campaign. As Democratic strategist Matt Paul put it: "If you want to do well in Super Tuesday states, guess what? Do well in Iowa."
Image Credit: AP Photo/Matthew Putney