S1: Everyone, just a heads up here for this show, we went out into the real world with four quarters and in the real world, people swear. So you’ve been warned. If I close my eyes and tried to imagine the energy of the Democratic presidential primary right now, I might think about Elizabeth Warren’s epic selfie lines or a House party filled with Bernie Sanders supporters. I’d think about that silly dance all the booty judge people do to his campaign theme song. But you know, who would have a tougher time picturing the guy who for the last year has been the Democratic frontrunner? Joe Biden. I’m not saying the energy isn’t there.
S2: I just wanted someone to go out and find a job. So earlier this week, one of our producers, Mary Wilson, she flew out to Iowa on a mission, tracked down the Biden mojo. The first event I went to, the first people I talked to were just totally enamored with Joe. What did that look like? Was it like I ever wanted a picture with him? Was it? There’d be these crushes of people who, after Biden was done speaking, they would surround him after a speech and want to get a picture with him. And it wasn’t very I mean, they tried to make it orderly.
S3: But it really wasn’t orderly. It wasn’t like he was in one spot up against a backdrop and people were queuing up to talk to him. He was surrounded by people. You know, people would just surround him and they would hug him and he would hold their face in his hands. What’s your name?
S4: ELEANOR. I’m.
S3: He knew exactly when to say, I’ve been waiting all night for you where you been because some of these people had met him before.
S5: Some of these people had seen him on the trail years ago.
S2: I know that I remember me when I got here. And when Mary talked to some of these folks, their support felt really personal, like this one woman, Nelda Williams.
S6: I watched her during the Biden speech and she was on this set of stairs that looked over the microphone where Biden was speaking. Just like was looking at him adoringly with a smile and everyone’s smile, she would nod.
S7: So I go over and I plop down and sit next to her on the steps. She’s with her friend Cindy and her husband, Dan, sorry, Sayo and Milda. Well, he is. As it turns out, it’s kind of a riot. And I joked that she’s like Joe Biden’s long lost daughter.
S8: Oh, my gosh. It’s amazing how much like Joe Biden you are like, I have to put your arms around me. You just kiss me on my forehead. You’re like you.
S7: And I say, why are you here? Why do you like Biden? She goes, Well, my family’s always liked Biden. I met Biden years ago.
S9: He just was empathetic. It was so awesome. She’s meeting Joe and she says, hey, Joe says, you know who I really wish were here is my dad. He would love to talk to you. And Biden says, what’s his cell phone number?
S10: You gave him his number thinking nothing. What did you think? Nothing would happen. And he called my dad the next morning and Bob answered the phone. My dad, Bob.
S11: And Joe said, hello, Bob, this is Joe Biden and he said, you won’t hear shit, mate. Come on.
S12: And then she’s like, I just love him. He’s. I just I love that man.
S13: Love is a strong word. It sounds really emotional. It is. It is emotional. It is about love and empathy. He’s saying, you know me, you’ve been getting warm fuzzies looking at me for years.
S9: I’ve been in the public eye.
S12: But there’s also this other argument he’s making when the music stops and Biden himself takes the stage, Mary says he brings up something else. You know what I’m talking about? Electability.
S9: It’s not just about love.
S14: He’s telling voters, you might love me, but don’t vote for me out of love. Vote for me because I’m the one who can win in a general election matchup against Trump.
S15: Do you think you’ve any time when a sitting president has spent over 12, $14 million so far and risked being impeached by getting a foreign leader to try to say something he wouldn’t say about me before, even though he’s telling voters, you might feel this with your heart, vote with your head.
S7: I wonder why he’s afraid of.
S16: I’m going to beat the boy like a drum for folks. Keep your eyes on the prize. Yeah.
S17: So this argument that he’s the cold, calculating he can win, do you end up thinking that was a good argument by the time you left Iowa? I mean, it sounds really good. Theoretically. But every time I pushed on it when I was there, every time I kind of interrogated it with someone. It’s just wrinkled up a little bit.
S18: On today’s show, our producer followed Joe Biden around Iowa, and along the way she started asking herself this question for Democrats just how safe of a bet is this guy? I’m Mary Harris. This is what next. Stick with us.
