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Joe Biden, Gary Hart and the perils of being atop the polls

September 7 at 2:01 PM

On Tuesday, several officials in former vice president Joe Biden’s campaign held a background call for reporters about their upcoming plans. One reporter asked whether they considered the Iowa caucuses a must-win event.

“I think we’ll win,” one of the advisers said. “Do I think it’s a must-win? No.”

The answer set off a flurry of comments on Twitter. Was a campaign that has talked as much as Biden’s has about its candidate’s standing in the polls and electability against President Trump suddenly trying to lower expectations? Was a campaign that has insisted Biden is soundly and durably positioned in the race, that he is anything but the vulnerable front-runner often portrayed in the press, now backing off from making Iowa a clear test of strength for his rivals?

Such are the perils of being at the top of the polls five months before the first votes of 2020 are cast. What the Biden adviser — the ground rules for the conference call specified that no one could be identified by name — said was in many ways obvious. Yet, for Biden, there may be no good reason to start down the road of declaring states dispensable. If Iowa is not a must-win, what about New Hampshire? Or South Carolina?

No one knows what fate awaits Biden. There are three models from past Democratic nomination contests: winning Iowa and New Hampshire, losing both states and winning just one of the two. All hold lessons for the former vice president and the others in the race.

Since 1972, when Iowa’s early caucuses first became a testing ground for candidates, only two Democratic nominees have lost both those caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

The first time it happened was in 1972. Sen. Edmund Muskie (Maine), the acknowledged Democratic front-runner, finished ahead of all other candidates in Iowa and won the New Hampshire primary but in unconvincing fashion. Insurgent George S. McGovern ended up as the nominee on his way to losing in a landslide to President Richard M. Nixon.

The next time it happened was 20 years later. In that 1992 race, Iowa didn’t count for anything. Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) was running for president, and other candidates conceded the state to him. That made New Hampshire the first big test.

In the run-up to the primary, Bill Clinton, who had become an early favorite, was being battered over questions about how he had avoided being drafted during Vietnam, as well as by allegations of marital infidelity. His poll numbers had melted down and he faced being knocked out of the race.

Scrambling in the final 10 days of the contest, Clinton finished second in New Hampshire to former senator Paul Tsongas (Mass.), declared himself the “Comeback Kid” and, despite qualms among some party leaders, went on to win the nomination and the presidency.

Not counting campaigns involving presidents running for reelection, three Democrats won both Iowa and New Hampshire on their way to the nomination: Jimmy Carter in 1976 (although he was actually second to “uncommitted”); Al Gore in 2000; and John F. Kerry (Mass.) in 2004. Gore and Kerry cruised after winning early. That’s the model Biden would prefer to emulate.

Four Democrats lost one of the first two states and still prevailed: Walter F. Mondale in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988, Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. What’s significant about these split decisions in the first two contests is that they generally foreshadowed a long and often bitter battle for the nomination.

Mondale was the heavy favorite for the 1984 nomination. Like Biden, he was four years out of the vice presidency. Also like Biden, his campaign was built on a strong résumé, endorsements and long-standing ties to major party constituencies and party leaders. He was the embodiment of the Democratic establishment, and it nearly cost him the nomination.

In Iowa, Mondale blew away the field, winning nearly half the vote and dispatching John Glenn, who was considered his more serious rival. His campaign expected to follow with a second victory in New Hampshire, only to be caught by surprise by a surging Gary Hart, a U.S. senator from Colorado. Mondale did not clinch the nomination until the last major round of primaries. Like McGovern, he lost the general election in a landslide.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton was the favored front-runner, but she lost in Iowa to Obama, finishing a disappointing third. Polls showed Obama heading to another victory in New Hampshire a week later. As he coasted, Clinton slogged, never quitting over the final hours. Her victory set the two off on a marathon contest for the nomination that was not settled until just before the primaries ended.

For Clinton, history repeated in 2016, only in reverse. Once again the front-runner, she nearly lost Iowa to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and in New Hampshire eight days later was trounced by Sanders, whose neighborly Vermont connections and support among independent voters carried him to victory.

Clinton recouped in South Carolina on the strength of the black vote but could never quite shake Sanders. Their battle went all the way to the convention in Philadelphia. The bitterness among Sanders’s supporters persisted throughout the general election and lingers to this day.

So are Iowa and New Hampshire must-wins for Biden, who claims front-runner status in the Democratic race? History certainly shows it’s possible for a front-runner to lose one of them and still win the nomination. But even though this is Biden’s third campaign for the White House, his personal history offers few clues.

He didn’t make it to the Iowa caucuses in his 1988 run, as he dropped out in 1987 amid charges of plagiarism. He made it to Iowa in 2008, and his team believed things were moving sufficiently in his direction in the days before the caucuses that he would come out of the state prepared to compete for the nomination. Instead, he finished with just 1 percent of the vote and not a single delegate. He dropped out after that loss but said, “I ain’t going away.”

There are obvious, if imperfect, parallels between Biden’s campaign and Mondale’s. As it happened, shortly before Biden was to speak to the New Hampshire Democratic Party convention Saturday morning, Gary Hart was in the bowels of the arena where party activists were gathering for a day of speeches from the candidates.

Hart is still a recognized figure in the state — he drew some cheers Friday night in a local restaurant — and he had come to New Hampshire to endorse a fellow Colorado Democrat, Sen. Michael F. Bennet, whose presidential campaign is drawing about the same small share of the vote as Hart’s was at this point 36 years ago.

Beyond that endorsement, Hart also provided some perspective on how events could play out in the coming months. “Iowa and New Hampshire, maybe one or two other states now, will decide who the serious candidates are,” he told reporters. “I would encourage all of you not to pay too much attention to polls now.”

Hart served with Biden in the Senate and said his endorsement of Bennet was not a knock on the former vice president. Asked what advice he would give to a front-running candidate, he smiled.

“Don’t take anything for granted, and don’t believe your own polls,” he said.

The Biden team has said it expects the nomination race to last many months after Iowa and New Hampshire. Perhaps that is lowering expectations or merely being ready for a long battle. Hart serves as a reminder of what happens when a front-runner buys too much into polls and forgets how quickly conventional wisdom can look foolish. For those atop the polls, running everywhere as if behind is always the smarter course.

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