It’s been a big weekend in Iowa, where 22 Democratic candidates assembled at the “Wing Ding” dinner in Clear Lake to demand bipartisan gun control before driving down to the Iowa State Fair for retail politics and the eating of stick food. For the front-runner, the four-day swing through the first state to vote also represented a major uptick in the intensity of his ground campaign: In the next month, Joe Biden will boost his travel schedule considerably, visiting the three other early-voting states before the next debate.
Despite his strong polling lead in Iowa and on the national level, some local party figures expressed concern this weekend about Biden’s onstage performance and the notion of his electability. (As the candidate characterized himself in December: “I am a gaffe machine.”) “He isn’t as compelling verbally,” the Madison County party chairman told the Washington Post. “There is starting to be a real fear that he cannot hold his own in the debate against Donald Trump.” The party chair from Grundy County wished “he’d get his mojo back,” and reminisced over the Biden of 2012, when he debated vice-presidential hopeful Paul Ryan.
The former veep didn’t exactly quell those fears in his trip through Iowa. It began with a remark at a town hall hosted by the Asian & Latino Coalition in Des Moines, where Biden wanted to dispel the “notion that somehow if you’re poor, you cannot do it. Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.” He corrected himself immediately, but the gaffe was out. Thursday wasn’t over: On a soapbox at the state fair, he issued the accidentally Orwellian line: “We choose truth over facts.” And for the second time this summer, he caught himself as he referred to former prime minister Theresa May as Margaret Thatcher, who passed six years ago.
On Saturday, Biden insinuated that he was vice-president last year, when he told reporters that the victims of the 2018 Parkland shooting “came up to see me when I was vice-president” and that lawmakers were “basically cowering, not wanting to see them.” The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg claimed that it was a comment he repeated twice yesterday.
For Democrats concerned with Biden’s propensity to flub on camera, the next few months will be a testing ground to see if he can manage not to undermine himself on a smaller debate stage in September and in speeches around the country. “Everybody else is out there doing a heavy schedule and he’s not,” Adam Jentleson, a former staffer for Harry Reid, told Politico, criticizing Biden’s light schedule up to this point. “If we’re talking about, all told, a year-and-a-half here, that’s the real distance that people have to go, so part of a primary is vetting candidates and seeing if they have what it takes to go the distance.” For Democrats unconcerned by his gaffes — or progressive Dems critical of his record — his consistent polling numbers should provide either hope or frustration. Though a recent Economist-YouGov poll shows Biden just six points ahead of the closest candidate, Elizabeth Warren, the most recent poll average shows him ahead by 12 points, a lead he’s held comfortably through the summer.