S19: So, Mary Wilson, you just got back from this weekend toward a force in Iowa. Yeah, but you weren’t alone.
S20: No, I was with Jim Newell, senior politics reporter for Slate. Can you describe like what we’re driving through?
S21: Yes, we’re driving on one of Iowa’s many straight roads surrounded by nothing.
S14: Hey, Jim, did I annoy you when I was tagging along on this trip?
S22: No, you didn’t annoy me. I felt like you were very worried at all times that you were annoying me, but you weren’t annoying me at all.
S7: Eventually, that doesn’t seem like my brand.
S21: This is what we do. Everywhere you go, you have to go in our two of nothing.
S20: Oh, I just missed my exit because I was talking to you. I’m sorry.
S23: Oh, I just didn’t understand.
S24: Mary and Jim, they were traveling around Iowa at this crucial time. The Des Moines Register had just endorsed Elizabeth Warren. Some polls had Bernie Sanders surging. So for Biden, he needed to be locking this caucus down every few hours. He was having another event at a community center with Ed wcp in a fancy suburb at a union hall.
S25: The Biden campaign rallies looks a lot like I would expect them to look. They were. Does that mean. Well, I was with. I was following the Sanders campaign around earlier and he had big crowds. He did three of his events at college campuses.
S22: There’s a lot of energy, a lot of it sort of mirrors some some protests that I’ve been to. And, you know, I don’t see any demeaning way is just the way it is. Like, you know, there’s a white guy giving a performance of Bob Marley’s redemption song. So there was a hand-holding exercise theorists call and response.
S26: Not repeat after me. Power transformation.
S22: It sounds pretty earnest. It was very earnest and very idealistic and very hopeful. You know, trying to think about imagining a better world right now. Right now.
S27: Right now. So you name it. Thank you.
S25: And then the next day you go to Biden and it’s you know, the crowds are a little bit smaller. They’re often a little bit older. I think there are more traditional Democrats there who are just looking for a decent person who they know and trust, you know, not someone who’s going to try to tear down the system and start everything over again. That said, there does seem to be a an energy difference between the two candidates. And in a caucus state where grassroots organizing is so important. I mean, that could be a situation where Bernie outperforms his polls by a couple of points.
S24: All that, Bernie, energy sets a high bar. But in this final week before caucus, Biden’s team has had a little bit of an advantage. Both Bernie and Elizabeth Warren have been booted off the campaign trail, forced to serve as jurors during the impeachment trial six days a week.
S28: That means more time for Biden and his events. They’re smaller than Bernie’s, but plenty of people are thrilled to see this guy.
S29: Why do I? Cause he’s really good with people like it is. It’s undeniable. If you guys followed him like heavy it. OK. You have.
S30: So you’ve seen Joe is more from the heart. And I think that’s what really impresses me. He knows what he’s talking about. A very down there. He also speaks from the heart. I think he’s a good man. I think it’s just a great guy. Is a.
S28: He cares about his country. The first folks in front of a crowd like this are campaign surrogates, politicians and community members who were there to vouch for the candidate. And as Mary and Jim, listen to these people talk. They were struck by how practical their argument was. They’re telling these voters electing Joe Biden is going to make our jobs easier.
S14: One of the most frequent people warming up crowds for Biden was a member of Congress named Abby Fink an hour from like a district in northern northeastern Iowa. This huge sprawling district and Abby think an hour would hit notes like if you like having a house that’s run by Democrats. You should vote for Biden.
S31: We need him at the top of ticket because there is so much on the line. It is about character. It’s about values, about who we are. It’s also about keeping the House, taking the Senate and making another very effective warm up act.
S9: Was Colin All Read, who is from Dallas, Texas, and flipped his seat from red to blue member of Congress. And he was saying similar things. He was like, you know, these down ballot effects are real and Biden is who we want at the top of the ticket.
S32: I mean, Colin all read the way he put it was Iowa. We need you to give Texas Joe Biden, because Joe Biden can win Texas and he’s the only one who can do it.
