But the circumstances of this campaign — a pandemic and an economic collapse costing millions of jobs and making even the still-employed feel vulnerable — have pushed the race in the direction of Biden’s strong suits and against his deficits, shining a bright light on his empathy and sober experience and casting his flaws into the shadows.
He has emerged with more Americans viewing him favorably now than at this time last year, the opposite of the usual trajectory of a campaign and far different from the circumstances that faced Hillary Clinton in 2016. He holds a national lead approaching double digits and narrower but stable leads in many battleground states. He enters the final stretch with far more money to spend than Trump as he reaches for the pinnacle of a political career, one that has eluded him twice before.
The closing days of one of the most unusual presidential campaigns in history conclude years of Democratic anger and angst over how to defeat the man they view as a historically damaging figure in American politics. Biden’s approach, however, has relied on the same traits and tactics he has used over the past half-century in politics.
He has tried to exude hope and optimism despite the raw and painful circumstances enveloping the country. He has clung to bipartisanship despite the country’s deep polarization, ignoring raised Democratic eyebrows when he tells his donors, as he did two weeks ago, “For those of you who are Republicans, I promise I’m not going to embarrass you.”
The remarkably consistent approach has gotten Biden to the cusp of election, but with a little over a week until Election Day, even some of his closest allies remain deeply anxious about a single question: Can he actually pull it off?
“I was always in love with the guy, but I don’t know that it was clear this was the match for who this guy is — the character, personal tragedies . . . his inclination to find common ground — even when folks in his own party pooh-poohed that,” said Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.). “But you could not construct a better candidate, a better match for this country.”
“I think we underestimated him. As a party, we underestimated him,” Murphy said. “There was just a maturity, a moment when our party — for better or worse — looked in the mirror and said, ‘Wait a minute. We must come together at all costs; we must nominate a responsible leader who will be professional, who will put partisanship aside when need be.’”
Biden has brought into public view an existing chip on his shoulder but always directed it at Trump. He has contrasted his lack of relative wealth when compared to the president as “Scranton vs. Park Avenue.” He has touted his degree from a public college, saying those with Ivy League degrees have looked down on people like him. But he has not let slip any consternation toward members of his own party, save for noting when attacked by Trump as a socialist that he defeated the more liberal elements of the Democratic coalition.
“People working on this campaign two years ago said the party had passed Biden by,” said one person close to Biden, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “He will never say this, but there’s got to be some, ‘I told you so.’ People say he’s this blue-collar, retail politician. But he also got 100 percent exactly where the country was and the party was.”
Biden has tinkered with some surface factors. In Thursday’s final debate, he seemed to smile and laugh more often than previously, attempting a more dramatic contrast with the often dour Trump. But Biden’s message was the same as when he was finishing in a distant fifth place in February’s New Hampshire primary, before a predominantly Black electorate in South Carolina resurrected his candidacy.
“He feels good,” said Christopher J. Dodd, the former senator from Connecticut and one of Biden’s veteran confidants. “He’s not overconfident. But he feels he has done what he needs to do against an extraordinary opponent — and extraordinary is meant negatively.”
“Joe believes, and his staff does, that it’s going to be close. That’s not just campaign hype,” he added. “They’re worried because they see the country divided. I think he’s spending as much time thinking about that and how do we solve that problem than he is anything else. But he’s cautiously optimistic.”
Biden’s closing message has centered on unity as much as it has a rejection of the incumbent. His campaign aired, during the World Series and elsewhere, a 60-second ad featuring iconic images of America as deep-voiced Sam Elliott, the actor known for gun-slinging roles as the quintessential cowboy, talked about dignity, a fresh start and common agreement.
“This is an overused term, but he’s a happy warrior. He’s always been the same. He feels comfortable who he is and doesn’t try to be anybody he’s not,” said Harry M. Reid, the former Senate majority leader. “He tries really hard, works hard. And you don’t find him often depressed or disgruntled or angry. That’s not who he is.”
If campaigns draw out generalizations, Biden has been steady and plodding to Trump’s erratic and sensational. Trump can feel like a speedy train on the verge of flying off the tracks; Biden is a less remarkable ride in the quiet car. While Trump refuses to cede the spotlight, Biden has grown comfortable at times fading to the background and yielding to others in his party.
Biden has placed a big bet that most of the country shares his optimism and will cast aside a president whose first speech in office centered on “American carnage,” who tried to fan fears of minorities, cast urban centers as hellscapes and called his political opponents criminals.
Biden’s positioning carried risk, not the least in the Democratic primaries. He was not the candidate riding the left’s energy and vowing to start a revolution like his chief rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), or the one who would make history like his former partner, Barack Obama, or the several female candidates Biden vanquished this year, including eventual running mate Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). His wife, Jill Biden, regularly pitches her husband’s ticket by promising that under a Biden administration Americans will be able to read the newspaper and not get upset.
