In 1992, Bill Clinton won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination despite not winning either the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. That’s the last time that happened, and it’s a little misleading: Iowa Senator Tom Harkin was a candidate in 1992, and no one seriously contested the caucuses in his state that year. If Joe Biden wants to be be the Democratic nominee, he should probably make sure to win at least one of the first two contests. So, why, Jonathan Bernstein asks, is his campaign telling people that this isn’t absolutely necessary for his campaign?
It’s not just that failing to win would hurt Biden; it’s that failing to win would mean someone else won, and that candidate might be well positioned to capitalize on an early victory.
Plus, spin only gets you so far. If Biden can’t win, then one of his big supposed advantages – his appeal to voters – will be less credible. Moreover, at this point Biden is thought by most to be the front-runner, and that could make even a strong second-place finish seem disappointing. That means the news about Biden could be quite negative until he manages to win somewhere, especially if party actors turn against him or rally to another candidate. At this point, Biden has the most party endorsements in the race. But his lead could disappear quickly if he loses twice early on.
None of which is to say that Biden’s people are wrong to try to lower expectations. Convincing the media that a poor showing in Iowa and New Hampshire wouldn’t actually be bad news for their candidate can only help. And Biden is doing well enough in all the objective indicators right now that low-balling doesn’t risk taking him out of the conversation.
Bernstein is correct in his assessment here. While some lower tier candidates need to hype their chances to the media to get any coverage at all, the Biden team’s only incentives here are to lowball the press. As they point out, Iowa’s caucus system is unpredictable and New Hampshire voters often prefer candidates from New England, which gives Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren a home field advantage. Biden has real strength with black voters, but that won’t be of much help in the first two contests. Should he lose them both, he’ll hardly be out of money or suffering any significant delegate deficit.
Playing the expectations game is important for both winners and losers. A winner who was expected to win all along doesn’t get full credit. And a loser who still exceeds expectations can gain momentum, as Bill Clinton managed to do by declaring himself “The Comeback Kid” after finishing in a distant second place in New Hampshire.
But 2008 offers a warning for Biden. Hillary Clinton was the frontrunner then, but finishing third in Iowa almost knocked her completely out as Barack Obama shocked the world by carrying a Midwestern state with a very small black population and carried tremendous momentum into New Hampshire. Had he won there, he would have followed it up with another gigantic win in South Carolina and probably could have cruised to victory from there. Unfortunately for him, he stumbled in New Hampshire and Clinton got her footing back. She wouldn’t feel compelled to concede until after all 50 states had voted. The lesson is that Iowa and New Hampshire have an influence that is out of all proportion to their delegate hauls. A frontrunner can be knocked severely off course by losing either of those contests, and losing them both will be perilous.
As Bernstein says, it’s not just that you’ve lost but that someone else has won. Winning early was critical to Obama’s chances against Clinton, and it will be critical to all the candidates not named Biden. Winning in the present is the best proof that you can win in the future, and with the Democratic voters desperate for victory in 2020, they’re turning to Biden for safety more than love. He doesn’t want the voters to conclude that anyone else is a safe bet.
Still, there’s absolutely no reason for Biden’s team not to lower expectations. Caucuses tend to favor a different kind of candidate than primaries, which is why both Obama and Sanders did better in them against Clinton than they did in primaries. And it’s true that Biden’s two main competitors come from states that border New Hampshire. It’s true that both states are far from good demographically for Biden. He actually has a decent case to make about why his strengths lay elsewhere and later in the calendar.
Plus, even if none of his spin were true, his team would still have an incentive to downplay his chances. He doesn’t want people to yawn if he wins.
I often find campaign spin trite and tiresome, or even risibly insulting to my intelligence, but that’s not the case here. Yet Biden will have a hard time winning if he doesn’t get off to a decent start. His campaign might be unusually vulnerable to early losses precisely because it’s predicated on him being the candidate who can win.