CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Joe Biden wasn’t lighting voters’ hair on fire as he barnstormed through rural Iowa this week. His crowds were intimate and even when on a college campus, they skewed more heavily toward his own demographic than those of Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
But his “No Malarkey” bus tour made clear two key strategic bets on the part of his campaign: that Democratic worries about a second Trump term will revive his standing, and that Biden's belief that all politics is personal can still carry the day.
“I know I got in trouble for using this phrase a long time ago but I'm a tactile politician," the former vice president told reporters this week. "I mean if I can shake hands with someone and get a sense of what's on their mind, it gives me a better sense of really what is bothering people.”
“It's just the single most important thing if you can do it” he insisted.
There’s one voter interaction that will linger well beyond the tour — Biden’s fiery response to a voter who asked if he helped his son get a lucrative post with a Ukrainian energy company. “You’re a damn liar,” Biden charged in a moment that was replayed over and over on cable television and social media.
But there were countless other exchanges during his trip that will go unnoticed, ones Biden aides think will help carry him to victory.
At most events, Biden did not take voters’ questions in full public view but during private, one-on-one exchanges along the rope line. Several had voters tearfully sharing stories of loss or battles with cancer or chronic illness. Others were on policy. Many simply involved a selfie.
Another dynamic revealed itself over the course of the week — an effort perhaps to put some of the spark back in a candidate for whom the accumulation of criticism from fellow Democrats, stepped-up scrutiny from the press and the public, and an avalanche of attacks from the president and his allies have appeared to sap Biden of the “happy warrior” type of campaign he hoped to wage.
Aides arranged to have some of his longest and closest friends surprise him on the road. One day it was his longtime chief of staff popping onto the bus. Later, it was his former body man and the former head of his Secret Service detail waiting for him at his hotel room.
In the end, Biden made 27 stops over an eight-day stretch that took him from the Missouri River to the Mississippi — by far his most intense and sustained campaigning since he launched his candidacy in April. At each, Biden and his surrogates leaned heavily into the idea that only he could guarantee a Democratic victory next fall, and that no other candidate was more ready to assume the presidency.
There were quick outdoor rallies, more traditional town halls, and stops at local diners and even a roadside truck stop. (There were also two detours from bus to plane, taking him to Chicago and New York for fundraisers that had been scheduled before the bus tour was locked in).
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Deputy campaign manager Pete Kavanaugh, in a memo summarizing the trip, said the retail campaigning blitz helped highlight what Biden does best.
“In a state that prizes — and rewards — the personal interactions that come with retail politics, there’s simply no one better at it than Joe Biden,” he wrote.
Advisers, and Biden himself, insisted at the outset that the extensive barnstorming was not a reaction to slipping poll numbers or persistent doubts about his ability to persevere in a marathon campaign. But as their bus tour gamble wound toward the finish, some conceded that it was an important signal to voters both here and across the country.
“It’s a demonstration of commitment,” one top Biden aide said. “This happens to every candidate: you get knocked on your ass. But you recover by showing you’re willing to fight for it.”
Biden insisted to NBC News that he can win the nomination without a first-place finish here. His campaign says it’s likely no other candidate can say the same. And so while they continue to take a long view of the race, the campaign clearly sees a chance to put an end to the contest — and persistent doubts about his candidacy — early.
From a strategic perspective, part of the tour was to make up for lost time in building out his ground game in Iowa. His Iowa advisers identified more rural counties where they believe Biden can capitalize on his appeal to moderate voters, and used events to lock in voter commitments and recruit volunteers and precinct captains. At one stop, while Biden was talking to voters, his wife was backstage meeting with several candidates for the latter.
“It's not just about doing well in big counties, which is important, but it's also about running up the score in some of these rural areas where you're going to win delegates,” a top Biden official in the state said. “If we can go to Denison and get five high-quality precinct captains, that's a real win for us.”
Biden’s campaign acknowledges that Buttigieg specifically has momentum in the state, but attributes that as much to his heavy spending on television and his more frequent appearances in the state.
One voter confronted Biden directly about his absence.
“The whole thing about Iowans — and I can speak as one — is that we are very fickle and we need to press the flesh,” Kathleen Delate, a professor at Iowa State University, told Biden. “This is the first time you've been in Ames and I think that's the reason why Mayor Pete surged ahead.”
Biden noted he waited longer than other candidates to enter the race, attributing the delay to his concern about how Trump and his allies would target not just him but his family.
“I'm asking for your consideration — and it's important to be done,” he said. “I'm hoping that between now and Feb. 3, which is my deceased son's birthday, that you all are willing to give me a look.”
Delate said it was a good start.
“He pretty much took it for granted that people were going to go for him as the heir apparent, basically, because everyone connects him with the Obama administration,” she said. “I think if he starts this campaign right now and really gets out there and presses the flesh and talks like the way he talked today, yes.”
Other voters said what they connected with most was his empathy.
“You feel that based on how he overcomes deep troubles,” said Sharon Rugsdashel, who saw Biden in Iowa Falls and Jill Biden in Parkersburg. “What I really liked the most of all is when the president of the United States says something, it means something. That they know who he is and we know who they are, but it means something.”
One notable aspect of the stumping was how often it was a Biden surrogate, not Biden himself, who served as the closer.
For the first three days it was former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack who took the microphone after Biden, making a pitch for him that was equally personal and political. Vilsack’s wife took up the mantle days later, reminding voters that one reason the attacks from both the left and right have not dented Biden’s appeal is a testament to the fact that most Americans know and like “middle class Joe.”
And for the closing push, it was John Kerry touting his longtime friend and reminding Iowans of the last time they favored the apparent certainty of electoral success over a progressive upstart.
“I am endorsing Joe Biden not because I've known him so long, but because I have known him so well,” he said.
“We are the link between Joe and Jill, making sure that our friends and neighbors understand the people that we know,” Vilsack told NBC.