What Republicans’ attacks have added to Biden’s pitch in Iowa

In this edition: Biden goes after Republicans (in multiple ways), the firefighters go all out, and Pennsylvania’s primary gets interesting.

It turns out that a keyboard constantly breaking does not make newsletter writing easier, and this is The Trailer.

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Joe Biden feels sorry for Republicans sometimes. The former vice president often starts his town halls by remembering the days when both parties could work together, when “Barack” would dispatch him to make a deal. Then he’ll switch gears, marveling at the ways Republicans in Washington have attacked him.

“You hear what Joni Ernst said the other day?” Biden asked his crowd. Judging by the boos, they had. “Whoa, Joni, Joni, Joni, Joni! She spilled the beans! She just came out and said it! The whole impeachment trial is just about political hit job, to smear me for Joni and her friends.” He read the senator from Iowa’s remarks about how a focus on Biden’s son Hunter could hurt the Democratic campaign, and laughed.

“Will they be supporting President Biden at this point?” Biden asked, quoting Ernst. “They’re trying everything to stop Biden from being the nominee!”

Biden’s closing argument ahead of the caucuses hasn’t changed much from what he said at the start of the race. He can win; he can work with Republicans; he can deliver on the priorities left unfinished by American liberalism and “bring everybody along this time.” 

But Biden gets some of his biggest applause when he describes how Republicans have tried to smear and destroy him. At the same time, while drawing larger Iowa crowds, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg is pitching himself as a candidate with no enemies, and an agenda already supported by a “new American majority” of voters. There are no Republican attacks to rebuke because the Republicans haven’t made them.

“Everywhere I go, I’m meeting Democrats ready to bring about that change,” Buttigieg said Monday night in the Iowa City suburbs. “I’m meeting independents ready to bring about that change. I’m even meeting quite a few of what I like to call future former Republicans who are equally enthusiastic about bringing about that change.”

Both candidates describe a country that is ready, and has been ready, to dump the president, so long as Democrats are willing to talk to Republicans. At their town halls, it is perpetually 2018, the election year in which independents and some frustrated conservatives were ready to vote for Democrats again, and when the attack ads seemed to rinse right off. Iowa Democrats elected two new members of Congress that year, and both new Reps. Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer have endorsed Biden, while veteran Rep. David Loebsack endorsed Buttigieg.

The most prized voters at Biden and Buttigieg rallies are Republicans, or one-time Trump voters. Dennis Brennan, 64, came to see Biden in Cedar Falls, admitting that he had backed Trump in 2016 because he didn’t like his options.

“I felt at that time the Democrats were giving everything away for free,” Brennan said. Trump is “like the bad child in the back of the room. If he could keep his freakin’ mouth shut and stay on script, I’d be fine.”

Brennan, who said he would not be able to vote for a left-wing nominee, said he disagreed with Biden’s economic agenda, too; it was unfair, he said, to hike the capital gains tax. But he went on to recite the latest outrage: the president dismissing reports of soldiers who has suffered brain injuries by calling them “headaches.” Biden had spent time talking about it, too, as his stump speech has focused more and more on the litany of things that have exhausted and unsettled swing voters about Trump.

“All kidding aside, think about this: For the longest time, there are an average 21 suicides a week, retired military, as well as active-duty military, suffering from related trauma,” Biden said, somberly talking about the list he carried every day to keep aware of military casualties.

Describing Republicans as confused and trapped by Trump, and picking no ideological fights, has helped Biden hold onto a base that Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, have pulled from but not captured. With Klobuchar largely waylaid in the Senate impeachment trial, Buttigieg has had time for dozens of town halls, saying near the beginning that there has been a false choice given to Iowans between “risk” and “big ideas.”

In Decorah on Thursday, Buttigieg sharped that argument, and for the first time pointed to Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont by name.

“I hear Vice President Biden saying that this is no time to take a risk on someone new,” Buttigieg said. “But history has shown us that the biggest risk we could take with a very important election coming up is to look to the same Washington playbook and recycle the same arguments and expect that to work against a president like Donald Trump, who is new in kind. Then I hear Senator Sanders calling for a kind of politics that says you’ve got to go all the way here and nothing else counts.” 

What was missing: any evidence that Republicans feared this message, or Buttigieg. Asked about Buttigieg’s remarks a few hours later, Biden blew them off. (Biden’s advertising warns against “risk” but does not specify what that risk is.) Jeff Wilkin, a 45-year-old veteran of George W. Bush’s administration, attended a Buttigieg rally this week but left it still intending to support Biden; he was “25 percent” satisfied with Trump but wanted a steadier hand in the White House.

