CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — When he first launched his presidential bid in April, Joe Biden promised he’d visit Iowa so often the state would be sick of him.
They’re still waiting.
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After making just four appearances during a two-day swing here in late April, Biden has been AWOL from a key early state that’s accustomed to seeing presidential candidates in the flesh.
He’ll be returning to Iowa Tuesday and Wednesday — and recently announced plans to add 50 paid staffers in the state by the end of the month — but Democratic officials say Biden has already fallen behind in organizing and needs to accelerate his efforts.
Just in the six weeks since he was last here, his leading 2020 rivals — including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg — have held close to a dozen events or more each. Even Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who launched his campaign three weeks after Biden, has already held a dozen Iowa events.
“He needs to come out and do some retail politics with us. He comes here with higher name ID but that isn’t going to totally carry the day. I don’t think he can take anything for granted,” said former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge. “I don’t think Bernie Sanders can take anything for granted either … We have some people who are working really hard here.”
Biden’s light campaign schedule in general has come under scrutiny. At the moment, he remains the front-runner in Iowa, just as in national polls, but there are warning signs: a Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom survey of likely Iowa caucusgoers released Saturday shows that although Biden leads the sprawling field with 24 percent, the former vice president is down 3 percentage points since the last poll in March.
At the state party’s first major event Sunday — a Hall of Fame dinner attended by 19 candidates — Biden was a no-show. Even so, many here were surprised that his campaign lacked any presence whatsoever at the festivities surrounding the dinner, where party enthusiasm ran high and each campaign competed to show how many supporters they could turn out.
Biden’s campaign said he had a family commitment that day, and state party chair Troy Price said the former vice president called him personally to express his regrets. But party officials say Biden also has yet to commit to two other traditional events important to the party here: the Polk County Steak Fry and the annual Iowa Democratic Wing Ding dinner, a fundraiser that benefits county parties.
“He’s got some catching up to do,” said Randy Black, who chairs the Wing Ding and serves as Cerro Gordo County vice chair. “If Joe Biden wants to remain 12 points or 15 points ahead then he’s got to start to pull out the stops, and start meeting and greeting and saying hello. I think it’s what happened to Hillary Clinton. She took crucial states for granted and it hurt her.”
But Biden’s arrival Tuesday — when he begins a two-day tour that will take him from Ottumwa to the far eastern edge of the state — could end up working to his advantage. Instead of competing with 19 others at a crowded and chaotic party event Sunday, he will land in Iowa on the same day as Donald Trump, who will be delivering remarks in Council Bluffs before speaking at an Iowa Republican Party dinner in West Des Moines.
That split screen will underscore Biden’s messaging as the front-runner against Trump, reasserting his notion that it is the president with whom Biden is competing.
“I believe this summer you will see more of him. He is going to be here more through the summer,” said Betty Brim-Hunter who served as political director to Iowa’s AFL-CIO for more than a decade. “They’re hiring. They’re starting to gear up. They’re looking at several locations for campaign offices. I’m not really concerned. I think there’s plenty of time to ramp up.”
The Biden campaign is acting that way. A senior Biden aide handling his Iowa operation said the strategy will be modeled largely after the ones employed by John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008, including recruiting precinct captains in each of the state’s 1,767 precincts.
“We absolutely plan to have a Biden volunteer in every precinct in the state before the caucus,” the aide said Monday.
Biden plans to step up his travel in the state, as well as bulk up his Iowa staffing as the caucus date nears.
“That’s just the first wave,” the aide said of the 50 staffers that will be in Iowa for Biden by the end of the month. “We will have waves coming regularly until the end.”
Those staffers can’t come soon enough though. While Biden continues to hang onto his lead, both Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg are surging in the state, according to the latest Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll.
Biden’s numbers, meanwhile, have dropped eight percentage points since December, though the poll has cautioned against side-by-side comparisons with its prior versions because of methodological changes accounting for new, online virtual caucus technology in the Feb. 3, 2020 caucus.
Warren’s rise has been steady, and it comes after her heavy early investment in organizing the state. Warren — who had a muscular presence at the Hall of Fame dinner — toured an ethanol plant with Judge on Monday.
“Warren is building,” said Judge, who added that the Massachusetts senator’s Hall of Fame remarks were well received. Judge has not endorsed in the primary contest but has met with various 2020 candidates to discuss rural issues. “She did herself a favor by doing that speech … she was full of enthusiasm; just a good hit.”