Sometimes a visit to Iowa is just a visit to Iowa. But could that really be true of Vice President Biden’s trip to Des Moines on Thursday?
Officially, the vice president is traveling to the Hawkeye State this week “to deliver remarks about the administration’s economic policies” and promote President Obama’s initiative to make community college free for all students. Still, the trip comes amid a dearth of potential Democratic presidential candidates in the state and Biden’s continued outreach to longtime Iowa supporters, sparking speculation about an ulterior motive for the visit.
At least one longtime Biden supporter and Democratic activist is cautioning against reading the tea leaves around Biden’s trip. Teri Goodmann noted to The Daily Beast that the trip was part of Biden and Obama’s extensive travel around the country to “reinforce the themes of the State of the Union.”
If Biden were to run for president in 2016, he’d have a strong base in Iowa. He is “well liked and well received” there and would be “a player” if he threw his hat into the ring, said Jeff Link, a top Democratic political consultant in the state. The vice president’s outreach to Iowans also would provide a boost, Link said. If, for example, you were an Iowan and “you let the office of the vice president know that you were having a visit to Washington, D.C., if you didn’t see him, you would see someone from that office,” Link said.
But that outreach is not necessarily a sign of a man plotting a presidential bid. It could just be Biden being Biden. As Goodmann noted, Biden’s trademark both as a senator and vice president is that he “stays in touch with people.”
That could give Biden a big advantage in the state. While both Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley have been active in Iowa, both are relatively new to the Hawkeye State. In contrast, Biden mounted presidential bids in 1988 and 2008 and does a good job of keeping up with those who supported him in the past.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, hasn’t been seen in Iowa. While her allies are certainly making phone calls and trying woo key powerbrokers ahead of her still unannounced 2016 bid, the secretary of state has visited the state just once since 2008 and her campaign efforts have been conducted in the shadows. The result is a strong thirst among Iowa Democrats simply for visits from potential candidates. After all, every Tom, Dick and George Pataki seems to be showing up on the Republican side, and Biden is a lot better known than Jim Webb.
“There is a big desire for a competitive caucus” among Hawkeye Democrats, said Scott Brennan, a former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. “If I was advising anyone interested in running, I’d encourage them to get out here and get out here now, because there’s a hunger out here and the Republicans have been active,” he said. That sentiment was echoed by Jim Mowrer, vice chairman of the state party and a Biden supporter in 2008. Mowrer said that he thought there was room for Biden. “Caucus-goers are very serious,” he said. “Any candidate willing to come to Iowa and meet with Democrats can find fertile ground.”
The question, though, is how successful Biden would be if he decided to run. One Biden supporter in 2008 bragged that the former Delaware senator hit all his turnout goals in that year’s caucus, turning out more supporters than John Kerry did when he won in 2004. The problem in 2008, however, was that turnout was double what it was four years earlier, and Biden wasn’t able to reach the 15 percent threshold necessary to be viable and earn delegates in many precincts.
The vice president would likely face an uphill battle in 2016. “I can’t think of anybody that is an enthusiast for Biden,” said Don Smith, a longtime Democratic activist and former county party chairman in Grinnell, Iowa. Smith’s comments carry particular weight because Grinnell is home to the largest caucus precinct in the state, one where Biden received delegates in 2008 and Clinton did not.
But Biden has never been accused of being afraid to engage in retail politics or being adverse to glad-handing. If he jumps in the race, there will be space and opportunity aplenty for that, and he still has plenty of time to decide. Goodmann said her impression was that Biden would “make up his mind over the summer.” In the meantime, he gives Iowa Democrats a reason to feel wanted and a chance to push the White House’s agenda in a crucial swing state.
Plus, if you get all expenses paid travel, what better place to visit than Des Moines in February?