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How Iowa Slipped Away From Joe Biden

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 2/5/2020 Ken Thomas
Joe Biden standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera © Christopher Lee for The Wall Street Journal

DES MOINES, Iowa — In the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses, Joe Biden suggested he could stake an early claim to the Democratic nomination with a victory.

By caucus night, as his team dealt with disappointing early results and a meltdown of the state party’s election system, he was so far out of the lead that his campaign questioned whether the process had been fair.

His advisers are now facing the potential of losses in both Iowa and New Hampshire, an outcome that has decimated presidential bids in the past, and are seeking to convince financial donors about his staying power in diverse states such as Nevada and South Carolina.

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Mr. Biden was in fourth place in Monday’s chaotic caucuses based on partial results released Tuesday, circumstances that allowed his campaign to emphasize “considerable flaws” in the state Democratic Party’s reporting system. His campaign’s general counsel urged the state party on Monday night to withhold any official results until campaigns had received “full explanations” on “methods of quality control.”

When 71% of the tabulations were finally released Tuesday, it showed Mr. Biden badly trailing former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a stunning setback for a front-running former vice president who has made electability central to his candidacy. He also trailed Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and was only narrowly ahead of Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Traveling to New Hampshire, Mr. Biden tried to quickly pivot, telling supporters in a Concord union hall, “There’s nothing to come back from yet but I’d like you to rocket me out of here to make sure this thing works, OK?”

Mr. Biden received encouraging news on Wednesday when the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a union of 775,000 members, endorsed his campaign, giving him more labor support ahead of the New Hampshire vote.

But his advisers have been playing down his chances in New Hampshire, noting that the state has a history of supporting New England neighbors. Three of his challengers hail from the region.

Beyond New Hampshire, the Iowa finish threatens to damage Mr. Biden’s campaign with major contests looming in Nevada and South Carolina, two states where polls have shown him leading.

Mr. Biden’s campaign rolled out a series of endorsements in coming contests, including former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges.

South Carolina has long been viewed as a crucial springboard to amassing delegates on Super Tuesday. Mr. Biden has maintained strong support with African-American voters, who make up about 60% of the primary electorate in South Carolina.

But poor showings at the start of the calendar could give his rivals an opening with black voters while the party’s centrist voters may consider billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has poured more than $300 million into his campaign and focused on states beginning in March.

In a sign of Mr. Bloomberg’s growing strength, he staged a rally in Philadelphia — about a mile from Mr. Biden’s campaign headquarters — that drew more than 2,000 people.

Mr. Biden also faces financial repercussions. He started the year with about $9 million in his campaign account and has struggled to build up his reserves in recent months. The campaign emphasized in a call to top donors Tuesday Mr. Biden’s strength in coming contests in Nevada and South Carolina, according to participants.

Days before the caucuses, Mr. Biden’s campaign said January was its best fundraising month and the former vice president is planning large fundraisers in the coming weeks, including in New York and Denver.

“Donors and Biden supporters are smart about letting the process play out,” said Wade Randlett, a longtime Biden donor in the San Francisco area. “The fundamentals always matter, and the worst thing you can do is panic.”

The campaign had sought to lower Iowa expectations in recent weeks, but the outcome still came as a blow.

Mr. Biden at one point had sensed an opportunity for a momentum-fueling victory there. He spent parts of 29 days in Iowa during December, January and February, the most of any candidate during that span.

Recent polls in Iowa had shown Mr. Biden vying for the lead against Mr. Sanders, who was among a group of senators forced to postpone many campaign events because of the Senate impeachment trial.

Despite his standing in national polls, some Democrats began to question his ability to go the distance.

Bill Dotzler, an Iowa state senator, said he had told Mr. Biden’s team that he planned to endorse “as long as they didn’t mess up.”

“It was tough for me to call them back and say, ‘Hey, listen, I think we’re in trouble here. I don’t see the big crowds with Joe compared to some of the others. I’m also deeply concerned about how his fundraising is,'” Mr. Dotzler said in an interview.

In December, Mr. Dotzler endorsed Mr. Buttigieg.

Entrance polls Monday underscored Mr. Biden’s challenge, with solid majorities expressing support for a candidate who will fundamentally change the nation’s political system.

Traveling aboard his campaign bus in early December, he told reporters, “If I were to win Iowa, I think it’s awful hard to stop me from winning the nomination.”

He added, “If I were to come in, like some of the polling has shown, 5 points behind, or 3 points behind, or 7 points behind, I think I survive.”

Last week, Mr. Biden suggested the outcome in Iowa could include four candidates within a few percentage points of each other, “essentially a tie and so everybody goes to the next stop.”

But he added, “if you come out of here and somebody’s 25 and you’re at 12, well then you’re done, in terms of Iowa.”

When the data was finally released, Mr. Biden’s deficit against Mr. Buttigieg approached that margin.

Write to Ken Thomas at ken.thomas@wsj.com

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