Joe Biden is nearing the halfway point of an eight-day tour through rural Iowa aimed at helping him regain the momentum he’s lost there, on a bus emblazoned with an old-school Bidenism: “No Malarkey.”
The term recalls the time the former vice president told Republican rival Paul Ryan in a 2012 debate that he was espousing “a bunch of malarkey.” It’s one of Biden’s favorite phrases, one his campaign hopes will play into voters’ perception of Biden as authentic and honest – drawing contrasts with Trump, but also with his Democratic rivals, whose plans on issues like health care and college tuition Biden has criticized as unaffordable and politically impractical.
The bus tour already provided a viral moment, when – as his wife, Jill Biden, gestured widely with her hands as she spoke to a crowd in Council Bluffs on Saturday – Biden leaned in and lightly bit her index finger.
But the real aim of the 18-county swing is to expose Biden to parts of the state he hasn’t visited yet, and to quiet chatter that he has kept a slower campaign schedule in the state than most of his top-tier rivals.
“I don’t think he’s been here enough, spent a lot of time here. That’s what it usually takes for most Iowans. They feel like they’ve got to see the people several times before they make up their mind. There’s going to be a lot of changes between now and February,” said Brad Knott, an undecided Democratic voter from Des Moines who caught Biden in Carroll over the weekend.
“He needs to get out,” Knott said. “He needs to be in Iowa, here in the small towns – visit them and hear from them – and he’s doing that now.”
Biden’s Iowa road trip comes as his campaign faces the reality that he could lose Iowa – and possibly finish as low as fourth place.
The most recent Iowa polls have found South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg in the lead there, followed by the three-person grouping of Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The stagnant polling in the first state to vote in the nominating process comes despite Biden’s consistent lead in national Democratic polls – fueled largely by his strong support among African American voters, who his campaign expects to provide a boost later in the calendar as the Democratic race shifts in late February to South Carolina and then to a swath of large and Southern states on Super Tuesday in early March.
Biden told reporters Sunday at a coffeehouse in Carroll that he was “here to translate the polls nationally.”
“Iowans make up their minds late and they change the front-runner – front-runner gets behind, front-runner comes back,” he said.
In Iowa, he said, he is “running to win. I’m not running to lose or come in third, or fourth or fifth, or anything like that.”
“We’re going the last two months now, getting down to the stretch, and time to – as they say in Iowa – time to peak is right about now. That’s why we’ve planned all along to spend after Thanksgiving a lot of time in Iowa,” Biden said.
Biden’s campaign is working hard to show momentum. On Monday, his campaign manager Greg Schultz said in an email to supporters that Biden has raised more in just October and November than he had in the third fundraising quarter, a period in which he hauled in $15.7 million – which was well shy of the $25 million that Sanders and Warren raised.
Biden’s campaign didn’t release how much cash the campaign has on hand, which would show how quickly he’s spending the money he is raising. He had $9.8 million at the end of the third quarter.
The former vice president is also making detours from his bus trip to bolster his fundraising – including a fundraiser in Chicago on Monday night, after which he’ll return to Iowa for an event Tuesday, then fly to New York for a Tuesday night fundraiser. Then he’ll head back to Iowa.
Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and his wife, Christie – two influential figures in the state who have endorsed the former vice president – accompanied Biden for most of his first three days in Iowa. Each event they attended followed a similar format: Christie Vilsack would introduce Biden, and Tom Vilsack would deliver the closing pitch.
The bus tour, Vilsack said in an interview, is “an opportunity to send a strong message about the importance of rural America, and I think it’s a message that Democrats in the past have sort ignored at their peril. The vice president’s making sure that mistake’s not going to happen again.”
Biden has not taken questions from the audience during the formal portions of his stops, but he did linger to snap selfies and chat with attendees on rope lines after his events.
“The single most important thing if you can do it, if you can, is to shake the hand of every single voter and look them in the eye and let them ask you questions. To me it’s the ultimate, it’s the ultimate way in which to connect with people,” Biden told reporters in Emmetsburg. “I know I got in trouble for using this phrase a long time ago but I’m a tactile politician. If i can shake hands with someone, see them, get a sense of what’s on their mind, it gives me a better sense of what’s bothering people, what their needs are.”
“I spend time with folks. I have trouble walking away from them. I just find it to be the most significant thing you can do,” he said. “This bus tour allows that that’s one of the things I like about it.”
Those individual connections helped some voters solidify their decisions to back Biden, they said in interviews – while others remained concerned about the former vice president’s age and his unwillingness to take town hall-style questions.
Ned and Jane Nettleton, retired teachers in Algona who caucused for Biden during his failed 2008 presidential run, are split this time.
Ned Nettleton said he’s still with Biden. “He’s a good man. He’s honest and sincere and he’s what the country needs to recover,” he said.
But Jane Nettleton had a specific concern about the former vice president: “His age.”
She said she likes Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota – but wants to see her in person. “I just think, you know, that we need someone a little younger and someone who appeals to younger people,” she said.
A couple in Storm Lake, Mike and Andrea Frantz, are also split.
Mike Frantz said he’s keeping his options open, but liked that Biden’s “tone was subdued, which was really, I think, smart for the audience he had here. Not the firebrand that you see from some others, but a real connecting tone.”
However, he said he was disappointed that Biden didn’t take questions from the audience. “That’s more common and appreciated,” he said.
Andrea Frantz, meanwhile, said she’s backing Buttigieg. “There’s something about the way that he speaks to everyone, the nature of his inclusive message,” she said. “I think he is incredibly brilliant. I think he has the energy and ability to relate to people to bring us back all together again.”
Becky Bryant, a retired teacher in Storm Lake, said she is touched by the way that Biden – who as a young man lost his wife and daughter to a car accident, and decades later saw his son die of brain cancer – connects with voters through grief.
“In the end, he said that you have to find something good that comes out of some horrendous disaster,” she said. “And I found that incredibly inspiring.”