“He’s not very professional, and he doesn’t represent the country very well,” Wilkin explained. “I thought Biden made a pretty good vice president, and that sets him apart as far as experience goes.”

There’s a tension between Biden’s hope for bipartisanship and the glee with which Republicans have portrayed him as corrupt. But the attacks on him related to the impeachment trial added something that had been lacking in Biden’s pitch, with the campaign and candidate seizing on every insult, ignoring the substance (or lack thereof) and highlighting how only one Democrat seems to get this stuff.

Arguments with his party’s left have been treated the same way. In Cedar Falls, Biden went on a riff about health care, arguing that “others out there” had “proposed to spend 60 trillion dollars over the next 10 years” and punted on how to pay for it. 

“I think it scares people,” Biden said, without mentioning Sanders by name. “How is this going to happen? Where are my taxes going to be? How are we to get there?”

Seconds later, he was on to the larger point: The left had attacked him, too, and look where he was, days before caucusing began. “I hope I’ve demonstrated that I’ve come out of it stronger,” he said.

READING LIST

“Document shows Bernie Sanders’s team preparing dozens of potential executive orders,” by Jeff Stein and Sean Sullivan

The agenda beyond passage of big legislation.

“As Biden makes push in Iowa, his ground game may have some gaps,” by Trip Gabriel

Signs of lower enthusiasm for a candidate in a strong poll position.

Damned if they do, doomed if they don’t: Why Sanders rivals don’t go negative,” by Brendan Nyhan

No negative spots against the senator from Vermont until this week? Here’s why.

“Sanders’ rise fueling internal fight as some Democrats fear a November wipeout,” by Janet Hook and Mark Z. Barabak

Today in Sanders panic.

“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez isn’t running for president, but she’s in the race,” by Jada Yuan

The 2024 (or 2028, or 2032) campaign gets underway.

“Elizabeth Warren’s little-known history in an obscure but influential legal organization,” by Rachel Cohen

This one’s for the nerds.

ON THE TRAIL

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Andy Lavigne, the political director of the International Association of Fire Fighters, likes to talk about the time they kicked the snot out of him. It was 2004, and he was working for Dick Gephardt, who was circling the drain in Iowa after the IAFF endorsed John F. Kerry.

“I walked into the middle school on caucus night and I started seeing black and gold T-shirts,” Lavigne told two dozen firefighters on Wednesday, referring to the IAFF’s colors. “That did a couple of things. First of all, the math was messed with. There were new caucus attendees that showed up. There were Kerry supporters who were following along with the firefighters, and that made the viability numbers change. Number two, it demoralizes the other campaigns when they see you coming in that gold and black. They get this feeling in their stomachs, like: Man, we’re on the wrong team.”

The 2004 election is the IAFF’s favorite story, its “immaculate reception,” its Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. Kerry’s eventual loss to George W. Bush does not reduce its rallying power, and the union endorsed Joe Biden even faster than it had endorsed Kerry. There are just 1,600 IAFF members in Iowa, and in the final days before the caucuses, the union’s leadership is appealing to them personally, telling them they hold real power over the Democratic nomination.

“It has exactly the same feel as 2004,” said the union’s president, Harold Schaitberger, as he roamed a Biden town hall near the firehouse, handing out black and gold T-shirts. “Bernie can turn out a lot of energy and a lot of young voters. But this election is going to be about Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa. I don’t believe Bernie has an opportunity to turn those states, and people know that Joe Biden does.”

Most major labor unions had promised last year to take their time before endorsing presidential candidates, avoiding the early rush that benefited Hillary Clinton in 2016. They have kept that promise, with the country’s largest unions staying neutral. That has largely helped Bernie Sanders, a favorite of rank-and-file members, who has gotten most of the unions who backed him four years ago to help him again. He has actually gotten a healthy lead among union members in this state; the Postal Workers, who endorsed Sanders today, have 2,600 Iowa members.

Biden, meanwhile, has won over the Fire Fighters and the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Iron Workers. The power of those endorsements is in their rank-and-file, voters who are not guaranteed to vote for whoever Democrats nominate. 

