CLAYTON, Mo. — As his motorcade barreled into a high-dollar fundraiser in this wealthy St. Louis suburb recently, Vice President Biden noticed the firehouse next door. He told his aides to cut the fundraiser short a few minutes so that he and the Democrat running for Senate here could visit with the firefighters on the way out. These were his people, and for more than 10 minutes Biden talked to the fire company about what they do and how members of his own family had been saved by their work.
“Hey, I’ve used you guys several times, and it was great,” Biden told the crew, according to Clayton Fire Chief Mark Thorp. The fire crew was stunned by the gesture, Thorp said. “He just as easily could’ve gotten in his car and waved.”
The firehouse stop was part of Biden’s frenzied effort to help Democrats retake control of the Senate before he leaves the White House in January, and this trip was a chance to boost the surging candidacy of Jason Kander, the Missouri Democrat seeking to unseat the incumbent Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
But for Biden, this last campaign is about more than just Senate control: A year ago Friday he gave up his own presidential ambition, announcing that his son’s death had made a bid for the highest office emotionally impossible. Instead, after months of introspection, he is pouring his energy into a fight that he thinks will help Democrats this year but also continuing his effort to convince them not to give up on white working-class voters who were once the party’s core, and whose support has fueled the insurgent candidacy of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
“I just think we have a very strong argument on the substance, and I think that we should be pounding away,” Biden said in a recent interview, explaining how he wants Democrats to talk to these voters about job training and the new economy. “Once you actually make that case and you go into places like southeast Ohio and the northeast [Ohio] . . . these are places that should be — like Youngstown — they should be Democratic areas.”
But Biden worries that Democrats are turning into a party controlled by intellectual elites who don’t know how to relate to people like those from his home town of Scranton, Pa., where Trump held a raucous rally in July just a few blocks from the vice president’s childhood home. “Tell you what, my antenna went up,” Biden said in a recent interview in his West Wing office.
In an era when most Democratic candidates face long odds with voters in towns like Scranton, Biden, 73, can still connect with people attracted to Trump’s message.
“He has a very good way of appealing to people who are thinking about voting for Donald Trump,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the incoming Democratic leader.
Yet Biden is also trying to be an antidote to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who is deeply unpopular among white working-class voters.
The vice president says he wants Clinton and other Democrats to learn how to talk to people whose family income is about $75,000, about the average salary for a Clayton firefighter, and he wants them to understand why Trump is doing so well with these voters. “His appeal to their anger, their concern, their fears about the changes taking place in the country and the world, are not illegitimate,” he said. “I mean, this is one of those great transition periods in world history.”
Earlier this month in Bristol, a working-class town north of Philadelphia, Biden campaigned for Clinton, Senate nominee Katie McGinty and other Pennsylvania Democrats. He kept a group of about two dozen Clinton volunteers rapt, essentially explaining that their candidate was not good at connecting with voters and that she needed their help.
“We have to make a positive case for Hillary. She has gotten a bum rap,” he told them, explaining how her time in the national spotlight hardened her to the media. “No one doubts whether she has the intellectual capacity or the experience for this job. We know. We’ve got to talk about what a decent person she is. She is. She is. It’s hard for her to say it and do it. It’s up to us. It’s up to us.”
Other Democrats are less concerned about Clinton’s appeal to the shrinking number of non-college-educated white voters and confident that Clinton, and other Democrats, can tailor their message to white college graduate and ethnic minority voters turned off by Trump. “Strategically speaking, for every white male high-school-educated voter who she loses, she picks up two white female college-educated voters,” Schumer said in a recent interview.
Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton narrowly won white voters without college degrees, 44 percent to 43 percent for Republican nominee Robert Dole, but by 2012, President Obama received just 36 percent of those white non-college voters, according to presidential exit polls. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll this month, Hillary Clinton is doing worse than Obama with the white working class, receiving just 29 percent of their votes.
In a discussion on Air Force Two, returning from his swing to Missouri for Kander and to Los Angeles for an event to raise funds to fight cancer, Biden blamed part of the drift on what he describes as the Democratic “pedigree” fixation.
On policy, the Democrats have relied too heavily on Ivy League advisers who can’t relate to poor and working-class white communities, even when their economic ideas are beneficial to those voters. Too many of those leaders can’t connect with the everyday lives of the middle class, Biden said. Politically, the party relies on demographic analysts and turnout experts driving up votes from niche groups of minorities, women and young voters.
At the very moment Biden was lamenting his party’s creep toward elitism, Clinton was at a Manhattan fundraiser hosted by LGBT leaders, where she described half of Trump’s supporters as “racist, sexist, homophobic” and as a “basket of deplorables,” a comment for which she apologized the next day. When the comments were relayed to Biden, he said nothing.
