Joe Biden is about to become more freewheeling than ever. And this time, it’s intentional.
At a time when his numbers are declining and momentum is mounting around rival campaigns, the former vice president is about to open himself up to arguably the highest level of scrutiny so far: an extended bus tour in Iowa meant to turn his downward spiral in the other direction.
The eight-day, 18-county “No Malarkey” excursion is a political gamble for Biden, whose tendency to share rambling anecdotes and unrelated micro-points has led some Democrats to question his status as a national frontrunner. And less than 10 weeks out from the Feb. 3 caucus, the stakes are now higher than ever. Several candidates have eclipsed him in polls, money, and on-the-ground legwork, and he’s hardly the freshest face of the lot.
But in all of that, his campaign sees only a net positive. By offering up the most open-book version of Biden in the state to date, he’ll remind voters of his authenticity, a quality his aides believe will help translate into electoral success in the crowded primary.
“One of his strongest traits as a politician is his ability to connect with voters in a retail one-on-one basis,” a Biden adviser briefed on the tour told The Daily Beast. “The more time they get to spend with Joe Biden the better that is for our campaign.”
According to the campaign, the tour, set to kick off Nov. 30 in Council Bluffs and end in Cedar Rapids on Dec. 7, is “not a departure or shift” from their previous Iowa strategy, but rather a “more intense” effort to engage voters and the press, and a chance to court the state delegates up for grabs in the counties on the itinerary.
Interviews with former Iowa elected officials, strategists, and county party leaders, however, offer a more nuanced view of what they anticipate happening. While it may not be a drastic shift in approach, they agree, it’s definitely something new from Team Biden.
“I congratulate the campaign for recognizing they have a problem,” said Dave Nagle, a former congressman and Iowa State Democratic Party chairman. They’re “trying to put a jumpstart into the campaign.”
Biden, of course, has a rough past with the Hawkeye State, even having employed a similar all-access strategy. In the run up to the Iowa caucus 12 years ago, he launched a nine-day “Caucus Countdown” bus tour that spanned Dec. 26, 2007 to Jan. 3, 2008, when he visited 28 counties. In February, he ended far behind other candidates, despite an attempt to sprint to the finish line. Years later, President Trump taunted Biden as “1 percent Joe,” a nod to his caucus performance during his last presidential bid.
And Democrats aren’t shy about acknowledging Biden’s current downward slope, either. Polling averages place him in fourth, well behind South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has surged to the top of the pack, earning 24 percent of support in aggregate averages, compared to Biden’s 16.3 percent. In between the two candidates—who span nearly four decades in ages between them—are two progressive options, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who earn 18.3 percent and 17.7 percent, respectively. A recent Des Moines Register/CNN poll offers a slightly more favorable outlook: Biden is tied at 15 percent with Sanders, but still considerably behind Buttigieg at 25 percent.
The state-wide tour, which includes stops in rural counties where Biden enjoys a natural constituency of older, working-class, and retired voters, is part of an effort to get his numbers back on top. And it’s just one of several ways his campaign has started showing recent signs of life, Democrats said, including receiving a coveted endorsement from influential Democratic Party leaders, former Gov. Tom Vilsack and his wife Christie Vilsack. His campaign counts 175 endorsements and has now opened 25 offices. Buttigieg’s campaign, in contrast, has opened up 29 offices and has over 60 endorsements in the state.
While those pieces help to create a fuller mosaic of a robust campaign, the more direct contact Biden makes with voters in person, the better his chances are in changing on-the-fence minds and overcoming obstacles of rivals’ momentum, Democrats said. Giving access to the media is part of that.
“The campaign is arranging for members of the national and local press to come along for the whole tour,” the Biden adviser said, but declined to elaborate about how much the former vice president will actually be on the bus with reporters during the trip.
“If you shield your candidate, you’re playing not to lose,” Jeff Link, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state, said. “If you let your candidate interact with reporters and voters, and you just make it open, that’s a campaign that’s playing to win.”
For now, Link said, the access element outweighs any potential damage from over a week of partially unscripted campaigning. “Does it come with risks? Yes. But if the idea is to try and win an election, I can’t recall a campaign where playing not to lose was the right strategy.”
Ryan Odor, the Democratic chairman in Clay County, one of Biden’s scheduled stops, said it’s more critical to examine what the former vice president does during the trip than exactly how he delivers his message.
“It’s more important that Joe Biden shows up to Spencer, Iowa and makes a gaffe than not show up at all,” Odor said.
Biden’s campaign previously lowered expectations for the first-in-the-nation caucus. His effort to build a broad coalition of supporters that cross racial, economic, and geographic divides lends itself to states that are more ethnically diverse than Iowa, which is predominantly white. He currently enjoys comfortable leads in Nevada and South Carolina, for example, which follow Iowa in the calendar and have larger African American and Latino populations.
Still, the tour, which will temporarily prevent Biden from campaigning in other early states, represents a fine-tuning of his team’s commitment, in resources and personal engagement, to the first caucus.
“It shows a certain amount of humility that he’s willing to do something like that,” said Peter Leo, the Democratic chair in Carroll County, another stop on Biden’s tour.
Leo speculated that Carroll County, a more rural, moderate area that went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary and Trump in the general election, will offer a soft-landing for Biden, who is styling his campaign in a more centrist fashion than Warren or Sanders.
Still, not every Democrat who’s tried a similar bus tour strategy has had sustained momentum. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) embarked on a five-day journey through the state in late August and has continued to plummet in the polls, despite rejiggering her national campaign to focus heavily on the February caucus. Some Democrats in the state wonder if Biden is making a similar mistake with timing.
“It’s a very politically acceptable move,” Nagle said. “But when you do that now, what are you going to do in January? I felt frankly it was premature.”
JoAnn Hardy, the Democratic chair of Cerro Gordo County, another one of the scheduled stops, offered another option.
“He’ll have to do it again,” she said flatly about the tour. “He’s got to seal the deal.”