DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - In the end, Joe Biden, who bills himself as the most electable candidate in the 2020 U.S. Democratic presidential field, could not convince nearly enough Iowans that he is the best person to take on President Donald Trump in November.
The former vice president came into Iowa’s first-in-the-nation nominating contest looking formidable, armed with high-profile endorsements and strong opinion poll numbers. His major rivals, U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, had been stranded in Washington for weeks for Trump’s impeachment trial.
But during all that time in Iowa, it was not easy to find Biden yard signs even in the final crucial weeks in the run-up to the caucuses, while signs for Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, who leads the field in Iowa with 71% of precincts reporting, were plentiful.
That disconnect between rosy poll numbers and the lack of enthusiasm on the ground is emblematic of the single biggest question that has dogged Biden’s campaign from the start: Can a 77-year-old white male moderate who spent more than 40 years in Washington excite Democrats increasingly eager for bold change?
Since his campaign began, Biden has said his deep experience in government made him the best hope for Democrats to defeat Trump in the Nov. 3 election. Iowans did not appear to agree.
With a majority of the results finally released after technological glitches brought the vote count to a halt, Biden was sitting in fourth place behind Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren.
Now Biden must worry that the tepid result opens the door
for billionaire former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, another moderate, who has surged in the polls since making a late entry into the race with a virtually bottomless checkbook.
Biden must also account for the success of Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who provided a fresh face to voters looking for a moderate candidate and who made a generational argument that it was time to look past Biden’s era of leadership.
Buttigieg, 38, outhustled Biden on the trail and out-raised him in terms of campaign cash, playing to rowdy crowds that made Biden’s look sedate.
Biden’s camp insists it will prevail in the long run, saying the result in Iowa - 90% white - would not suggest that Biden’s core supporters - particularly African-American voters - are poised to abandon him.
Even if he loses again in also predominantly white New Hampshire in next week’s primary, his campaign says Biden will make up ground in more diverse Nevada and South Carolina later in February.
“The point is, I count the four. The first four are the key,” Biden told reporters in Concord, New Hampshire, on Tuesday.
For the moment, however, Biden must endure a new round of questions about electability. As of now, his campaign does not have many answers.
The challenges were well-known to Biden’s campaign.
In the past week, three campaign sources cautioned that they were not confident about winning Iowa, a state that never really loved him the way it had taken to Biden’s political patron, former President Barack Obama.
For months, there were signs that the campaign – raising little money and less excitement from the sorts of people who knock on doors to lobby their neighbors to support Biden at a caucus – was not going to build a statewide organization as strong as several candidates in the wide Democratic field.
Biden started his campaign late and did not have the staffing and volunteers to compete with rivals such as Warren, who snapped up top talent and hired staff before Biden even got rolling.
Plotting an Iowa comeback after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday in November, he would board a bus and trek largely from rural town to rural county seat with an average population of 9,000 and reconnect with his rural, working-class base.
He touched some voters deeply. One Biden supporter said how people had made her feel worthless when she had to start collecting disability checks. “This man would’ve never made me feel that way,” she said at a Biden event.
The bus tour was not without flaws, however, with some of Biden’s performances inconsistent and turning off some voters.
The very first event of the tour was an event in Council Bluffs, one of the state’s largest cities, but it was cold, sparsely attended, and the energy of the crowd was low as Biden stumbled through written remarks and dabbed his nose with tissues.
That energy level was mirrored at several Biden events over the following months, including one in Muscatine in January, where several chairs sat empty as Biden stared out onto an icy Mississippi River.
His campaign crowds generally skewed older and relatively conservative. Young voters were in short supply even at a swing through college campuses, and Biden largely avoided urban centers and college towns until near the end of the campaign.
Doug Price, 84, said he thought having so many moderates in the race, including Biden, Buttigieg and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, was hurting Biden. “And I like the fact that Pete Buttigieg is young,” he said.
On Tuesday, as Bloomberg held a rally in Philadelphia, where Biden’s campaign headquarters is based, it was clear he was also competing for the same voters as Biden.
Attendee Steven Levy, 68, said he liked the moderate views of both candidates. “But Bloomberg,” he said, “has the best chance of beating Trump.”
Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Iowa and James Oliphant in Washington; Additional reporting by Tim Reid in Iowa and Jason Lange in Philadelphia; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Peter Cooney