Biden has maintained relatively high popularity among voters, making him especially valuable in the hunt to retake the Senate. A Bloomberg News poll this month found that in Pennsylvania, where he has campaigned four times for McGinty, Biden is the most popular politician other than first lady Michelle Obama, with more than two-thirds of voters in the Philadelphia suburbs having a favorable view of the former senator from next-door Delaware.
In December, Schumer said he had breakfast at the vice president’s home and laid out Biden’s ratings in all battleground states for the Senate this year, paying special attention to how white working-class voters viewed Biden. Democrats have targeted Midwestern states stretching from Pennsylvania to Missouri, where turning out black voters is as key to their success as it is to keeping margins respectably close in white working-class former manufacturing towns.
So in early September, Biden made a planned 45-minute stop at a diner in a largely black St. Louis neighborhood with Kander at his side.
It was one of nearly 30 such trips on behalf of Democratic candidates for Senate, according to Biden’s staff tally, a mix of public events and fundraising stops. Perhaps more importantly, Biden served as their intermediary to get Obama to wade into contested Democratic primaries to endorse the preferred candidate, according to Schumer.
Diners are a Biden specialty. Customers don’t know what’s coming when his caravan of black SUVs pulls up. “You took my parking spot,” Linda Hill, 65, a retired civil service employee in local courts, told Biden at the Goody Goody Diner. The two laughed and held hands as the vice president tried to persuade Hill’s lunch table to support Kander.
He took his ham-and-cheese sandwich to go — tipping $20 after the restaurant refused to charge him — and headed to a fundraiser with liberal professionals at the St. Louis Club in Clayton.
That’s when Biden spotted a firehouse down the street. Ever since he lost his first wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash, in which his two sons were pulled from the wreckage, Biden has felt a bond with emergency responders. Had he run against Clinton in the Democratic primaries, the national firefighters union planned to endorse him.
So Biden and Kander cut out of the fundraiser to spend time with the mostly white crew of firefighters. But he wants more Democrats doing what he did in one day: Within 75 minutes, Biden had gone from a mostly black diner to wealthy professionals to working-class white firefighters.
“He has enormous reach,” Schumer said.
These trips are always high energy and partly therapeutic, particularly after Biden’s eldest son, Beau, died last year from cancer.
Kander — who said he has no plans to ask Obama to campaign with him — said he was stunned by the energy that Biden exhibited and the easy intimacy he established with voters, who shouted “Joe, Joe,” not “Mr. Vice President.”
Hill called Biden a “good family man” and wished he could run again — but for vice president, with Clinton as president.
On a swing through Columbus, Ohio, in May, Biden stopped into the state capital’s culturally diverse North Market and spent more than 30 minutes posing for selfies and talking up workers, buying an Italian dinner to go.
He pulled residents close in and whispered to them, urging a vote for Ted Strickland, the former Ohio governor running for Senate, only to turn around and realize he was nowhere to be found. “Where’s Ted?” Biden asked.
By early September, Democrats had all but given up on Strickland, conceding the Senate race to Republican incumbent Sen. Rob Portman and pulling resources from that race and diverting them to others. One of Strickland’s key problems: White working-class voters, even those from his old southeastern Ohio congressional district, have abandoned him in droves.
In St. Louis this month, Biden began his day at Launchcode, a nonprofit trying to help underprivileged workers become technology code writers. Biden belittled having “a lot of economists work for me, Rhodes scholars” who calculate the middle class by salary.
“The middle class is not a number; it’s a value set. It’s being able to own your house and not have to rent it; it’s being able to send your kid to the local park and know they’ll come home safely,” he said. “It’s about being able to send your kid to the local high school and if they do well they can get to college, and if they get to college, you can figure out how to [pay to] get them there, and when your mom or dad passes away, you can take care of the other who is in need and hope your kids never have to take care of you. That’s Joe Biden’s definition of the middle class, and the middle class has been clobbered.”
To that end, Biden had an idea after the 2014 midterm elections as Obama’s advisers huddled to prepare for the final two years in office. Biden proposed a middle-class tax cut. It was rejected, according to those familiar with the talks, because it wasn’t considered effective in giving the right economic boost.
That wasn’t the point to Biden, who believed that the proposal was meant as a political play for middle-class voters — Republicans were running Congress anyway, they weren’t going to approve an Obama proposal.
In the vice president’s thinking, proposing a middle-class tax cut would have sent a signal to those voters that Democrats understood their plight, something Biden regularly sums up with this adage from his father: “I don’t expect the government to solve my problems. I expect them to understand my problems.”
So Biden’s role this fall is to help candidates like Kander reach voters that other Democrats can’t break through with, not necessarily to win a majority of the white working class but to at least reduce the margins.
But he also wants Democrats to challenge Republicans for those voters: “What are Republicans gonna do for you, white working-class folks? Well, guess what, they ain’t gonna help your kid get to school, they’re gonna cut it,” he said. “They’re not gonna help you pay the mortgage. They’re not gonna help.”