DUBUQUE, Iowa — Sliding steadily in the polls and battling a narrative that he couldn't endure the kind of rigorous campaign schedule Iowans demand, Joe Biden's Iowa prospects were just about written off earlier this fall. Even his own campaign began to downplay expectations.
But with 31 days left before the Feb. 3 caucuses, Biden has managed to turn his fortunes around.
He launched a successful, eight-day bus tour through rural Iowa last month that sparked an uptick in volunteers, precinct captain requests and caucus commitments. He increased his fundraising sharply in the last quarter, allowing him to flood the state's airwaves with ads.
This week, Biden's Iowa fortunes picked up again when he landed perhaps the most influential Iowa endorsement to date — Rep. Abby Finkenauer, the second youngest woman ever elected to Congress. That followed on the heels of endorsement from two other influential state Democrats — Tom Vilsack, a former governor and U.S. secretary of Agriculture, and his wife, Christie — and a well-timed cash infusion in TV ads from a pro-Biden superPAC.
Biden's rebound comes amid a concentrated effort here. From Nov. 30 through this weekend, Biden will have spent 16 days in Iowa. By caucus day, he will have spent $4 million in integrated paid media, including broadcast TV, cable, Hulu, and social media.
The former vice president is on a second extended bus tour now — and the campaign just announced a separate surrogate bus tour next week with former Secretary of State John Kerry, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and various federal and state lawmakers from across the country.
"The feeling post-bus tour here is different, I think even outside the campaign," said Biden's deputy campaign manager for states, Pete Kavanaugh, referring to the "No Malarkey" bus tour last month.
Kavanaugh added that the former vice president had been working against what they called a false storyline that Biden wasn't taking Iowa seriously and didn't plan to take part in the time-consuming, retail campaigning needed to succeed in a state where caucus-goers demand one-on-one contact.
"We've been fighting the narrative since the late summer.The reality is he's been spending a lot of time here. I think what the 8-day tour was — it just crystallized for folks how seriously he's taking the state."
Vilsack pointed to the endorsement from the 31-year-old Finkenauer as the most significant yet in Iowa for Biden.
"That's a big deal because she's obviously young, she's an up-and-comer, people in Northeast Iowa know and love her. She has good connection to labor so it sends a strong message to labor," he said. "He's picking up momentum at just the right time."
That momentum shift is the strongest sign yet that the 77-year-old has overcome a battery of questions about the durability of his candidacy, including whether his age, his son's ties to foreign businesses, and lengthy Senate record would block his path to the nomination.
And the central argument for Biden's candidacy — that Biden is the best bet to beat Donald Trump — remains intact, according to national and early state polling.
Biden's campaign advisers — and the candidate himself — have argued that a victory in the first caucus state could make him almost unstoppable, since it would likely seal his already dominant hold on the critical African American electorate that will prove vital in South Carolina and Super Tuesday states.
"I think our theory of the case in Iowa remains viable," Kavanaugh said. "At the end of the day, caucus-goers in Iowa, far more than any concern or issue want to beat Donald Trump. And every data point that we've seen privately and publicly still indicates they think the vice president is in the best position to do that."
Biden's chief pollster, John Anzalone, said the electability argument is a potent one because it means there's plenty of room for growth in Biden's coalition as undecided voters break in the final weeks and days before the caucuses.
"Biden has always had a universe of voters no one else has for expansion," said Anzalone. "And that expansion universe is not just Iowa. It applies to all early states paying attention."
Biden, who began 2019 with a double-digit lead in Iowa, saw that lead slide month after month before he was overtaken by Elizabeth Warren, then Pete Buttigieg. The latest Iowa Poll had Biden essentially tied for second with Bernie Sanders and Warren, with Buttigieg in the lead.
The talk from within Biden's campaign is far more optimistic than earlier this summer, when the campaign held a conference call with reporters to manage expectations in the key early state. Today, the campaign bristles at the notion that it ever intimated Biden wouldn't perform well in Iowa. Rather, advisers argue that they were merely conveying that Biden's expected strength in Nevada and South Carolina meant that, unlike other candidates, he didn't have to win Iowa to remain viable.
"Do I think that we can feel the shift in momentum and energy like I think others around us have? Yeah, sure," said Jesse Harris, a senior adviser on Biden's campaign. "But I wouldn't say we were pessimistic in August."
What's also benefited Biden here is the culling of the unwieldy candidate field. Iowa Democratic leaders say drop outs by other candidates, like Kamala Harris and Steve Bullock, have underscored Biden's resiliency and ability to withstand attacks from Trump or his own Democratic rivals.
"Now that the field has narrowed down and people are making up their minds, they're turning to the vice president," said Frantz Whitfield, a Waterloo-based pastor and African American leader who has endorsed Biden. "People that I talk to on a constant basis from all different backgrounds say they feel the vice president has the best chance of defeating Donald Trump."
Polk County Chair Sean Bagniewski said he's seeing some evidence of moderates breaking for Biden late in the game.
"It seems like a lot of caucus-goers are giving Biden a second look in Iowa," Bagniewski said. "Many Democrats see him as a reliable leader with wide popularity. Democrats desperately want to beat Trump and even some of Biden's doubters admit that he'd have one of the best chances to do it."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mischaracterized Biden's fourth-quarter fundraising. He raised $22.7 million, up from less than $16 million in the third quarter.
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