Did Joni Ernst Just Unwittingly Revive Joe Biden’s Iowa Campaign?

January 31, 2020

Biden’s Lagging Field Organization in the First Caucus State Got an Unexpected Boost from a GOP Senator Much Reviled by Iowa Dems

In the Age of ‘Negative Partisanship,’ Iowa Dems’ Antipathy Toward the Palinesque Senator May Have Provided Biden with His best Closing Argument

By Al Giordano

In 1982, at the age of 22, I was managing a statewide referendum in Massachusetts for a law to put the brakes on new nuclear power plants and low-level nuclear waste dumps in Massachusetts. While securing endorsements from the members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, I snagged an appointment in House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s office in Boston. There, his chief of staff, Chris Matthews (yes, that Chris Matthews, the MSNBC host) opened the meeting in the blunt style which is his trademark.

“You’ve probably come here seeking the Speaker’s endorsement,” he said. “I’ll tell you right now that you can have it. We’ve watched you and your movement get 110,000 voter signatures to put it on the ballot, seen you pass Town Meeting bylaws in 106 municipalities, and we think you are going to win. As the Speaker likes to say, ‘All politics is local,’ so of course you can count the Speaker as one of your endorsers.”

It was one of the shortest and also illuminating meetings I’ve ever had. And its lesson stuck with me.

“All politics is local” is a phrase that has enriched my political and reporting life since. It’s that intensive focus on grassroots organizing that has long differentiated my reporting about electoral campaigns from many in the political reporting milieu. Focused on that leading up to Monday’s Iowa caucuses, two days ago I filed a story here at Organize & Win, Is Joe Biden in Danger of Not Meeting Threshold in Iowa’s Caucuses?

By all objective measures, of the five leading Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa, Biden has the weakest field organization. There are many precincts where he so far has not counted with even one caucus chair. In past caucuses, this kind of gap has proved fatal for many candidates that were doing well in the national polls, only to crash on the rocks of the Hawkeye State Democrats’ first-in-the-nation preferences.

The US Senate impeachment hearing in Washington this month have largely eclipsed normal local campaigning in Iowa and have supplanted its quadrennial news cycle domination. We’ve barely heard a peep, for example, about the issue of ethanol so important to corn farmers in the state.

Four of the candidates, Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennett, two of them in the top-three of national polls, have been unable to be on the stump the way in past caucuses candidates had to be. Nate Silver’s 538 noted today that there have been only half as many polls published on the Iowa caucus this month as there have been in this stretch since 2004. The data-driven journalists there posit that impeachment has sucked out all the news cycle oxygen and caused pollsters to direct their recourses into polling impeachment instead.

No sooner had I filed Wednesday’s story about Biden’s troubles with organized boots-on-the-ground in the caucus, then I started hearing from Iowa sources who told me I was missing a key eleventh hour development in the analysis. Because all politics is local, I listen very carefully to sources on the ground.

A statement that Iowa’s Republican US Senator Joni Ernst made to the media this week, in the form of a taunt toward Joe Biden, whose son’s business dealings in Ukraine the GOP has tried to make the focus of their bombastic impeachment defense, they told me, has lit a brushfire among Democrats in the state and provided Biden with a local hook that may rescue his standings in Monday evening’s caucus results.

“Iowa caucuses are this next Monday evening,” Ernst told reporters at a press gaggle earlier this week. “And I’m really interested to see how this discussion today informs and influences the Iowa caucus voters, those Democratic caucus-goers. Will they be supporting Vice President Biden at this point?”

The Biden campaign saw opportunity and quickly turned Ernst’s statement into an ad.

Ever since Ernst won her US Senate seat in 2014 – succeeding beloved Democrat Tom Harkin in Washington – her Sarah Palinesque approach to media attention has built up much resentment and loathing from Iowa Democrats. (Her trademark line from that first Senate campaign was that she knew had to cut “pork” because she had experience “castrating pigs.”) Democrats in most states have antipathy toward their Republican US Senators, and one as polemic and partisan as Ernst, with her taunting style, has particularly gotten under Democrats’ skin in Iowa.

The Biden campaign smartly seized on the statement, caught on camera, and turned the video into a Facebook ad targeted at Iowa Democrats. At a subsequent Biden stump stop in Muscatine, Iowa, the NY Times reported, the former vice president was greeted by a sign in the audience: “Joni – we’re w/Joe.”

ABC News reporter Molly Nagle tweeted a video, reporting, “Anecdotally, Jane Odland from Newton, IA told me ahead of Biden’s event that @joniernst’s comments this week convinced her to switch her support to Biden from @amyklobuchar.”

If by turning his closing argument into a referendum on Joni Ernst among Iowa Democrats provides Biden with the “get hot at the end” surge that often determines which candidates survive Iowa caucus night, it will come at the expense of a surging Amy Klobuchar and an already stumbling Pete Buttigieg who compete with Biden for support of moderate and mainstream Dems there, thus rewriting the Iowa script just days before the vote.

Biden’s team has followed up with additional online ads, including the simple message featured above: “Iowans, on February 3 you can have a twofer. You can ruin Donald Trump’s night and you can ruin Joni Ernst’s, too.”