Schaitberger’s pitch is twofold: Biden is a uniquely heroic figure, who has provided votes and leadership when the IAFF needed him. In small groups of firefighters, Schaitberger holds their attention by describing Biden’s personal crises — the death of his wife and daughter in a car crash, his own near-death from an aneurysm — and then how Biden pushed through legislation for first responders after 9/11. 

The second part of the pitch is an admission that his members still might want to back President Trump.

“For those of you here who I know will likely never vote for Joe Biden, I’m going to say like it is,” Schaitberger said at the IAFF Local 15. “I’ve talked to Republican members all over this state. The rules still allow you that night to change your party designation, and to caucus for Joe Biden. And then, if you choose, you change your party designation back, and then vote for who you may choose to vote for.”

As Schaitberger spoke, two firefighters raced out of their seats to handle an emergency. “Some of you say, well, why would you why would we do that?” Schaitberger asked. “Why would I, as a Republican? What I would say to you is, very likely, you’re going to wake up one Wednesday morning in November, and you’re going to have a Democratic elected president. Why would you not want to use your influence, your power, to make sure that if that happens, that your president is someone who has had your back over this entire journey?”

After 30 minutes, Schaitberger closed the room to media, so he could let members speak freely. When they were done, two dozen firefighters marched with him, in front of Biden’s campaign bus, so they could take their places at the back of his rally.

“They’ve had my back in a big way,” Biden said, describing the heroism he’d seen from firefighters. “You know, the thing about these guys is they are always there.”

IMPEACHMENT WATCH

The latest on the impeachment of President Trump

AD WATCH

Bernie Sanders, “Always Fighting for Us.” The senator from Vermont has benefited hugely from his ideological and political consistency this year, in ways he earned and in ways he might not have expected. (Think of the many months when rivals praised his honesty as a way of attacking Elizabeth Warren.) This spot consists largely of Sanders quotes from his decades-long career, making arguments about corporate power and health care that he still makes in 2020. It actually resembles a spot run by Hillary Clinton four years ago, when the former secretary of state confronted voter wariness about her honesty with an ad that linked together speeches she’d made over 40 years to portray her long advocacy for children’s and women’s rights.

Mike Bloomberg, “George.” The only candidate reserving time for a Super Bowl ad, Bloomberg devotes it entirely to Calandrian Simpson Kemp, who talks about losing her son George and being confident that Bloomberg would deliver on gun control. “I know Mike is not afraid of the gun lobby. They’re scared of him, and they should be.”

POLL WATCH

Pennsylvania primary (Franklin & Marshall College, 292 Democrats)

Joe Biden: 22% (-8) 
Bernie Sanders: 15% ( 3) 
Elizabeth Warren: 14% (-4) 
Mike Bloomberg: 7% ( 7) 
Pete Buttigieg: 6% (-2) 
Andrew Yang: 5% ( 4) 
Amy Klobuchar: 5% ( 3)

Pennsylvania is the toughest “Rust Belt” state for insurgent candidates to crack, for a simple reason: It has a closed primary, with independent voters unable to cast ballots. That doomed Sanders in 2016, and he remains relatively weak there, with the combined vote for left-leaning candidates stuck around 30 percent. But Biden, whose upbringing in Pennsylvania is part of his electability case, looks less dominant than he did a few months ago. And a sub-question could ameliorate one worry Democrats have about the state. While voters support the state’s current shale energy exploration, narrowly, they worry that its environmental harm could be worse than its benefits, and they support a ban on fracking by nine points.

Candidate preference (Pew Research, 5,861 voters)

Black voters
Joe Biden: 36% 
Bernie Sanders: 13% 
Elizabeth Warren: 9% 
Mike Bloomberg: 5% 

Hispanic voters
Bernie Sanders: 30% 
Joe Biden: 22% 
Elizabeth Warren: 11% 
Mike Bloomberg: 5% 
Pete Buttigieg: 2%

Some popular analysis of what will happen in the primary after Iowa is reliant on what happened in 2016, when Hillary Clinton’s overwhelming black support helped her build an insurmountable delegate lead in Southern states. Biden has consistently led with black voters, but not by Clinton’s margins; she regularly cleared 80 percent of the black vote in Southern states. And Hispanic voters, a source of strength for Sanders that year, remain largely supportive, albeit more divided. Warren is the only other challenger who has not run ads in Super Tuesday states but has a pulse with nonwhite voters. The low support for Buttigieg and Klobuchar here gets to why both Biden and Sanders are relatively comfortable with one of them making it out of Iowa.

