NEARLY 17 MONTHS before voting day, it is beginning to feel as if the first days of two-person campaigning for the 2020 presidential election have already begun. Both President Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the front-runner in a crowded field of candidates for the Democratic nomination, were on the stump in Iowa on June 11th. Mr Biden focused on the eastern portion of the state, including flood-hit Davenport on the Mississippi. Mr Trump toured an ethanol plant in the far west followed by a political fundraising dinner in Des Moines, the state capital.
Each man has good reason to show his face in Iowa. Mr Biden was making some diplomatic amends. He had seemed to snub Iowa’s Democrats on June 8th and 9th, by failing to join 19 (out of 23) candidates running for the Democratic nomination at an event in Cedar Rapids. (He claimed a prior commitment, at his granddaughter’s school graduation in Washington). Given his strong lead in the polls Mr Biden can probably afford to stand apart from the fray. Nonetheless he must avoid any suggestion that, at the age of 76, he lacks the energy for a scrap or that he is aloof from ordinary voters.
Mr Trump, meanwhile, is wary of losing support from rural Midwesterners who backed him heartily in 2016. The president attended a rally in northern Wisconsin in late April. He knows rural folk in the region have suffered in the past couple of years. That has happened in part due to his chaotic approach to international trade. Confrontations with China have led to a dramatic fall in demand for soy-bean exports, while higher prices for imported steel have pushed up equipment costs. Economic uncertainty and terrible spring flooding have hit rural areas. Federal financial relief has flowed but farmers take that grudgingly, reluctant to be seen as ever more reliant on subsidies and other government hand-outs.
Appearing in Iowa simultaneously probably suits both men for another reason. It is a chance for each to test how they might spar close-up. Mr Biden is not guaranteed to win the Democratic nomination, but Mr Trump evidently judges that is likely to. And the president’s frequent attacks almost certainly bolster Mr Biden among Democratic primary voters. The president called Mr Biden “a loser”, “weak mentally” and lacking in energy, on June 11th. Such comments suck attention away from other Democratic candidates and may suggest, at least to Democrats, that the president is rattled.
Recent opinion polls, reportedly including a private Republican one, suggest that Mr Biden is more popular than the president in many battleground states. Mr Biden may calculate that the more he gets under Mr Trump’s skin, the further ahead he can pull from the rest of the primary field. And because most Democrat voters seem to care more about ejecting the incumbent from the White House than any particular ideology, they are likely to back a nominee who is best placed for the confrontation. That is likely to mean coalescing around a front-runner.
Mr Biden’s comments on June 11th, in Davenport, seemed designed to provoke the president. He called Mr Trump an “existential threat” to America and its values, then jeered that Mr Trump knew nothing about trade and economics. According to excerpts of that speech, released early in the morning and leapt upon by the media, it also contained the observation that supermarket cashiers grasped better than the president that American consumers—not foreign producers—pay the price for his imposing tariffs on imports.
Why then is Mr Trump focusing on Mr Biden if doing so helps an already popular opponent become the Democratic nominee? It may be that Mr Trump is too undisciplined to behave differently. Or he might simply believe Mr Biden is destined to be his opponent. If so, he will want as much time as possible to develop lines of attack, hoping to characterise Mr Biden as weak, unenergetic, or an establishment insider, well before Election Day.
Mr Trump sees an advantage in dwelling on Mr Biden’s age and biography. “He’s a different guy,” the president said as he left the White House for Iowa. “He looks different than he used to. He acts different than he used to. He’s even slower than he used to be.” The president is hardly youthful: he turns 73 this week. But he can try to pitch himself not only as younger than the Democrat, but as a relative outsider.
Mr Biden as vice-president, spent eight years in the White House, and has already struggled a little in defending a political record that spans several decades. Last week he changed his position on whether there should be federal funding for abortions (he used to be against, but is now in favour). Mr Trump, after four years in office, may have the gall to claim that he is an insurgent. After all, that worked among many voters in the Midwest last time around.