S33: I need you to give Austin, Texas, Joe Biden. What do I mean by that? Joe Biden puts Texas in play. He absolutely puts Texas in play. I’m not kidding you.
S19: I don’t know these names. A lot of people might not know these names. I mean, like, if you were at the events with these surrogates, like they’re not people I know. So, like, are people excited to see them?
S9: It’s not it’s not an excitement. It’s funny because it’s just not an excitement arguments. It’s not an emotional argument.
S34: There are these two things that Biden is saying at the same time. On the one hand, he’s saying, you get warm fuzzies about me. I know you do, or some of you do. And on the other hand, he’s saying, but vote like this is an intellectual pitch I’m making to you. Vote for someone who can win. And I’m going to introduce you to a state representative that you may or may not know. A few members of Congress that aren’t even from your state. You may or may not know them, but they’re going to tell you why I have such a huge coalition.
S32: Yeah, I mean, it was very much an argument made to the mind and not to the heart.
S35: I know people in my community who are looking for another option, and Joe Biden is the only person running for president who will get their vote.
S36: Mary Wilson.
S1: Listening to you, it doesn’t sound like you’re sold on this argument that Joe Biden is the safe candidate, is the candidate who’s going to ensure Democrats get what they need and become the dominant force in Washington? Well, I’m only there for a short period of time.
S9: I see four campaign events with Biden. I tried to see the Biden campaign going out, canvassing and doorknocking and talking to voters. But I couldn’t I couldn’t open that door, you know. So all I have to go on is where does the campaign let me in? You know, and it’s at these rallies, it’s at these stage managed events where there’s a speech and a couple warm up acts. And people who are there pretty much because they’re on the fence about Biden or they already like Biden. So you’d think it would be his best foot forward. You know, and you see at the different events, they’re all located in places where Biden thinks he has a piece of the traditional Democratic coalition. This is something Jemini would talk about a lot in a car, this traditional Democratic coalition.
S37: When the Biden campaign alerted Jim and Mary to an event with the Iron Workers International Union in Des Moines, they thought this is it a chance to see how Biden is playing with a key part of this traditional Democratic coalition? The two of them head over around lunchtime to see Biden make his big pitch.
S3: So we go into this low slung building in kind of an industrial park. And this is where the Iron Workers Local 67 is. And already in the room are a bunch of guys in matching union proud hoodies and they’re seated in a you around the microphone and the lectern where Biden will eventually speak. What do you know about me? They are the political props for this event. They are meant to confer organized labor support. They are the backdrop for this event. And they have been like curated and told, like where to stand? Where’s your mark? What’s your line?
S38: I’m a reporter. We work together, actually. Do you mind if I just ask you a few questions about the Biden campaign? OK.
S3: And nobody wants to talk to us.
S38: Thank you. You find somebody like you go up to them.
S3: What are they say? They say, oh, I don’t know. I’m here for the local. The local by that we mean the local. Meaning like the local chapter of the union, like local 67. I’m here because the bosses told me to be here.
S38: Our local sports. Yeah.
S39: Well, as was.
S3: I go up to one set of guys and they’re kind of joking around and I say, OK, you tell me you tell me who you point me in there actually lead me by the nose. Who should I talk to here? Who is the most political guy here? I mean, you know, there anybody here. And so they said, OK, go talk to this guy, go talk. See over there. That’s Buddy Snugs. I went to high school with him. He’s football. He’s good. Go talk to him.
S38: He’s the one who knows what the quality is. Good.
S3: What a buddy Snugs say. So Buddy says, Yeah, I support Biden because the local supports Biden.
S40: No, I support what supports my local. What’s best interest of the local? Because my local is what feeds my family is going to vote for Biden.
S3: Well, he says yes. He says, yes, I do.
S40: Well, in the benefit of benefits, my family and my local home, we chose Biden. And I think it’s a good choice. Does that mean you’re going to caucus? Yes. What day is caucus again? Is it November?
S41: You’re not going to caucus. OK.
S42: So what does that tell you about what Biden’s support actually looks like? It tells me it’s a little squishy.