CANDIDATE TRACKER

Depending on whether the Senate votes to allow witnesses in the impeachment trial, the four Democratic senators running for president could be on the trail by Friday night or late Saturday. It’s a small-sounding difference, with big implications. 

If Republicans stick together and vote for acquittal and no witnesses, the senators will be freed from any more responsibilities. If not, the pattern of last week, in which the senators have just 36 hours each week for sustained campaigning, will continue past the caucuses.

The senators are trying to get back out anyway. Bernie Sanders has announced a concert in Clive, Iowa, which could go on without him; he has been calling in to deliver a stump speech at surrogate events but has no planned personal appearances until Sunday. Elizabeth Warren has scheduled Friday events in Sioux City, Ames and Des Moines, though her campaign has been letting events go forward with surrogates if she can’t make it. Amy Klobuchar, who lacks big-name political or celebrity surrogates, has dispatched family and local leaders to hold small hot dish house parties.

Joe Biden. He’ll hold events in the eastern Iowa towns of Burlington and Fort Madison.

Pete Buttigieg. He’ll travel “shore to shore,” across the state, with a morning stop in Sioux City followed by stops in Council Bluffs, Clinton and Davenport.

Andrew Yang. He’s running the busiest public schedule of any candidate, with town halls in Tipton, Monticello, Grundy Center, Mason City and Winneshiek.

Tom Steyer. He’s sticking in eastern Iowa, with stops in Clinton and Dubuque.

John Delaney. He’ll hold a lunch in Council Bluffs and a house party in Des Moines.

Deval Patrick. He’ll campaign in Manchester, N.H., and hold a campaign strategy update with national reporters.

Mike Bloomberg. He won the endorsement of Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel E. Bowser.

CAUCUS HISTORY

By 1980, everybody took the Iowa caucuses seriously, and Democrats were tumbling into disarray. Jimmy Carter’s presidency had grown deeply unpopular, drawing a particular anger from liberals, who thought he’d squandered the party’s post-Watergate chance at power. Eleven months before the caucuses, reporters found Carter backers already griping about his reelection effort and a clear opening for a challenger.

By March, the “Exploratory Committee for a Democratic Alternative” had formed in Iowa, largely to draft Sen. Ted Kennedy into the race. By May, Carter was making his first trip to the state in ages, jokingly asking “whether it’s harder for a president to try to establish peace in the Middle East or peace in the Middle West.” By August, Kennedy led Carter in the state by 23 points. 

But he held off on an announcement, sending surrogates to Iowa and setting up the basics of a campaign but not pressing his advantage. Carter’s team, which had wired the state four years earlier, took that time to build. By early November, when Democrats gathered for their Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines, the Carter forces had mobilized to win a newsy but nonbinding straw poll; Kennedy, still working on his announcement, sent some family members to the dinner at the last minute, in time for the news that Carter had crushed him.

Kennedy finally announced his campaign on Nov. 7, 1979, and immediately agreed to a January 1980 debate in the state with Carter. For the first time, an incumbent president would be challenged in the Iowa caucuses. Student demonstrators had just stormed the American Embassy in Iran, taking 52 hostages, but at first the campaign proceeded as expected. Kennedy barnstormed the state, asking voters to put “a real Democrat back in the White House.” But there were growing worries about the wisdom of Kennedy trying to unseat a president during a crisis.

“I’m really upset at Senator Kennedy’s Iranian comments,” an Iowa voter told the New York Times, bristling at Kennedy’s criticism of Carter. “We should stand united in that.”

Shortly after Christmas, Carter pulled out of the Iowa debate, citing the need to deal with the hostage crisis. Kennedy and a new challenger, California Gov. Jerry Brown, condemned the decision, but there was not much they could do; by January, the Des Moines Register poll found an upside-down contest, with Carter now up by 32 points. The president dispatched key staffers to the state and even made personal calls to supporters, evoking the joy they’d felt after lifting him from obscurity to the nomination.

On Jan. 21, Carter routed Kennedy by 28 points, carrying 97 of the state’s 99 counties. It was the first time that an “uncommitted” slate did not win a plurality of the vote, and the last time that an incumbent president would face a real challenge in the Iowa caucuses.

COUNTDOWN

… four days until the Iowa caucuses
… eight days until the seventh Democratic debate
… 12 days until the New Hampshire primary
… 23 days until the Nevada caucuses
… 30 days until the South Carolina primary
… 33 days until Super Tuesday

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