Nobody can accuse the Biden campaign of not grokking Rachel Bitecofer’s theory of “negative partisanship” as a voter turnout generator in 2020.

And not only Klobuchar and Buttigieg need worry about the new closing argument for Biden. This one taps into the anger among Democrats over GOP stonewalling in the impeachment hearings, an anger that I had at first thought would benefit Bernie Sanders’ caucus night on Monday. The Sanders pitch would be to tap into any lingering Democratic frustration with its own party leadership’s defeat in the GOP-controlled Senate, to, as it does again and again, cast aspersions on Democratic Party leadership – and to cynically weaken the Democratic brand – to pick up the anger vote, particularly among the non-college educated voters that Sanders and Biden compete to convince.

Biden’s closer may thus – if this “theory of the case” holds – contain the possibility of chopping down what everybody and pollsters say will be an easy Sanders win on Monday, or at least deny him a significant margin of a win.

It’s a potential perfect storm for Joe Biden, and it also has brought me to consider a new theory of the case about what could happen in Iowa.

This new development lit up a proverbial light bulb over my head. What if, I thought, what if the impeachment hearings combined with the trend toward nationalizing the Democratic presidential primaries combine to radically change the Iowa caucus dynamics this year? What if Iowa will serve more as a mirror of the national primary standings rather than continue its tradition of upending national trends?

After all, more and more Democratic voters, in Iowa and everywhere else, are getting more news from out of state – thanks to the Internet – than often from local sources and interactions. Iowa – as literally the whitest state in the union, demographically – can’t be an accurate mirror for the Democratic primary electorate overall, but it could prove on Monday to serve as a mirror for the voting preferences of white Democrats nationwide.

According to the most recent Economist/YouGov poll, with 1,500 interviews, making it one of the largest respondent groups (allowing us to take more seriously its demographic subsamples than those of most polls that interview only a few hundred voters, thus rendering the others’ too small for accurate measurement), the national standings among white Democratic voters nationwide show a three-way scrum: Sanders 23 percent, Warren 22 percent and Biden 20 percent. Nationally, according to that large survey, they’re followed by Buttigieg with 9 percent, Klobuchar with 6 percent, Yang and Gabbard with 4 percent apiece and nobody else over 1 percent.

My own measurements at present suggest that if Klobuchar, Yang, Gabbard and lesser candidates don’t meet the 15 percent threshold in Iowa, the combined second-choice preferences of those candidates’ supporters who stay to change their ballot, as caucus rules allow, will go pretty much equally to Biden, Sanders and Warren. In that poll that’s a combined 30 percent which could push each of those three candidates in the low twenties to a three-way scrum near the 30 percent line.

The wild card in this “theory of the case” is whether Pete Buttigieg’s campaign can survive a last-hour Biden surge to still meet viability – or if it collapses under the weight of a localized national primary result.

The “all politics is local” angel that whispers into one of my ears is suddenly having to talk louder to be heard over the “all 2020 politics are national” devil shouting in the other ear.

According to the most recent Morning Consult national data – another large sample-size measurement, with over 5,000 respondents – Buttigieg voters’ second choice goes 23 percent to Biden, 21 percent to Warren and 14 percent to Michael Bloomberg, who is not on the ballot in Iowa. Sanders wouldn’t pick up much of that in those precincts where Buttigieg might fail to meet threshold under this case theory.

If these national trends, particularly those among white voters, turn out to be the rule in Iowa, a caucus widely expected to be won by Bernie Sanders on Monday, may instead find itself in a three-way scrum for the lead with the three leading national candidates – Biden, Sanders and Warren – each getting strong tickets out of Iowa, as Klobuchar and Buttigieg, for whom Iowa is a must-win for continued viability much more urgently than for the three national leaders, then Iowa could just end up cementing what national data tells us about white voters overall.

The “all politics is local” angel is one I still prefer to believe in, but that’s my bias and values whispering that I try to keep in check to offer cold, rational analysis. My measurements conclude, definitively, that the strongest Iowa field organizations are in this order: Warren, then Buttigieg then Sanders, with significant daylight between each of those three orgs, with Klobuchar and Biden not even close to their tier in grassroots muscle. That may save Buttigieg on Monday even under this new theory of the case. Because most likely, the result won’t be entirely the local theory or the national theory but a hybrid of the two.

Joni Ernst may have just provided Biden with the ground-level troops he had lacked: the mainstream Iowa Dems who hate her. She has possibly localized Joe Biden’s campaign at the final hour.

Maybe the time-honored standard of a localized caucus result has been supplanted by the national primary. Or maybe the Biden vs. Ernst dynamic proves to be precisely that local politics domination at work. Maybe, just maybe, the angel and the devil in my ear this cycle are both singing in harmony.

We’ll know more after the final two or three polls come out this weekend. But this new theory of the case, of a nationalized and newly-localized Iowa caucus in the season of impeachment, may prove to have found the sweet spot in first-in-the-nation Democratic caucus history.

More to come before the vote. Stay tuned – and subscribe if you want to be among those who exclusively receive my final Iowa projection – and all other state primary projections while the race remains contested – before the voting begins on Monday. Whether it’s your personal devil or personal angel whispering in your ear telling you to do so, this is an hour to listen to both.

You must be logged in to view this content. If you are not a member, register here!