The Message Joe Biden Didn’t Want to Hear

The former vice president wants working-class voters in his corner. In Iowa, they wanted someone else.

Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event in Burlington, Iowa.
Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event in Burlington, Iowa. (Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

BURLINGTON, Iowa—It was about to be a very confusing night in the world of American politics, but the 67 caucus-goers of Burlington Precinct 6 were calm and focused. The cafeteria at Grimes Elementary School smelled like lunch, which, according to a whiteboard at the front of the room, had been corn dogs, green beans, salad, and peaches. And the Iowans sitting shoulder to shoulder at tables for their preferred presidential candidate were busy finishing the final count of the evening. Pete Buttigieg’s and Andrew Yang’s tables were full, and 33 people crowded around Bernie Sanders’s.

Joe Biden’s table was empty.

“Biden wants to go back to the way it was before [Donald] Trump, but things weren’t working all that well then, either,” Lonnie Herbert, a 50-year-old forklift driver, told me when I asked why he and his neighbors hadn’t supported the former vice president. Sure, Sanders is a bit radical, he added, but America needs “a hard shift.”

I’d heard an almost identical message from the other Sanders supporters at this school in Burlington’s South Hill, a predominantly working-class part of town. And I’d heard similar criticism from Buttigieg fans, who’d argued that Biden is not the candidate to deliver the party unity they want. This sample size is small. But Biden’s campaign faced similar problems all across Iowa on Monday. Vote totals from the state’s 1,700 precincts, which have trickled in over the past three days, show him in fourth. Places just like this help illustrate why.

Iowa has more counties that flipped from Barack Obama to Trump in the 2016 election than any other state. In these counties are small cities like this one, where I’m from—hilly old towns dotting the Mississippi River that were once booming manufacturing hubs, union strongholds, and, for the most part, faithfully Democratic. The economies of these river cities in the state’s southeast have been slowly contracting for the past few decades. Younger residents tend to move to large metro areas for work, and many of the people who are left are older, whiter, and disaffected because of low incomes and limited opportunities, as Dave Swenson, an economics professor at Iowa State University, told me.

The Iowans I spoke with at caucus sites here in Burlington are people whom the former vice president has claimed he can win over. His message to working-class voters—and Trump supporters—has been one of warmth and solidarity, emphasizing his own middle-class upbringing in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and promising that he will not leave them behind in his quest to set the country back on the right track. “We don’t deserve a president who goes out of his way to make life in America harder, crueler, pettier,” Biden told a crowd in his hometown last fall. “[Trump] said he’s working for the Forgotten American. Well, he forgot about the Forgotten American.”

The senator from Vermont, in his campaign, has made a much different case to the same voters: Sanders is hoping to capture their frustration and anger, and channel it into revolutionary political change. “He’s the man with the plan!” said Darran Reverend, a 56-year-old union carpenter, who told me that he supports Sanders because of the senator’s push for Medicare for All. “He could’ve beat [Trump] in 2016 if they would’ve elected him.” (Reverend wasn’t able to caucus in the previous cycle, because of a felony conviction. In Iowa, ex-felons can’t vote in elections unless they apply directly to the governor to restore their rights, as Reverend did.)

People are “so tired of the way things are,” said Sara Mason, a 51-year-old full-time caretaker for her mother. Sanders is very far left, she added, but instead of scaring off voters in the general election, a Sanders nomination and his ambitious progressive proposals “might work the other way and get people fired up more.”

And although Buttigieg, with his Harvard education and his fancy fundraisers, may not appear to be the type of candidate who would attract a lot of blue-collar voters, the Iowans I spoke with seemed to see the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, as a fresh version of Biden. “He’s young and moderate,” said Lois Blythe, a Burlington librarian wearing a PETE button. “I think he can bring people together.” Blythe’s husband, Ike, seated next to her, told me that in November he’ll support “anybody that can beat that guy that’s in there now.” And his money, right now, is on (former) Mayor Pete.

Biden’s success was stymied by Sanders and Buttigieg across Iowa. As MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki has pointed out, Biden captured just one of Iowa’s 31 Obama-Trump counties. At Grimes Elementary, Sanders, Yang, and Buttigieg were the only candidates who had enough support to win a delegate to the county convention. At a small satellite caucus I’d visited earlier in the day in Keokuk, about 40 miles downriver from Burlington, Sanders and Buttigieg had both received enough support to be viable candidates; Biden had not. Statewide, Buttigieg and Sanders are effectively tied for first in the state delegate count; Senator Elizabeth Warren is in third place, with Biden trailing behind. This dismal showing for Biden suggests that his electability argument is much weaker than he—and many other Democrats—had hoped.

Neither Buttigieg nor Sanders, despite their numbers in Iowa, is a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination. Biden holds a lead among black Americans—a group with whom Buttigieg in particular has struggled. The former vice president is double-digits ahead of Sanders and Buttigieg in South Carolina, according to his FiveThirtyEight polling average, and in Nevada, Biden and Sanders are leading the field, with Buttigieg more than 25 points behind.

But for the candidate whose entire campaign pitch has been his ability to win by appealing to a wide range of voters, the results from Iowa come as an especially significant blow. Even the voters at this working-class precinct just blocks from the Mississippi, the voters Biden considers his people, were rooting for somebody else.