Iowa-Bound

08.21.13

Joe Biden Drops a 2016 Hint by Headlining Harkin Steak Fry in Iowa

Does he just want to see an old Senate colleague and eat some fried steak, or is the vice president gearing up for a presidential run? Ben Jacobs reports on a planned visit to Iowa.

In Washington, the idea of Joe Biden serving as the next president of the United States may be a punchline, but in Iowa, many think it sounds pretty good.

Over the past two and a half decades, Biden has developed a credible political infrastructure in the state, and key Iowa Democratic activists aren’t just political allies but friends. The vice president’s trip to the Hawkeye State to headline the Harkin Steak Fry, Iowa’s premier Democratic fundraiser, on September 15, appears to be a step toward a possible 2016 candidacy.

Supporters made clear, though, that the vice president’s trip should not be interpreted as an announcement. Dave O’Brien, a Biden supporter from Cedar Rapids and a Democratic candidate for Congress in Iowa’s First District, would say only, “I don’t think anyone is closing off any avenues.” Said Teri Goodmann, another longtime Biden ally from Dubuque: “Having visited with the vice president, so much of the future depends on how the rest of President Obama and Vice President Biden’s administration turns out.”

If Biden does decide to run, he’ll find the Hawkeye State to be favorable terrain. Iowa rewards retail politics, and while Biden may be somewhat gaffe prone, he’s far more comfortable in one-on-one interactions with caucusgoers than Hillary Clinton is. It also helps that many of the Democratic faithful are big fans of the vice president. “Activists in the state love Biden,” said a prominent Iowa operative.

In 2016, he’ll be an incumbent vice president who regularly makes national news. He won’t need to introduce himself to caucusgoers. He’ll just need to win them over.

Despite finishing fifth in Iowa in 2008, Biden did surprisingly well in the caucuses. As one high-ranking operative on his campaign that year noted, Biden’s camp had projected that he would do well, before he was swamped by the record turnout. In the end, Biden had more caucusgoers identified as supporters before caucus night than John Kerry had four years before, when he won the caucuses. But Biden’s campaign, like Hillary Clinton’s, didn’t anticipate the number of new voters the Obama campaign turned out.

The other crucial advantage Biden would have if he ran again is his celebrity. In 2008, Biden was running as a senator from Delaware. In 2016, he’ll be an incumbent vice president who regularly makes national news. He won’t need to introduce himself to caucusgoers. He’ll just need to win them over.

The first step toward doing so will be appealing to the crowd of activists at the Harkin Steak Fry. The event has long been used as a springboard for aspiring presidential candidates, including a freshman senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, who was the featured speaker in 2006. Of course, when asked to comment on why the vice president was attending, a spokesman said the trip was “a long-standing commitment after the vice president was unable to attend last year.” His supporter Goodmann echoed the spokesman, noting that while “clearly anyone [who] might be looking at a presidential bid would be happy to visit key states ... I don’t believe that’s why” Biden is visiting Iowa. Instead, the trip is just about fulfilling a commitment to his longtime Senate colleague Tom Harkin that the vice president made last year, she said.

Goodmann also noted that traditional protocol would dictate that potential Democratic presidential hopefuls stay out of Iowa until after next year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, lest they be accused of taking sides. Then again, as Goodmann pointed out, “If protocol meant something, the vice president would have first dibs on the White House.”