DES MOINES — Maybe it was the threat of bad weather. Maybe it was a seating assignment debacle. Maybe it was a struggling campaign organization that still hadn’t found its footing .
But as Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke at a major Iowa Democratic Party dinner in November, one thing was clear: His support appeared tepid compared with the vocal cheering sections of top rivals. The reception angered Mr. Biden and his top aides — and it left little doubt about his standing, three months before the nominating process in the Democratic presidential race would begin: The former vice president was in deep trouble in Iowa.
Two days after the dinner, Mr. Biden ripped into his campaign chairman, Steve Ricchetti, according to a person familiar with the conversation. And at the Biden headquarters in Philadelphia, senior officials sternly told staff members they needed to step up their performance.
The dinner’s damaging optics marked the beginning of a flurry of changes: Trusted aides were deployed to Iowa sooner than anticipated. Mr. Biden rescheduled time with donors to make space for a bus tour in Iowa. Former Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa and his wife, Christie Vilsack, major players in Iowa Democratic politics, announced their Biden endorsements.
It was too late.
Mr. Biden’s performance in the Iowa caucuses on Monday dealt a damaging blow to the former vice president; with 71 percent of the results counted Wednesday morning, he trailed Pete Buttigieg and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, with Senator Amy Klobuchar not far behind.
“I am not going to sugarcoat it,” Mr. Biden said Wednesday as he campaigned in New Hampshire. “We took a gut punch in Iowa.”
Certainly over the past year, Mr. Biden has proved far more resilient than many expected. He has led national polls for months despite verbal gaffes, scrutiny of his long and sometimes controversial record in Washington, and a relentless assault from Republicans over his son’s dealings in Ukraine. The slow drip of vote totals in Iowa — and a swirl of other major news events — may blunt the attention on Mr. Biden’s challenges. And Iowa is an overwhelmingly white state, while Mr. Biden’s biggest political strength is with black voters, whom he is counting on for support in later-voting, more diverse states.
But he now faces jittery donors, an uncertain landscape in upcoming Democratic contests and a sharp challenge to the central argument of his campaign message: that he is the party’s strongest candidate to win a general election.
Interviews with more than a dozen advisers, allies and Iowa strategists show that Mr. Biden was late in focusing on Iowa, put together an organization there that fell well short of his top rivals’ and that his core pitch about electability and experience wasn’t enough to persuade voters who wanted a fresh face or more boldly progressive ideas.
Mr. Biden was also a less-than-inspiring presence on the trail, according to some voters, struggling at times in the homestretch to deliver crisp, energetic, on-messageperformances.
A late start proves costly
When Mr. Biden announced his candidacy on April 25, some of his chief rivals had already been running for months.
His late start had long-lasting consequences, according to some of his supporters.
“He could have been here sooner and more aggressively,” said Mr. Vilsack, who became Mr. Biden’s top surrogate in the state. “Because this is all about relationships.”
“It was frustrating that they weren’t seeming to reach more people,” added Susan Judkins, a member of the Clive City Council. “Some of the other campaigns had been getting momentum. They had hired staffers who are known to Iowans, who had an ability to influence.”
When he did get to the state over the summer and into the fall, Mr. Biden’s team produced carefully managed events. He traveled with a phalanx of staff, sometimes used teleprompters and typically spoke from behind rope lines. None of that prevented a spree of verbal stumbles in Iowa in August — but according to some of his allies, it did keep Mr. Biden from showing off his biggest strength: his retail politicking skills.
“I’ve had that conversation at least since the end of May, beginning part of the summer, that Joe would do better and has always done better meeting with people,” said State Representative Bruce Hunter, a staunch Biden ally who said he made that case to Mr. Biden’s state campaign leadership. “He needed to get out more, talk to smaller groups of people, listen to them, give his vision one-on-one to people.”
Yet no amount of glad-handing could remedy an organization that even his supporters here found frustrating.
“His campaign is not a good campaign,” Roxanna Moritz, the Scott County auditor and a Biden supporter, said late last month. “They’re not embedding loyalty to the organization, he doesn’t do groundwork.”
She said that the campaign was “not returning phone calls, no follow through.”
“It’s kind of sad because I really do think he is the right person,” she added.
By the fall, Mr. Biden’s advisers felt that their campaign organization in Iowa had steadied — but events in Washington took him down a detour that no one could have foreseen, or prevented.
On Sept. 21, more than 1,000 Biden supporters assembled at the Polk County Steak Fry, featuring the kind of chummy interaction in which Mr. Biden is at his best.
But their efforts were overshadowed by news that President Trump had asked Ukraine to investigate Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, a story that would consume the campaign for months. That night, a Des Moines Register poll revealed that Mr. Biden had slippedfrom first place in Iowa, overtaken by Ms. Warren of Massachusetts.
Mr. Biden spent the next weeks grappling with the best way to respond to the Ukraine controversy. And party officials continued to describe his Iowa organization as scattershot, an issue thrown into sharp relief at the Liberty and Justice Celebration on Nov. 1.
Mr. Biden’s team said that it had around 1,200 people in the arena, many of whom went on to become precinct captains and dedicated volunteers. But the empty seats and the smaller and less boisterous Biden sections spread throughout the arena cut a sharp contrast with the loud, unified crowds of Ms. Warren and Mr. Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., in a major test of organizational strength.
More damaging than the evident differences in crowd strength was what many Iowa Democrats were seeing for the first time in person: a once-fiery candidate who was looking his age compared with a number of his younger rivals.
A key endorsement, and some advice
Mr. Biden’s campaign could do little to alter the presentation of a candidate who was given to meandering into verbal cul-de-sacs even in his prime.
