2020 Election

Facing First 2020 Test, Joe Biden Is Doing Things His Way

6 minute read

Joe Biden’s White House bid began with false starts, pledges to do better in respecting women’s personal spaces and a concerted effort to contain his gaffes. He never fully got it together — and it may be why he is heading into Iowa’s caucuses as a strong but uncertain contender.

Biden is viewed inside the Democratic Party as an authentic-if-old-school figure whose throwback style is part of his appeal. Despite decades in elective politics, he retains the rough-around-the-edges demeanor that endears him to so many. He wanders off stages and into the crowds on the regular. He inserts asides that do little to help his case, as he did on Thursday in Waukee, Iowa, reminding his audience that he did not, in fact, earn an endorsement from The New York Times. In Mount Pleasant, Iowa, on Friday evening, he recognized the town’s Woman of the Year from an event he held on a front porch there in 1987. When he spots bored kids in his crowds, he offers to buy them ice cream as an apology. When babies cry, he says he can empathize.

Biden’s path to Iowa’s lead-off caucuses has been an uneven one, too. He seemed to accidentally announce his candidacy twice, went months without a campaign headquarters and kept a lighter schedule than rivals. His senior team argued that Biden began as a known quantity who didn’t need a national introduction the way others did. The limited exposure also provided some safeguards against Biden’s off-the-cuff candor, although he has made strides toward curtailing his long-windedness and dodged any campaign-derailing transgressions.

Joe Biden Town Hall with John Kerry in Cedar Rapids, IA on Feb. 1, 2020. Photo by September Dawn Bottoms for TIME.
Joe Biden speaks with a supporter at a Town Hall with John Kerry in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Feb. 1, 2020.September Dawn Bottoms for TIME

It all adds up to make Biden a question mark heading into Monday’s caucuses. His campaign machine is solid, but lags rivals Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. “If it’s a ground game war, Elizabeth Warren wins,” says former Rep. Dave Nagel, who attended Biden’s rally Saturday night in Waterloo and helped out his 2008 bid. “The Vice President has a lot of support but his ground game isn’t as good as others.”

The uncertainty here only deepened Saturday evening when the final CNN/ Des Moines Register poll — the gold standard in the state — was canceled amid questions about how it was conducted. Real Clear Politics’ average of polls puts Sen. Bernie Sanders and Biden atop the field, at 25% and 21% respectively, with former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg in pursuit at 16%, Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 15% and Sen. Amy Klobuchar at 8%. In order to earn delegates, candidates have to log at least 15% support.

Whether Biden does well or poorly, he will have done it his way. Biden started his campaign facing uncertainty over his physical but never sexual contact with crowds. He released a video that pledged to do better going forward, but stopped short of an apology. “The boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset. I get it, I get it. I hear what they’re saying and I understand it,” Biden said in the video.

But Biden’s reset on this front never happened. At events in Iowa, Biden is still hamming it up with visitors, hugging here and squeezing there. As often as not, he leans in close to supporters on the rope lines and presses his forehead to strangers. He is a master of the side-hug-and-selfie. It’s just part of what it means to go up to introduce yourself to Biden after his events.

Joe Biden Town Hall with John Kerry in Cedar Rapids, IA on Feb. 1, 2020. Photo by September Dawn Bottoms for TIME.
Supporters at the Joe Biden Town Hall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.September Dawn Bottoms for TIME

His audiences don’t seem to mind. “Hell, yes,” 69-year-old Pat Taylor said after Biden hugged her on Saturday evening in Waterloo. Taylor backed Biden in 2007 and went on to work with the Obama-Biden campaign in 2008. When her husband died, Biden not only sent flowers but phoned to check in and give her his private cell number. “I love his integrity. The others running are fine, but we need to go with someone we can trust. Joe is a quality person,” she said. “I’ve always felt comfortable with him.”

To his credit, Biden has gotten more succinct on the trail. Before, he’d try to stick a landing if a sentence started meandering or if he had lost his point; now he just bails. (“Anyway” has come to double as a go-to way to end run-on sentences.) He apologizes to his crowds for going on too long. “That’s more than you wanted to know,” Biden said Thursday in Newton, when he felt he had been answering a question about his running mate selection.

The result has been a cleaner campaign than some anticipated. Sure, he cribbed an energy policy in a move that evoked his 1988 bid that ended in a plagiarism scandal, but the ensuing controversy didn’t last beyond a news cycle. His debate performances have been mediocre, which is a win for Team Joe. He has largely sidestepped criticizing his rivals, insisting that “they’re all good people” while also saying voters deserve to know the costs of the big-ticket proposals. The impeachment of President Donald Trump unfolding in Washington has the Biden clan at its center, but it hasn’t had a major factor in the Democratic primary. Most of Biden’s pitch has been about being able to defeat Trump in November and bypasses the differences he has with his rivals for the nomination.

Iowans are still undecided and shopping; the Monmouth University Poll of Iowa Democrats showed 47% with a firm decision and 45% open to switching their choices on caucus night, Feb. 3. (That poll was conducted Jan. 23 to Jan. 27.) The caucuses — which take place at some 1,600 sites like churches and schools — force Iowans to publicly declare support for candidates. They are a battle of organizing and persuasion that will test Biden’s team.

In the final days, Biden hasn’t seemed nervous or hurried. “I know you guys have been waiting a bit,” Rep. Abby Finkenauer said Saturday night, introducing Biden. Doors to the National Cattle Congress Pavilion in Waterloo opened at 5 p.m. Biden entered the room at 6:52 p.m.

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Write to Philip Elliott/Waterloo, Iowa at philip.elliott@time.com