The Corner

Elections

Iowa Puts Biden in a Tough Spot

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Bernie Sanders at the Democratic primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, January 14, 2020. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Cable-news wisdom seems to have coalesced around the idea that Joe Biden got lucky when the Iowa caucus blew up and obscured his weak finish. I’m not convinced. CNN’s John King is now reporting that the Biden campaign might seek a court injunction stop the release of the Iowa caucus results — which doesn’t sound like a campaign that’s feeling particularly lucky to me.

As a matter of principle, Biden is probably right to question the integrity of the Iowa results and argue that releasing partial numbers is unfair. If it’s true that he finished in the vicinity of fifth or sixth — and other campaigns are already leaking their internal numbers — not only will the public be aware of his weak showing, but Biden is going to look like a candidate adding to the chaos and trying to suppress votes. The longer the Iowa debacle is in the news, the longer Biden’s subpar effort is going to be a topic of discussion. I don’t see how that’s good news.

We shouldn’t overestimate the importance of Iowa, though it’s worth noting that not since 1992, when Tom Harkin won, did an eventual Democratic Party nominee lose in the state. That was the year “comeback kid” Bill Clinton famously saved his campaign by finishing second place in New Hampshire. Biden may be saved by New Hampshire as well. It’s fair to say, though, that Biden is no Bill Clinton, and his path is more opaque. What happens if Biden comes in third or a distant second in New Hampshire to Bernie Sanders, or loses Nevada? What happens if a crowded field of “moderates” keeps eating away at his support because they now detect weakness?

It’s probably still Biden’s nomination to lose, but it’s dangerous for a middling political talent with a comparatively low-energy campaign to get off to this kind of bad start.

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