S36: I mean, the only other person I could talk to in that room from the union who wanted to be political was this guy who is name’s Brian Atkin’s, and he’s the political coordinator for that region of the union. And he was the only other person there who wanted to talk politics, even though he was there presumably to support Biden. And so I said, well, do you know who you’re going to support?
S43: You know, I. I do not. Yeah, I. Yeah.
S9: How do you think you’re gonna vote? He’s like, I’m not sure. I’m still undecided. Definitely not voting for Trump. I’m definitely voting for a Democrat. But I just don’t know people. Well, you think about Biden. I just don’t know. We’ll see.
S43: Yeah, I haven’t really decided on my own yet which way I’m going to go, but I’m sure that’ll become clear here in the near future.
S9: And a couple grains of salt to take with this analysis. This event was one of the last to be put on the calendar for the Biden campaign of the ones that I saw going up that weekend. We got the details very late. So it seemed like it was a last minute schedule item. The International Union, which represents about 120000 people in North America, U.S. and Canada, they had just announced that they were endorsing Biden like a few days before this event. So they didn’t have time to get people excited. Maybe. Maybe. That’s right. And they also it was also on a Sunday morning, late morning, but a Sunday nonetheless. Not not necessarily a workday. That said, the campaign let us in. You know, like the event was put on by the campaign. So it was interesting to me that it wasn’t like a slam dunk. Did your opinion of.
S19: Joe Biden’s strengths and weaknesses as a candidate change after your visit to Iowa.
S17: I saw such a small section, right? I was just there for a short period of time.
S9: It’s like less reliable than a poll. It’s just a snapshot in time of these events that the campaign put on and the people who decided to come out. But it is it is just so interesting to me that you’d think that people that are most gung ho or the people that, you know, Biden wants you to think are the most gung-ho actually have some reservations. And when you push on that argument that Biden’s making that I can appeal to disaffected Republicans and I can appeal to conservatives and moderates, when you push on that, it kind of you get the sense it’s giving way a little bit when you look up close.
S24: Part of what makes Iowa so interesting is that back in 2016, the state flipped. Obama counties became Trump counties. And Biden’s argument here four years later is that he can get those counties back. But the more voters she spoke with, the more Mary wondered if that was actually true. She kept thinking about this one guy she met, in particular, Cornelius Wilkins.
S5: He’s 74 years old. He’s retired. He’s planning to caucus and he’s for Biden.
S44: Don’t want to update, you know, to bring the country back to where it was before, just so messed up.
S5: Now, this man, I messed this thing up so much and he knows Biden can appeal to more conservative folks. And we get to talking and he’s like, whether. There are a lot of Republicans out here. And I say, so these are your neighbors, though, you know, like who they might vote for in a general, you know, which Democrat they might go for. And he says, yeah, yeah, I do. Is that so? Who?
S45: I mean, who would it be when you think not about what you want, but like about your neighbors, your conservative neighbors? What do you think? Which Democratic candidate could win them over? OK. I would take that door. He thinks he goes. I think he will probably. Amy? I think Amy Klobuchar.
S44: I think you would go to the Midwest. No Fifth Amendment soda.
S5: And he’s not a Biden events. You know, he’s in the can for Biden. He’s like, I’ve given this a lot of thought. I think they would vote for Amy.
S44: I’m hoping that you’ll win it. No, no.
S46: So I asked Jim, how much should I make of all this ambivalence?
S47: I felt that the people I talked to were prepared to vote for Biden. They would be happy with Biden. They like Biden, but it’s just a question of whether they can bring the energy on caucus night.
S46: Jim Nual, Mary Wilson, thanks for doing this. Thanks for having me. Yeah. Thanks. Jim Newell is Slate’s senior politics writer, Mary Wilson produces the show. All right. This show was a little bit of an experiment for us, and we’re super curious what you thought. So let us know. You can just tweet at me. I’m at Mary’s desk. What next is produced by Daniel Hewitt. Martha Silvers. Jason de Leon. And as previously mentioned, Mary Wilson, Alison Benedek provides insight and thought and care to the show every day, but especially on days like this one. And Lizzie O’Leary, she’ll be here tomorrow with an episode of What Next TBD. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll see you on Monday.