But they concluded that they needed to better display Mr. Biden’s strong interpersonal skills, and to connect with more moderate voters who live in rural areas.
Mr. Vilsack, the former governor, had long advocated that approach, joining with his wife to advise their old friend to spend time in small towns during a private conversation last spring.
After spending months meeting with candidates, the Vilsacks — who supported Mr. Biden in his first presidential campaign, in 1987 — informed Mr. Biden in a phone call that they would endorse him, impressed with his rural policy proposal, his empathy and his “capacity to take a punch.”
Behind the scenes, they offered the campaign leadership two major pieces of advice.
“One, you need to be out there in all parts of the state,” Mr. Vilsack said. “And two, you need to spend time with voters in a way that they will get to know you.’’
After Thanksgiving, the Vilsacks joined the Bidens on a bus trip across rural parts of the state where the Biden campaign saw chances to accrue delegates.
The trip revealed strategic openings for the campaign, officials said, such as an opportunity with Latino voters in Storm Lake, Iowa, or a reminder to accentuate Mr. Biden’s advantage with Catholics in Dubuque.
The problem: Those lessons were arriving with just weeks to capitalize on them. Other candidates had already spent many months trying to win over the state’s Democratic caucusgoers.
“Had he done the ‘No Malarkey’ tour in the summertime, you may never have seen that Elizabeth Warren bounce,” said Representative Ami Bera, Democrat of California who supports Mr. Biden.
Jesse Harris, a senior Biden Iowa adviser, said the timing was designed to coincide with when caucusgoers intensify their focus on the race, and stressed that “The vice president did spend quite a bit of time in the state. Obviously, he got into the race a bit later than the other candidates, so two or three months behind when he first visited the state compared to others. But we were actively here in Iowa.”
“The bus tour,” he added, “was a very visible extension of what we were already doing.”
Disappointing some supporters
As 2020 arrived, there were some encouraging developments, building on what the campaign saw as post-bus tour momentum.
On Jan. 2, Representative Abby Finkenauer, a Democrat who in 2018 had flipped an eastern Iowa district, endorsed Mr. Biden, signaling that candidates in the toughest races believed Mr. Biden was their safest bet at the top of the ticket. Representative Cindy Axne, a Democrat from another competitive Iowa district, later followed suit.
And tensions with Iran propelled national security matters into the spotlight, playing into the former vice president’s message of experience.
Yet even as Mr. Biden continued to land high-profile endorsements, Mr. Sanders of Vermont was on the rise, expanding his progressive support and seeking to cut into Mr. Biden’s base of blue-collar workers by attacking his record on Social Security, pointing out that he had occasionally entertained freezes to the program. The specter of a possible conflict with Iran allowed Mr. Sanders to continually remind voters that Mr. Biden had approved the use of force in Iraq.
A New York Times/Siena College poll released late last month found that even in eastern Iowa — home to many white working-class voters with whom Mr. Biden expected to be strong — he was struggling.
Ahead of the 2016 campaign, David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s former campaign manager, had warned Mr. Biden, according to an article in The Atlantic, “Do you really want it to end in a hotel room in Des Moines, coming in third to Bernie Sanders?”
In the final weeks before the caucuses, Mr. Plouffe’s warning was starting to sound prescient.
Recognizing the need to win new supporters, Mr. Biden’s Iowa director, Jake Braun, floated a deal over dinner in Des Moines with an adviser to Ms. Klobuchar of Minnesota. The two moderate Democrats should form an alliance, Mr. Braun suggested a week before the vote, and urge their supporters to back the other if one of them did not advance to the final ballot in a precinct.
Ms. Klobuchar’s camp quickly shot down the prospect when the story leaked, and Mr. Braun, who had already been marginalized by Mr. Biden’s national campaign, found himself isolated by his enraged superiors, who had warned him not to freelance, according to a person familiar with internal discussions.
Sue Dvorsky, a former Iowa Democratic chair, had backed Senator Kamala Harris of California. After Ms. Harris dropped out, Ms. Dvorsky said she was inclined to support Mr. Biden, whom she and her husband had met when he ran for president in 1987.
But Ms. Dvorsky was appalled at the state of Mr. Biden’s organization, which was lacking precinct captains even in her own heavily Democratic community. Last week she endorsed Ms. Warren.
“This has been a sloppy effort that was always aimed at a general election,” she said of Mr. Biden’s organization, deeming it worse than his first two Iowa campaigns. “Right now, they’re bringing in hundreds of people from out of state — not to be canvassers but to be precinct captains.”
Even some of Mr. Biden’s high-profile supporters were perplexed by the campaign’s choices, which included dispatching a number of his former Senate colleagues, all of them white men over 70, to stump for him here in the Iowa campaign’s final days.
On the Saturday before the caucuses, Ms. Judkins had an uneasy feeling about the decision her state was about to make. She had spent the day knocking on doors with a host of prominent Biden supporters from across the country. She came away impressed by what her colleagues had told her — that Mr. Biden had more support and organizational strength in later-voting states. She wished they had come to Iowa sooner.
“I said to my husband, ‘I feel like all of these people from around the country are coming in to try to save us from ourselves,’” she said when they went out that evening. “Here we are, going out dancing. Kind of like the Titanic, the ship going down.”
More Coverage of Joe Biden and the 2020 Race
Jonathan Martin is a national political correspondent. He has reported on a range of topics, including the 2016 presidential election and several state and congressional races, while also writing for Sports, Food and the Book Review. He is also a CNN political analyst. @jmartnyt
Thomas Kaplan is a political reporter based in Washington. He previously covered Congress, the 2016 presidential campaign and New York state government. @thomaskaplan“