Confessions of a Devastated Iowa Caucus-Goer
Joe Biden began his 2008 presidential campaign with a much-covered verbal misadventure involving his characterization of Barack Obama's personal appeal. When this was followed by the cancellation later that week of his first campaign trip to New Hampshire, I made the following observation in my blog:
I'm thinking there are serious questions about how his campaign is being run. First, the whole NY Observer debacle eclipses his campaign launch and puts him off message from day one, and then later the same week someone looks at the calendar and says, "Oops! Better cancel our first campaign trip to New Hampshire!" Don't get me wrong: I think it's laudable that Biden is focusing on his day job, especially when it comes to Iraq, which he is also working to make the signature issue of his presidential campaign. But can you imagine a more bungled first week of a campaign than this?
*glancing at Wesley Clark*
Well, okay. Maybe.
The point is that I wasn't a Biden supporter from day one. To be fair, I wasn't on board with anyone else's campaign from day one, either. I live in Iowa, and what's the point of being here, and taking advantage of the opportunity to meet all the candidates pretty much as many times as you can stand, if you're going to make up your mind a year before the caucus?
And with the exception of an early elimination lunch with Dennis Kucinich, all the candidates hung in there well. I rallied with Clinton and Obama, town hall-ed with Edwards and Dodd, and attended speeches by Richardson.
But as I did the circuit of rallies, town halls, and house parties, I found that the one candidate who seemed to grow with each new appearance was Joe Biden. It started with a speech in April to the Polk County Democratic Spring Dinner (2-inch thick pork chops for all!), during which Biden seemed to find his voice. It then continued through a series of generally well-regarded performances in the summer's debates, before achieving full measure in the fall when Biden put into practice what everyone else only speaks of. He made an unprecedented bipartisan joint campaign appearance with Republican Senator and presidential candidate Sam Brownback to promote a mutually-sponsored Senate bill embodying Biden's Iraq proposals. I found Biden's bearing at this event to be more statesmanlike and presidential than any other candidate at any other event I had witnessed up to that point. There's an axiom that maintains two types of people go in to politics: adults and children. Whereas children go into politics because they want to be something, adults go into politics because they want to do something. I found Joe Biden to be unquestionably a political adult, who, as he said many times, was not running just for the exercise. From that day on, though I was still months away from a formal endorsement, my support was Joe Biden's to lose.
As last year began to wane and the caucuses were (finally) set for January 3, I knew that, in fairness, I would have to come out and make a public endorsement for president. I made one last round of the events for the different candidates, and corny as it may sound, made a point of looking them in the eye one final time. Then I chose Joe Biden.
It may be that I belong to a distinct class of political suckers whose deepest longing is for a political ethos only ever to be found in reruns of The West Wing, and who are therefore doomed to labor in vain to compel life to imitate art. But in Joe Biden I felt I had found a candidate whose character would not allow him to do anything but speak his mind; who spoke to clarify issues, not just simplify them; and who, in that once-in-a-generation way, could ideally confront the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities of his era. Heck, Joe Biden even has the same initials as the fictional West Wing president Jed Bartlett. (Not that that was the decisive factor.)
And so I posted my endorsement of Biden and volunteered for his campaign. I ended up a precinct captain, responsible for rallying and organizing Biden supporters in the room on caucus night. Working as a precinct captain gives you first-hand access to a campaign's internal data about how many firm supporters have been recruited in your area; in my case, it was immediately clear that we had a very steep hill to climb with less than a month before caucus night. We campaigned hard to bring more people in, but as I trudged through the snow to the caucus site on Thursday night, I was pretty sure I knew how things would turn out.
And "turn out" turns out to be exactly the right phrase to explain what hit my precinct last night. We had more than enough Biden supporters to maintain viability in any other recent caucus, but this year's precinct turnout was triple the historical average. That pushed our viability threshold way above any number we could hope to attain in an auditorium filled with Obama, Edwards and Clinton supporters. I talked to supporters of other second-tier candidates and tried hard to win them over to our corner, but this was to no avail. My heart sank, and I called our group back together to tell them it was hopeless and we would have to disperse to join one of the viable groups.
In retrospect, Biden probably peaked in mid-December, when his candidacy appeared to pick up steam every day and Chris Matthews declared him the third mostly likely candidate to win the nomination behind only Obama and Clinton. But then came the Des Moines Register's endorsement of Hillary Clinton, which, while it obviously did little to help Clinton win Iowa, badly hurt Joe Biden by reinforcing, definitively for many Iowans, the pervasive impression that no matter how much you may like him, Biden could never win. It became a self-fulfilling prophesy.
After the caucus was over, I drove over to the Biden party in downtown Des Moines. When I arrived, CNN was playing on the projection screen, confirming our worst fears about the statewide outcome. Very shortly thereafter, the video feed was replaced with a photo montage of Biden campaigning in Iowa. A little after 10:00 PM, Biden walked up to the rostrum, his family behind him as always, to announce that he was dropping his bid for the White House.
The only dry eyes in the house belonged to Joe Biden.
Dave Musgrove is a Democratic voter and blogger in Des Moines, Iowa. After meeting every major Democratic candidate in the past year, Dave pledged to caucus for Joe Biden this cycle, and volunteered as a Biden precinct captain. Dave's own political blog, iPol, can be found at ipol-2008.blogspot.com.