Throughout this endless slog of a primary race, Biden has clung to his front-runner status primarily based on the fact that he could win. But after a “gut punch” fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, no one is sure exactly where he stands, least of all him.
“I’ve never paid attention to all the front-runner talk from the time I entered the race,” he told a crowd in Manchester.
“I’ve been the front-runner all the way through,” he said later on the same day.
What in God’s name is going on?
“He is one of the most admirable people I’ve ever known,” said James Carville, the legendary Democratic strategist, who had thrown his support behind the presidential campaign of Sen. Michael F. Bennet (Colo.), who dropped out Tuesday night following a poor showing in New Hampshire. “But he’s never been a good candidate. This is not his first rodeo, and he ain’t roped a cow yet.”
To make matters worse, Carville said, stating the obvious, Biden is older, and running for president isn’t getting any easier.
“I’m 75, I know,” he said. “I’m thinking about how I’m going to get back in my car without tripping on ice.”
There’s a surreal feeling surrounding the Biden campaign’s efforts in New Hampshire. At first, he wasn’t even there, spending the day Thursday huddling with his team in Delaware trying to figure out a path forward. When he did arrive, on Friday evening, he stood onstage at Saint Anselm College and announced to the audience of nearly 8 million people watching the Democratic debate that he expected to lose the first-in-the-nation primary.
“I took a hit in Iowa,” he said, “and I’m probably going to take a hit here.”
Maybe this is a strategic move by a candidate whose best play, for now, is to manage expectations.
In the final sign that the former vice president expected a weak showing here, Biden blew off his election night party in Nashua, N.H., where supporters had been invited to gather. Instead, he headed to Columbia, S.C. As results rolled in Tuesday night, it seemed Biden made the right choice. As of 9 p.m., he had placed a disappointing fifth.
But how exactly are his people in New Hampshire supposed to feel about that? Does anyone know what place they should be fighting for?
“If he came in second that would be a big win,” said Bill Shaheen, a Biden surrogate and husband of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).
“I’d be happy in the top three,” said Heather Ledoux, a registered nurse who turned her house in Litchfield into a canvassing staging area.
“Top four counts as a win,” said Bob Mulholland, a member of the Democratic National Committee and a Biden supporter.
“I’m not going to prognosticate,” former secretary of state John F. Kerry said when asked what would count as a success. “You’ll know it, we’ll all know it, we’ll feel it.”
Three days before the New Hampshire primary, Michelle Kwan, Olympic figure skater and director of surrogates for Joe Biden, arrived at the campaign’s Concord field office with a joke.
“Let me just skate in here,” she said, sliding into the room with her arms outstretched.
She immediately launched into a spiel about why Biden is the best candidate for president: his character, his integrity, his record of getting things done. The heads of a dozen volunteers nodded in unison, but there was still one thing the volunteers were unsure of.
“Hi,” a man piped up during a pause in Kwan’s speech. “I just wanted to make sure everybody in the room knew who you were.”
“You never told us who you are,” someone else agreed.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Kwan, who previously worked on Hillary Clinton's silver-medal campaign. “When I said ‘skate in,’ I literally meant skate in. I’m an Olympic figure skater.”
It was a meaningless stumble, as far as hectic campaign organizing goes, until you consider the kind of campaign Biden has been running: one that emphasizes the need to rewind the American story to the recent past — when Biden himself, along with many of his champions (Kwan, Kerry, former senator Chris Dodd), seemed slightly less dated.
Still, there are glimpses of the qualities that Biden and his supporters hope will make him an appealing candidate for these times. For many Democrats the world is a dark and scary place, and Biden doesn’t shy away from that. At a rally in a high school gymnasium in Hudson, in front of his biggest New Hampshire crowd to date, Biden’s speech touched upon the suicide epidemic, Sandy Hook, battered wives, homeless children, stories of voters suffering from job loss and Stage 4 cancer.
“Butterflies are dying,” he said. “Bumblebees are dying. And that means we are in real trouble.”
A jittery electorate, the theory goes, may look for the safest candidate. What’s a more natural transition than vice president to president? And if anyone can offer some hope in a time of tragedy, it may be Biden; not just because he has experience taking on the National Rifle Association or because he wrote the Violence Against Women Act, but because he’s lived through tragedy himself. More than ever he has been talking about the loss of his first wife and daughter in a car crash, and the recent death of his son Beau due to brain cancer.
“I’ve lost a lot in my life,” he has been saying at the close of his events. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand by and lose my country, too.”
His events can be subdued affairs, but that line never fails to draw roars from the crowd.
“He’s strong, he’s resilient, he gets up and he keeps going,” his wife, Jill, told a group of supporters in Peterborough before she headed out to knock on some doors herself.
For anyone on the fence about Joe Biden, Jill had this to offer: When he first showed up on her doorstep for a blind date in 1975, she wasn’t sure if she liked him, either. She was a college student, used to hanging with the bell-bottomed crowd, and here was a guy coming to pick her up wearing a perfect suit and leather loafers.
“Thank God this is only one date,” she remembered thinking.
He won her over, of course, with his grace, his character and his intellect. Yeah, even today he might be a little old fashioned: with all that talk about bipartisanship and tamping down expectations about liberal dreams like Medicare-for-all. But he’s got character, integrity — a “gentleman,” Jill remembers telling her mom on the phone when she got home after their date. Perhaps if voters give him a chance, they can be wooed, too?
They say Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line, but right now Democrats just seem to be falling all over themselves. The Iowa caucuses, with their technical glitches and late reporting, offered no winnowing of the field and little clarity about what happens next.
Kwan’s message to the campaign workers in Concord was to “make sure that what happened in Iowa only happens in Iowa.” They could still turn this around, but time was against them.
A whiteboard hung on the wall of the office, purporting to count down the time until voting would begin. It said: “15 days.”
“This,” Kwan said, pointing to the sign, “is incorrect.”
When a campaign appears to be on a downward spiral, it becomes easy to see signs of doom.
Some, like the vulture that took flight just blocks away as Biden wrapped a speech in Manchester, are purely metaphorical.
“They’re not uncommon,” said a representative from the New Hampshire Audubon society. “They are usually not here in the dead of winter. But if they sense that there can be some food, they start working their way up.”
But not every instance of foreshadowing is as easy to dismiss. There was Biden’s anemic cheering section at the McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner — a raucous fundraiser held in a Manchester hockey arena — that appeared smaller even than the group that came out to support nominal presidential candidate Deval Patrick. There’s the ways in which Biden has begun acting like an underdog, attacking his opponents as too inexperienced (“Pete Buttigieg … he’s a smart guy, but he’s been the mayor of a city smaller than the city we’re in now”) or too extreme to win a general election (“I didn’t put the label on Bernie. Bernie calls himself a Democratic socialist”).
Even his supporters have begun talking about him like a long shot.
“No one ever expected Donald Trump to be elected president, either,” said Barry Nestor, standing outside the Rex Theatre in Manchester, wearing socks on his hands to keep warm before seeing Biden speak.
But perhaps the hardest signs of bad news to ignore, for a candidacy like Biden’s, are the polls that show him coming in anywhere from third to fifth place.
“I never believed in polls,” Kerry said at a canvassing event in Portsmouth. “I hate them. They should not be allowed to be printed two weeks prior to an election.”
They have the ability to distort an election, Kerry said, to change the minds of undecided voters based on who they think has the best chance of winning.
So what exactly is a candidate running on the strength of his ability to get elected supposed to do when the polls turn against him?
Find another poll, of course.
“Well, if you notice,” Biden said at a news conference in his Manchester headquarters, “I’m still winning nationally.”
Matt Viser contributed to this report.