As the race reaches its final stretch, Biden’s campaign and his allies have cast him more and more as an empathetic grandfatherly figure, one who his opponents derisively compared to Mister Rogers. When a Trump campaign official made the comparison during a Biden town hall, Biden and his campaign welcomed it.
“A few weeks ago, I spoke to Mr. Rogers’s wife Joanne when I was in her neighborhood in Pittsburgh. It was a great conversation,” Biden wrote on Twitter. “Friendship, empathy, kindness, and compassion — I think we could all learn a thing or two from her and her husband’s example.”
Biden has benefited from his upswing in personal popularity. A Fox News survey this month had Biden with a net positive favorability rating of 16 points — with 57 viewing him favorability and 41 viewing him unfavorably — compared with negative 10 points for Trump.
By any number of polls, that made him far more popular than Clinton was four years ago — giving Biden a cushion Democrats did not have in 2016. At the end of the 2016 campaign, Clinton was viewed unfavorably by 52 percent of Americans, according to a Gallup survey, which was the second-worst in history behind Trump, who was viewed unfavorably by 61 percent.
“I didn’t realize until after the votes were counted that a lot of people did not like her,” said former North Carolina governor Jim Hunt, a Democrat who supports Biden. “They just didn’t like her. A lot of women. A lot of White women. And Blacks weren’t enthusiastic about the ticket.”
“That’s different now,” Hunt continued. “There’s not anybody who doesn’t like ol’ Biden. . . . Maybe they don’t love him, but they like him.”
The contrast with Trump has fueled another necessity — keeping his party united around him, or at least united around opposition to the president. The major intraparty fights that were on full display four years ago have receded, which his campaign credits in part to Biden’s personal relationship with Sanders.
“They say in life timing is everything. This is the perfect time for Joe Biden to be running for president, as himself,” said Ted Kaufman, who has been one of Biden’s closest advisers dating back to his first Senate race in 1972. “That’s what wins people over. That’s who he is. What makes it more powerful in this race is it happens to be the total opposite of President Trump. So the contrast is really, really stark.”
“He is the total opposite of President Trump. That’s his message,” Kaufman said. “All the things he’s been known as for years — concern about family, concern about religion, about being honest with people, reaching out to people — all go back to 1972. He’s had this constant optimism.”
But while shared animosity toward Trump has allowed Democrats to paper over very real policy differences between the party’s wings, those disputes are likely to flare anew should he win. All sides expect fights over health care and climate policy, and disagreements over court restructuring and infrastructure spending.
“We have got to win this election,” Murphy said. “Let’s worry about differences after the election; let’s not litigate them before the election. There are proud factions, folks proud of their principles in our party. But everybody — everybody — is checking that at the door right now. They are doing everything they can to get this guy elected. . . . Will there be debates post-election? Yes.”
As the election verdict nears, this campaign increasingly echoes Biden’s past efforts, whether his seven successful Senate races or his two failed presidential attempts. The sons who defined Biden’s first entry into big-time politics — he was sworn in as a senator at their hospital beds, after a car crash that killed his first wife and daughter — are still central to his campaign nearly half a century later. His late son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015, remains his father’s stated inspiration. His son Hunter has made almost no public appearances on behalf of his father but has become the face of Trump’s attempt to cast the Bidens as a family willing to trade political influence for personal profit. Biden’s emotional response to Trump’s mockery of his son made it one of the key moments of the first debate.
The Trump campaign has pointed to emails Hunter Biden purportedly exchanged with business partners at a Ukrainian gas company, including one in which a colleague thanked Hunter for “an opportunity” to meet his father. The Biden campaign said the vice president’s schedule indicated no such meeting took place.
The Washington Post has not been able to independently verify the emails. The Post has on multiple occasions asked presidential attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani and former adviser Stephen K. Bannon, who helped make the materials public, for copies of what they allege is Hunter Biden’s hard drive but has received no response.
Biden allies say he expected such criticism from Trump and it weighed on him before entering the race.
“I looked him in the eyes and said, ‘You’ve got to be prepared for the near certainty that Donald Trump will make stuff up and throw it at you over and over and over. And it will be unpleasant and it will be difficult,’” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.). “ ‘But you can bring us together. This guy is dividing us and pouring fuels on the fires.’ And he ended up saying, ‘You’re right. I’m the person who can beat this guy. And he can be beaten.’ ”
During an ABC town hall, Biden was asked what it would say about the country if he were to lose.
“Well, it could say that I’m a lousy candidate, and I didn’t do a good job,” Biden said. Then he continued.
“But I think — I hope that it doesn’t say that we are as racially, ethnically and religiously at odds with one another as it appears the president wants us to be. Usually, you know, the president, in my view, with all due respect, it’s been divide and conquer, the way he does better if he splits us and where there’s division. And I think people need hope.”
Annie Linskey and Scott Clement contributed to this report.