MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — Is it too late for Joe Biden? On Saturday afternoon in the first primary state, that question was as loaded as can be. Days earlier he had finished a distant fourth in Iowa. At the debate the night before he had effectively conceded New Hampshire. And at the moment Biden was — literally, he might say in the earnest, finger-jabbing way of his — late for the second of only six public appearances on his weekend schedule.
Worst of all, media outnumbered the organizers and volunteers waiting for Biden at his field office here. One reporter, confident that whoever was in charge had ordered more pizza than was needed to feed the dozen or so door-knockers posted up for the 3 o’clock canvass launch, helped himself to a slice of plain cheese. Ambient conversation drowned out the roleplaying exercise meant to teach new volunteers how to talk to the Biden supporters and undecided voters they would meet on their shift.
“I love Joe Biden,” said an in-character organizer playing a likely Biden voter who may need to be reminded of where her polling location is. “I wish I could have written him in in 2016.”
And that, really, is where Joe Biden finds himself two days away from the New Hampshire primary. He’s long been a beloved figure in the Democratic Party — a legacy enhanced by two terms as vice president under Barack Obama, whom Biden has been using with increasing frequency as some sort of human shield against any suggestion that he represents an old and ineffective style of politics.
But in 2020 he is stuck squarely behind the progressive ideological fire of Bernie Sanders and the youthful, hopeful promise of Pete Buttigieg. His electability argument — which he clings to despite the fact that he was blown out in Iowa, the kind of Midwest state he’s supposed to appeal to — is now hanging by a thread.
Circumstances have forced Biden to reconcile out loud with the reality: This very well could be the end.
“You know, I’ve lost a lot in my lifetime, like many of you have,” Biden told the audience at an earlier campaign event Saturday in Manchester, where his remarks veered from grandfatherly to angry to dark. “Car accident took away my wife and daughter. Lost my son, Beau, like many of you have done. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand by and lose my country, too.”
If Biden learned anything from his poor showing in Iowa, it’s that he’s likely to finish poorly in New Hampshire, too. “I’ll probably take a hit here,” he said, almost fatalistically, in the opening minutes of Friday’s debate at Saint Anselm College.
At a Sunday afternoon town hall in Hampton, the first of two campaign stops to close out the weekend, a 21-year-old Andrew Yang supporter in town with her college group from Georgia stood up and asked Biden why voters in the rest of the country should believe that he can win, after his performance in Iowa.
Biden was at first combative, as he has been when other voters have challenged him on the campaign trail, asking if she had ever participated in a caucus and then jokingly calling her a “lying dog-faced pony soldier,” a jab he’s previously attributed to John Wayne.
“It was a little bit confusing in Iowa, number one,” Biden continued. “But let’s assume everything was exactly right in Iowa. The idea that you come in with half the delegates the leaders come in with in Iowa doesn’t necessarily say how you’re going to win Michigan, how you’re going to win Pennsylvania.”
But the polls here are bleak for Biden. The best-case scenario might be third place. The worst-case scenario would be a late push by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar that relegates Biden to an embarrassing fifth.
“I’ve never paid attention to all the frontrunner talk from the time I entered the race,” Biden said at the Manchester event. “Nothing in my life, like most of you, has come easily.”
That was, to be generous, a fib. Biden very much enjoyed talking about his frontrunner status when polls showed him leading nationally and in the early states. And later Saturday, while speaking with reporters during his visit to the nearby field office, he fell back on what he implied was still his frontrunner status. “If you notice, I’m still winning nationally,” he said. “You guys keep forgetting that part, OK?” (Most recent national polls show Biden edging out Sanders, though there haven’t been many since Iowa.)
Meanwhile, Biden’s senior staff has been reshuffled, with strategist Anita Dunn assuming an expanded role, apparently over campaign manager Greg Schutz. Aides downplayed the move in a way that inadvertently put the blame for anything bad that may happen next on the candidate. “The person in charge of the campaign is Joe Biden,” a senior adviser told reporters on a Friday conference call.
The expectations-setting has been all over the place since Iowa. Advisers seem stuck between positioning him as the underdog — the better to spin “comeback kid” headlines if he can manage even a third-place finish here — and as the only contender built to last. A common, split-the-difference refrain from Biden allies post-Iowa goes something like this: The race will come back to Biden when it shifts to more diverse electorates in Nevada, South Carolina, and then to the Super Tuesday states on March 3.
“I think that New Hampshire and Iowa play a critical role in the beginning of the campaign,” Rep. Cedric Richmond, the Louisiana Democrat who co-chairs Biden’s campaign, said in a telephone interview Sunday with BuzzFeed News. “However it’s two of the first four and unfortunately they’re the whitest of the first four. The vice president’s base is a very diverse base with substantial support in the African American community. African Americans having a say in who the nominee is is very important.”
It’s an optimistic prognosis for a former vice president whose fundraising has so lagged other top-tier candidates that many assume he will not have the resources to survive one more beating. To project strength in that department, aides are bragging about carefully parsed money milestones. (“Did Joe Biden win this debate?” a Biden spokesperson tweeted Friday night. “Our incredible grassroots supporters who have made this our best debate day for fundraising agree: hell yes.)
