On February 7th, at the eighth Democratic primary debate in New Hampshire, Joe Biden remarked, “we took a hit in Iowa and we will probably take a hit here.” And take a hit he most certainly did. Biden finished 5th with just 8% of the votes, resulting in zero delegates. Sanders (26%), Buttigieg (24%) and Klobuchar (20%) can all claim success in the granite state, but Biden performed almost unforeseeably poorly for a man who has been seen as the frontrunner in national polls for the last two years. Biden’s electoral failures were further compounded by his own personal failures this week. Biden’s well-known tendency to trip over his own tongue, once seen as an endearing trait, has taken a turn for the worse, with the former vice president repeatedly insulting voters in front of the camera. Last weekend Biden called a young woman who asked him a question about his poor performance in Iowa a “lying dog-faced pony soldier.” A response that is as baffling as it is misjudged.
The only thing keeping the Biden campaign from imploding is the hope of success in Nevada and South Carolina, more diverse states than both Iowa and New Hampshire and ones in which Biden has consistently polled first over the last year. He’s currently polling in second place in the latest Nevada poll (18% compared to Sanders’ 25%). Even a second-place finish should be enough to keep the Biden campaign running, as “middle-class Joe” (a nickname the former vice-president has tried to attribute to himself) fights to show that he is more electable than Pete Buttigieg when it comes to states that are more diverse than the 90% white Iowa and New Hampshire.
In contrast, Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar – two moderates who have done very well in the first two states – are both polling at around 10%. These polls were conducted a month ago and both candidates have picked up momentum since, but they certainly have their work cut out for them. This seems to suggest what many Democrats have been saying for a while, that it makes very little sense for two states that are significantly more Caucasian, rural and wealthy than the rest of America to go first in the primary contest. The 38-year-old Buttigieg has tailored his campaign, with his carefully rehearsed talking points and pragmatic stance on healthcare, to appeal to older white voters. The problem is translating the success of this strategy to the bases that support Biden and Sanders: African Americans (in the case of Biden), and Latinos and younger voters (in the case of Sanders). The irony is that younger voters do not identify with the man who could be the first millennial president. In New Hampshire Sanders won 51% of votes from 18-29-year-olds, while Buttigieg won just 20%.
There is one man who will not be too worried about whether Buttigieg can successfully triangulate his appeal and that is Bernie Sanders. The current dynamics certainly seem to favour the 78-year-old Senator, as his main progressive rival, Elizabeth Warren, is nosediving in the polls, while Buttigieg, Biden and Klobuchar are doing an excellent job of splitting the moderate vote. The best scenario for Sanders’ campaign is that Warren continues to lose momentum, while Buttigieg and Klobuchar take enough of Biden’s votes to neutralise him but not enough to challenge Bernie. Joe Biden still has a good chance of a strong finish in either Nevada or South Carolina, but he’s no longer the presumptive frontrunner and the longevity of his campaign is in serious doubt. Biden’s main argument has always been that he is the most electable, that he has the best chance of beating Trump due to his political experience, moderate views and association with Obama. No one has done more to tarnish his aura of electability than Joe Biden himself and by the time the South Carolina primary rolls round on February 29th we will know whether Biden still has a chance or whether the man who claims he can beat Trump is really just a “lying dog-faced pony soldier”.