Dec 9, 2019

How rural Iowa defines electability

Photo: "Axios on HBO"

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The Iowans Joe Biden met on an eight-day, 18-county "No Malarkey" bus tour told me they want a nominee who works with Republicans — and they aren't fixated on impeachment or liberal proposals like the Green New Deal.

Why it matters: Their views validate Biden's argument that Democrats nationally aren't as liberal as on Twitter or as AOC — but also foreshadow liabilities for Biden versus others in the moderate lane.

  • Many potential Biden backers also spoke positively about Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar.

The Democrats' nominee should be someone who can "win over white working-class people who think that they were left behind, and they think that Donald Trump is doing it for them," said one voter, Janet Abbas.

  • Trump is "not doing it for those people, but they’re still backing him, like, 100%," she said. "I just don’t get it."
  • Karen and Bernard Pratte told Axios that in order to beat Trump and puncture his support with GOP voters, a Democrat should tout their "ability to work with Republicans to get things done."

There’s a danger in reading too much into any candidate's bus tour, because the people who show up are usually supportive of the candidate even if they're not yet committed.

  • Plenty of Iowans do want more liberal proposals. Polls of likely caucus-goers indicate Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are slightly ahead of Biden while Buttigieg leads.
  • But in conversations with roughly two dozen people at Biden's various town halls and events, voters validated his approach that Democrats don’t need to reinvent the wheel — they just need to get the country back to normal.
  • Axios joined for the last leg of the trip, which took us to Cedar Rapids, Decorah, Elkader, and Oelwein.

With those practical-minded voters, Biden's challenge is in convincing them he is better poised than Buttigieg to beat Trump — and to govern.

  • They called Buttigieg "down-to-earth" and were quick to bring up that he, too, is a Midwesterner.
  • To an extent, Biden is also competing with Klobuchar here. They describe her as middle-of-the-road, not someone chasing "pie-in-the-sky ideas." She hasn't taken off nationally in the way that Buttigieg has.
  • They love Biden's experience, that he's "calm," and that he "thinks before he speaks," as one Oelwein man put it.

The one time DC's main event and rural Iowa's concerns overlapped during this bus tour was when a man made unsubstantiated allegations that Biden “sent” his son Hunter to work in Ukraine in order to sell access to President Obama.

  • Biden got visibly angry, calling the man a "damn liar," and it came up often from voters at his events the next day — but most didn't take issue with Biden's response.

The big picture: You can’t talk about the election with Democrats without hearing that their top priority is defeating Trump. Polls consistently show that's a priority that outranks candidates' ideology.

After his last event on Friday — where he ended by passing out pizza to some of his local volunteers and staff in Decorah — Biden talked with a small group of reporters on his bus and touched on compromise and the notion of returning to "normal."

  • "If I win, and Lindsey [Graham] is still there, I promise you we'll be able to work things out," Biden said.
  • When Axios asked whether he thinks the Republican Party will revert to what he knew it to be pre-Trump whenever a new president is elected, Biden said: "Nothing's going to snap back" because "we're in a totally different world."

Instead, he advocated for a more robust and traditional Republican Party:

"The thing I worry about — it's a distant worry but it's a worry — what happens if we win big and the Republicans get clobbered? I'm really worried that no party should have too much power. You need a countervailing force."
— Biden during his "No Malarkey" bus tour

Biden made his electability pitch in winding stump speeches that focused heavily on foreign policy and the argument that Trump is damaging the country's global respect.

  • He argues he won’t be an international embarrassment, could hit the ground running and would restore sanity and decency to the White House.

"I hope you’ll give me a shot," he told voters at an evening event Friday — his biggest of the day — in Decorah. "And if you do, I promise you I’ll never be in a position where you’ll be embarrassed by anything ethically that ever happens."

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