Following dismal results in the Iowa caucuses that have rattled many in his orbit, his campaign is now simultaneously trying to lower expectations here — with some suggesting they would consider a finish as low as third place a victory — while also bracing for a second straight difficult Election Day.
In one troublesome sign for the financially strapped campaign, it canceled nearly $150,000 in television ads in South Carolina, which votes Feb. 29, and moved the spending to Nevada, whose Feb. 22 contest follows New Hampshire’s. The move seemed to acknowledge that Biden’s campaign cannot sustain a continued run of bad news.
“From a Biden perspective, there’s going to be a course correction in all three states before Super Tuesday,” said Dick Harpootlian, a South Carolina state senator who is in regular contact with Biden’s campaign. “He’s got to have sharper elbows.”
He suggested that those inside the campaign realized the gravity of the moment and that Biden had to better “explain the difference with his opponents.”
“History may write that the best thing that ever happened to Joe Biden was getting gut-punched in Iowa,” he added. “It woke him up, it woke his campaign up and his supporters up. They were complacent. . . . You’ve got to talk about the other guy.”
But, at least on Thursday, it was the other guy talking about Biden.
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who along with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) finished at the top in Iowa, continued his media blitz, appearing on shows from ABC’s “The View” to the gossip site TMZ, where he argued that he — not Biden — was the most electable Democratic candidate.
“If your focus is on electability . . . the best way, I think, to demonstrate you’re a candidate who can win is to go win,” he said on TMZ.
Some of Biden’s supporters were growing agitated with the campaign, struggling to point to any one piece of it that has been successful. His organizing operation struggled in Iowa, his fundraising numbers have never been impressive, and his message is often muddled.
One person close to the campaign, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy, expects a dramatic reshuffling of his operation if Biden does not show improvement in New Hampshire. Biden has rarely fired staffers during his decades-long career, so any changes would probably mean internal shifting of responsibilities.
Even before then, disputes have emerged among some of his top advisers, who have generally split between an older group that has been with Biden for decades, and a younger group that, while loyal, has joined his staff more recently. There have been disagreements since the start of the campaign over how much to focus on the middle-class economic message that has defined much of Biden’s career and how much to center his message on President Trump.
Biden’s first evident shift after Monday night’s drubbing came Wednesday when he dedicated a third of a speech to criticizing his rivals — after long insisting he would not attack others. The development, which targeted Sanders and Buttigieg, energized some supporters.
Dave Nagle, a former Iowa Democratic Party chairman and former congressman, said he was stunned by how poorly conceived the Biden message was in his state. He received four pieces of mail from the Biden campaign. Only one mentioned the economy. The rest were about Trump, civility and international affairs, issues that did not move voters, he said.
“He has got to get his message right and his message out here wasn’t right. His presentations were not focused. They were rambling. They were stories about what his father told him and what his mother told him,” he said. “I think the Biden campaign got his message from the ’80s, when it is totally different now. If he retools his message I think he can be very competitive.”
But his ability to expound was constrained. Biden had reserved only $165,000 in television ads in the final week before the New Hampshire primary, according to data from Advertising Analytics, although a super PAC backing him is airing an additional $580,000 worth. Sanders is airing nearly $500,000 in ads, while Warren is airing nearly $360,000.
Among the top-tier candidates, Buttigieg will have the most air cover, with his campaign spending $570,000 and an additional $815,000 coming from Vote Vets, a super PAC supporting him. That puts Buttigieg and his allies at about twice the spending of Biden and his backers.
Biden’s advisers have been attempting to bat down questions about his longevity — including some far-fetched suggestions that he drop out soon — and on Thursday afternoon they sent out a fundraising email with the subject line: “I’m not going anywhere.”
They are most concerned with trying to survive to states that are more friendly to his more diverse base. In South Carolina, in particular, he has kept a commanding polling lead largely based on his strong support among African American voters, who make up nearly two-thirds of Democratic primary voters there.
“The donor class, the staff, the volunteers in a presidential campaign are nervous inherently,” said former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, who has been a top Biden fundraiser and remained optimistic. “The fact that Joe had a subpar performance in Iowa makes them more nervous. That’s to be expected.”
The Biden campaign declined to comment on the record, but an adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy said that the campaign was preparing for a long nomination fight.
“Joe Biden has never been handed anything in his life and he’s here to fight for every delegate in this long process,” the adviser said. “The vice president has forcefully argued that Wall Street didn’t build this nation — hard-working working class and middle-class Americans did — which is why he’s running to rebuild the middle class.”
Biden’s super PAC is seen as a more important vehicle to prop up a campaign that has struggled to raise money. Larry Rasky, a longtime Biden loyalist who helped form the group, was on the phone Thursday trying to round up multimillion-dollar donations.
“The reports of our demise are highly exaggerated,” Rasky said. “We’re certainly not going away. We’re here to fight. I don’t think there’s any question there’s a lot of fight left in this game.”
“Nobody was thrilled about the results in Iowa but they certainly are not jumping ship based on the results,” he said.
The super PAC has generally been positively promoting Biden on television, but appears to be moving toward airing more pointed ads that target his opponents. A recent ad stresses that he is experienced and accomplished, which could be viewed as a contrast with Sanders’s lack of legislative accomplishments and Buttigieg’s lack of experience.
Steve Cozen, a Biden donor and top fundraiser for the campaign, said he was disappointed at Biden’s performance in Iowa but was confident in Biden’s prospects going forward.
Referring to Sanders’s $25 million haul in January and Buttigieg’s nearly $3 million in donations just since the Iowa caucuses, Cozen said Biden’s donors and bundlers are escalating their efforts to raise money for his campaign.
“Obviously, the money is a constant issue, and we have redoubled our efforts,” he said.
Cozen said he hopes to see Biden more aggressively criticize his opponents, despite his discomfort in doing so.
“Joe has to be a little bit more aggressive than he’s been in the past. He’s a uniter, not a divider. I don’t want him to be a divider, but he’s got to be a little less self-effacing and say, ‘You know what, I’m the best guy, and here’s why I’m the best guy, and here’s why these guys aren’t the best people,’ ” Cozen said.
“I’d love for him to do that, and he can do it in his own, great Joe way that will endear him to people” in New Hampshire and beyond, Cozen said.
But some point out that he faces head winds in New Hampshire. Sanders dominated here in the 2016 primary and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) represents a neighboring state. Buttigieg, for his part, seems to have all the attention and momentum.
“We don’t have high expectations in New Hampshire. We never have,” said a top adviser, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s on to Nevada.”
Harpootlian said a third-place finish would make Biden “the comeback kid,” Bill Clinton’s description of himself after the then-governor of Arkansas battled to a second-place finish here in 1992.
“Then he goes to Nevada — and then thank God he comes to a normal state,” he said, referring to the fourth-voting state, South Carolina.
Michelle Ye Hee Lee contributed to this report.