MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — Joe Biden returns to the first-in-the-nation primary state this weekend facing the reality it could spell the end of his 2020 campaign if he doesn’t win or finish close to the top of the Democratic pack.
The former vice president’s campaign tour in New Hampshire Friday and Saturday comes amid declining poll numbers. Particularly in Iowa, the first nominating contest, on Feb. 3, and a state where Biden, 76, has campaigned for decades over his three presidential bids.
A RealClearPolitics average of recent surveys found Biden falling to fourth place in Iowa, while the 36-year Delaware senator in New Hampshire is now second to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, by four points.
New Hampshire polls bring more bad news for Biden. He leads Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders by just one point in the average of surveys, effectively within the margin of error. And one recent poll found Biden losing by six points to Sanders, who like Warren is running to the former vice president’s left. Polls taken this spring and summer found Biden leading the pack by double-digits in New Hampshire.
Biden’s New Hampshire visit this weekend comes after heavy campaigning in Iowa.
“I think Biden is foolish not to put a heavy emphasis on on New Hampshire. He hasn’t spent much time here, and it’s ripe for Joe Biden,” said New Hampshire-based Republican political strategist Mike Dennehy. “You have two progressives splitting the left right now and the entire center of the party with nowhere to go. He could come in and scoop that up. Even if he doesn’t win, he could come so close he could call it a victory.”
Dennehy contends the Biden campaign should go all-in on New Hampshire.
“I think Joe Biden should leave Iowa,” he said. “This is a caucus. This is a party-activist vote. It’s not a true vote. It’s only activists. ”
In multiple interviews with the press and donors, Biden’s campaign has all but conceded that they expect losses in the early primary and states. It’s banking on a large-margin victory in the Feb. 29 South Carolina primary before Super Tuesday, March 3, when California and more than a dozen other states and territories vote. A potential double-digit win in South Carolina, Biden’s campaign says, will emphasize their message that Biden is the most electable candidate in a fall 2020 race against President Trump.
But Biden may not have the luxury of skipping Iowa since his campaign rests largely on the notion of electability. Not winning there, or finishing less than second or potentially a very close third, could crater his support in New Hampshire, leaving him as a second-tier candidate, or worse, after the first two contests.
Biden’s message of electability has been sidelined by his precipitous drop in polls in early primary states. No Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1992 has won the party’s nomination without winning Iowa. And already, many Democrats are concerned about the campaign’s insistence that all will be fine come South Carolina.
“The reality is he doesn’t have enough money to do a lot,” said Democratic strategist Jeff Hewitt, citing the $9 million raised by the Biden campaign in the most recent fundraising quarter, while Warren and Sanders each raised more than double that. “Imagine running a statewide race with that. Therein lies the problem. He needs to get his ass in the ground in New Hampshire, or his entire strategy will fall apart.”
Biden’s potential losses in Iowa and New Hampshire would be the third straight disaster in his decadeslong quest for the presidency. In 2008, Biden placed last in the Iowa caucuses and quickly ended his campaign. In the 1988 cycle, he was forced to drop out before voting began due to a plagiarism scandal that derailed his candidacy.
“They have to understand that when you lose two states in a row, your vote collapses,” Dennehy said. “It’s just not realistic.”
New Hampshire Democratic powerbrokers like state Rep. Catherine Sofikitis, a Sanders supporter, say many in the party locally view Biden as a tragic figure. No one, Sofikitis said, denies Biden is a good man, but it’s painful for many to see an elder statesman continue to fall behind in polls after serving the country for many decades.
“He was number one on my list of someone I’d like to have dinner with, but his roll-out hasn’t been that good. He looks old on TV, he seems rigid,” said Sofikitis. “I’m 63, I understand. I feel for him, but his age is showing. It’s not a graceful thing. I think Democrats think he missed the wave. He’s like a surfer waiting for the big wave, and he missed it.”
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