Biden and his advisers also have tried in recent days to make him into more of a fighter. On the debate stage Friday he forcefully emphasized his record in the Senate and as vice president. He warned viewers that Donald Trump and the Republicans would brand Democrats up and down the ballot as socialists this November if Sanders, a democratic socialist, wins the party’s presidential nomination. He wondered aloud if Buttigieg could ever win over voters of color.
And on Saturday Biden escalated those attacks. Before his first speech in Manchester, his team posted a video making light of Buttigieg’s experience as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city of roughly 100,000 people — not much smaller than the city where Biden was asking for votes.
The Manchester event was a mixed bag. A rare overflow crowd chased reporters from the balcony of the tiny Rex Theatre and sent some supporters across the street to a Mexican restaurant, where Biden briefly visited them. And yet there was only mild enthusiasm. About half the crowd cheered when a local organizer tried to pump them up for Biden’s arrival.
“I don’t think I hear the people at the top,” she said. “I said, ‘Who’s excited to see Joe Biden?’” A few more cheers rang out that time, but hardly a full chorus.
Other introductory speakers made clear Biden has no intention of relinquishing the electability argument.
“He’s our best chance to beat you-know-who in the White House,” said Michelle Kwan, the Olympic medal-winning figure skater who serves as Biden’s director of surrogates.
“Joe Biden can beat Donald Trump,” added John Lynch, the former New Hampshire governor. (Lynch, the kind of warm up act typically charged with rallying supporters to deliver a big win, offered only that “together, we will help Joe Biden do very well in the New Hampshire primary.”)
Biden finally took the microphone about an hour later than scheduled, after aides fiddled extensively with a teleprompter that didn’t seem to be doing what they wanted it to. He hunched over to greet a few of the children in the crowd, sheepishly apologizing that he was about to bore them with politics before promising ice cream afterward. Then he switched into fighter mode. “Who else has brought leaders together to address any problems?” “I’m not new to this issue.” “I’m the only one who…”
On and on it went: I, I, I, I, I. Me, me, me, me, me. The words “democratic socialist” rolled off Biden’s tongue more acidically than they had the night before. “So when Sen. Sanders attacks me for having baggage, I have to tell you, 60-plus candidates I campaigned for in the toughest districts in the country in 24 states in the 2018 election, they didn’t think I had any baggage,” Biden said. “So ask yourself: Will it be easier or harder for Democrats to win with a socialist — a democratic socialist at the top of the ticket, self-stated — or is it going to be harder?”
For the 38-year-old Buttigieg, Biden had indignance. “Mayor Pete, who is a good guy, likes to call me part of the old failed Washington. Really?” Then the 77-year-old Biden plunged ahead further: “Mayor Pete likes to say the only time Democrats win the presidency is when we nominate someone new. But here’s what he never mentions: The only Democrats to win the presidency is where we have overwhelming support from the African American community and don’t take it for granted. That was true for Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.”
It’s the effort Buttigieg and his advisers have made to present Buttigieg as an Obamalike figure — young, historic (in this case a married gay man) candidate who surprises the political world — that seems to most annoy Biden. Some of those advisers, after all, worked for Obama (and for Biden) and in Biden’s mind should know better.
During the Saturday session with reporters at the field office, CNN’s Jeff Zeleny asked if Biden’s attacks on Buttigieg amounted to “an act of desperation,” akin to Hillary Clinton questioning Obama’s lack of experience in 2008. “Oh come on, man,” Biden responded. “This guy’s not Barack Obama.”
There were many Come on, mans — not coincidentally a favorite Obama rejoinder — over the 20 minutes Biden took questions. His traveling press secretary pleaded “last question” and “guys, that’s all the time we have” several times before prying Biden away. So pronounced was the vibe that a BBC reporter backed into one of the four or five “last” questions with an observation: “You’re clearly a little angry this afternoon.”
Biden cut him off: “I’m not angry!”
So how are his spirits?
“My spirits are up! Look at all of the endorsements I’ve gotten since Iowa — since Iowa!
This is not the campaign Biden wants to run. Until recently, Biden has looked past the primary. He prefaces almost every Sanders or Buttigieg critique by saying they’re not bad guys. “I have never been very comfortable attacking somebody else,” Biden told reporters.
He’s fighting back because this is not how he wants the campaign to end, with his legacy a shambles at the hands of a socialist or small town mayor. (Of comfort to Biden aides: Some in Buttigieg’s cheering section Saturday night at a Democratic dinner in Manchester gave Biden a standing ovation when he talked about the importance of beating Trump.)
But it’s also telling that at this moment Biden is equating the prospect of losing a political race — that I’ll be damned if I lose my country, too line — with the personal tragedies he’s suffered. His understanding of loss may be a bigger part of his political identity than his service to Obama is. On Sunday, he detailed more of the stories of loss and suffering people have brought to him in recent weeks — one woman who was mourning her father. A man who lost his job and didn’t know what to tell his family. Another who’s been revived from three serious heart attacks, and is now dying of prostate cancer.
If there’s one thing Biden does right as a candidate, it’s grief. And this weekend, it wasn’t hard to see him going through the stages somewhat out of order as they relate to his campaign: the acceptance, the anger, the denial.
When Biden finally arrived at his Manchester field office Saturday — 25 minutes late, which meant the few canvassers who showed up began their shift late — he offered a maudlin vow.
“The reports of our death,” he promised, “are premature.”