Joe Biden's Iowa Strategy

On a wall in Sen. Joe Biden’s headquarters, a map of Iowa is obscured by dozens of small blue and red dots. Each dot represents a personal visit by Biden’s chief surrogate, sister Valerie Biden Owens, to a top-tier Iowa locale. Caucus math the way it is, smaller Democratic towns often get the most attention.

To win in Iowa, Biden will throw everything into it. His campaign advisers insist that they planned this approach all along. Iowa is, they say, the perfect state for him: the caucus goers are older, they’re receptive to a sophisticated message about the Iraq war, and they reward personal contact.

Biden polls at around five percent right now. But political prognosticators and many Iowa Democrats are buzzing about a coming Biden surge. They believe he is working his way to a stronger finish in Iowa than many of his rivals anticipate. He has nine legislative endorsements, an impressive feat for a field that includes two superstars (Clinton and Obama) and one adopted son (John Edwards). Two of them are very good gets: Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Speaker Pro Tempore Polly Butka.

“We’re setting the sail now and we expect the wind to start hitting in November and December,” says Danny O’Brien, Biden’s political director and new Iowa state director.

Trace Biden’s devotion to Iowa to March of 2006, when Iowa state representatives brief him on their plan to retake the state house in November’s election. That August, Biden spent 14 days in the state, attending more than 40 campaign events for legislatures. Not only would Biden help them raise money, he’d also give them advice – message advice – how to talk about the Iraq war and the Bush administration.

After he announced his presidential bid, Biden’s team drew up a five-point plan to win legislative endorsements. First, Biden would ask state legislators to let him host an event. No endorsement needed, just an event. Then he’d ask the legislators to judge for themselves how their constituents responded to Biden. Third, he’s stress his Iraq message – “a broader policy offering than they normally expected,” O’Brien says. Fourth, he’d stress electability, drawing an implicit contrast with other Democrats in the race. Iowa Democrats, Biden and his aides believes, are hair-trigger-sensitive to electability arguments. And fifth, he’d work as many rooms as he could, focusing on delegate-rich areas and exploiting resevoirs of support that exist from 1988 last sojourn as a presidential candidate.

These include blue collar cities like Davenport and Dubuque and a wide strip of towns along the Mississippi river.

Biden deliberately chooses not to pander to the party’s liberal base, which his staff believes is a lot smaller than their loud voices would indicate.

The operation is pretty lean; there’s very little excess fat. But Biden will have manage to visit all 99 counties by early November. He has nine field offices and 23 full-time staffers – more than some Democrats (and Rudy Giuliani) but fewer, by orders of magnitude, than Barack Obama, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton.

The final arrow in Biden’s quiver may be his persuasive ability. From the start, his campaign has targeted high-profile newspaper endorsements. Biden first met with editors at the Des Moines Register, the Quad Cities Times, the Dubuque Telegraph Herald and the Cedar Rapids Gazette early in 2006.

So far, Biden has run only one television ad in the state and is saving money to target key markets in December and early January. A figure of some celebrity, he will rely on his public image to keep him on television until then.