2020 Election

Why Joe Biden’s Campaign is Struggling

11 minute read

On a warm Friday afternoon in July, Joe Biden stood under a tent on the banks of the Cocheco River in Dover, N.H., trying to rally a crowd of 200 behind his presidential campaign. Biden’s staff had handed him a speech and positioned teleprompters onstage. But he wasn’t in the mood to follow the script. So aides removed the prompters, and Biden tossed the printed speech aside. “I’ve got a nice speech here for you, but I’m not going to take the time,” he told the crowd. “I’m going to try to shorten this up for you.”

And off he went, literally and figuratively, pacing the lawn over the course of a 36-minute riff. Instead of focusing on policy prescriptions, such as his call to triple federal funding for low-income schools, Biden noted that his home state of Delaware has more minorities than New Hampshire. He emphasized policy proposals from the eight years he served as President Barack Obama’s loyal lieutenant: rejoining the Paris climate agreement, updating the Iran nuclear agreement, building on Obamacare. Then Biden cut to the chase. The big ideas espoused by today’s Democrats are unrealistic, he said, and his colleagues’ unwillingness to collaborate with Republicans is foolhardy. “Somehow,” he said, “being able to cooperate with the other side is to be naive.”

The speech was a snapshot of the challenge facing Biden’s campaign. Six months before the Iowa caucuses, Biden looks like the shakiest front runner in years. Though every poll still shows him running atop the Democratic field, since he joined the race in late April, Biden’s support has been cut almost in half. His campaign message has been unfocused, with the candidate caught between advice dispensed by a raft of hired guns, a cadre of old friends and his own instincts. “Biden’s gonna Biden” is how staffers have come to shorthand it. As the Democrats debate where to take the party in the future, Biden can seem stuck in the past: while rivals expressed support for paying slavery reparations to African Americans, Biden was talking about working across ideological lines with avowed segregationists. A 76-year-old man who joined the Senate during the Nixon Administration increasingly seems out of step in a primary dominated by questions of race, gender and inequality. Where others are preaching the virtues of a fight, Biden is urging civility. “There will always be a gap between Joe Biden and the future,” snarked Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is backing Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Biden tries to put a positive gloss on things, saying the problems come with the territory when you’re the front runner. “I’d rather be there than anywhere else,” Biden said. “But, you know, it’s amazing.” A few hours later, he was more open about his frustrations with his campaign. Staffers had invited journalists to tag along as he picked up some chocolate chip ice cream. But Biden–who believes President Donald Trump’s rise was fueled by naked authenticity and sees the same trait in himself–found the setup phony. “After all these years of being in public office, I’m known for ice cream and sunglasses,” Biden lamented. “There’s gotta be something better than that.”

Biden made his first campaign stop on April 29 at the Teamsters Local 249 hall in Pittsburgh.
Biden made his first campaign stop on April 29 at the Teamsters Local 249 hall in Pittsburgh.Mark Peterson—Redux

The primary won’t get any easier. After the drubbing he took in the first round of debates, when Senator Kamala Harris pummeled his record on busing and school desegregation, the pressure is on the former Vice President to perform better in his second debate, on July 31. The uneven first performance only raises the stakes for its sequel.

If Biden’s focus on Trump is intended to project an aura of inevitability, it carries with it a whiff of arrogance. In an echo of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, Biden’s schedule has been lighter than most, he’s kept the press at arm’s length (aides declined to make him available for an interview for this story), and he often brushes off criticism from other contenders. “Lots of folks love him, but he cannot rest on his laurels,” says Jaime Harrison, a Democratic National Committeeman from South Carolina who has not endorsed a presidential candidate. “He has got to work for it.”

Biden has plenty of time to fix things, and plenty of advantages: the ties to Obama, coast-to-coast name recognition, long and loyal relationships across the party, a deep bench of big-money donors and a lead in the polls. In a primary in which voters are focused on electability, Biden fares best in theoretical head-to-head matchups with Trump. Despite the appearance of disarray, Biden’s policies remain aligned with not just the broad middle of the American electorate that can deliver the presidency but also with the majority of the Democratic Party, aides believe. “The reality is this: the Twitterverse and the very loud part of this party is an important part of this party, but it’s not the only part of the party,” says messaging maven Anita Dunn, a former communications director for Obama and now a Biden adviser.

But before Biden can take on Trump, he has to convince restless Democrats that he can unite the party and win back the White House. And for now, he seems determined to do it his way, whatever the cost.

Even Biden’s entry into the race was tortured. His most trusted advisers pushed him to announce after the 2018 midterms. But Biden demurred into the December holidays, then into the first quarter of the year. Weeks dragged on as rivals jumped into the race and started scooping up staff and donors. “Oh, God. It was painful,” recalls Representative Cedric Richmond, a co-chairman of the Biden campaign, sitting at his usual table at the National Democratic Club, the kind of private cubbyhole where party insiders once tapped presidential candidates.

When Biden finally committed, his team recorded a video near his childhood home in Scranton, Pa., emphasizing his middle-class roots. They planned an April 24 launch but held it a day, recognizing that it fell on the day of a political conference for women of color. The sensitivity was understandable: Biden had been accused weeks earlier by a Nevada state lawmaker, Lucy Flores, and others of unwanted physical affection, setting off a national discussion of his history of inappropriate touching and his stumbling response to the accusations. Ultimately, instead of the middle-class pitch, the campaign released an ad decrying the August 2017 rallies in Charlottesville, Va., and declaring that Biden was running because Trump had changed the soul of America and Biden was the priest to exorcise the President’s hate.

But Team Biden continued stumbling. Most campaigns use their postlaunch window to blitz voters and TV studios. Biden took four days to hold his first campaign event, at a Pittsburgh union hall, then spent the next few weeks meeting with his financial bundlers and blowing off campaign forums organized by special-interest groups. There were so many days when Biden had no events that the campaign started padding the public agenda by announcing the candidate’s meetings with his own advisers. Biden’s official rally-style launch wasn’t until May 18. His campaign headquarters in Philadelphia didn’t open until July.

Longtime Biden allies were aghast at the rocky rollout and undisciplined performances. On the trail, Biden often adds caveats that his facts and figures might not be precise. (“Don’t hold me to that” is a favorite out.) During an event in a Concord, N.H., union hall on June 4, the same day it was revealed that his campaign had failed to credit think tanks for his energy policy, Biden took so many questions that his staff had to turn on the music to play him offstage, as if he were an Oscar winner whose speech was droning on too long. Two weeks later, Biden invoked former Senate colleague James Eastland, the embodiment of the Dixiecrat South, as an example of collaboration despite ideological differences. Rivals unloaded on Biden, who was exasperated that anyone would construe his invocation of Eastland as praise.

Some advisers urged Biden to confront his rivals more aggressively. Biden initially resisted. His approach, advisers say, is informed by the 2008 race, in which some Clinton supporters vowed to never support Obama for President after a bruising nomination fight. Biden saw the same dynamic again in 2016, when some of Bernie Sanders’ supporters either stayed on the sidelines in the general election or opted for a third-party candidate, costing Clinton crucial votes in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Biden didn’t want to contribute to a repeat. “His singular focus was to beat Donald Trump. Even if it wasn’t him that is going to beat Donald Trump, he didn’t want to jeopardize the Democrats’ chances of winning,” Richmond says.

Others inside the Biden operation complained that much of the coverage of the campaign has ignored his policies. “You hear a lot about Joe Biden on television but not necessarily about what his plans are and what he would do and why he’s running and what his vision for America is,” says Symone Sanders, a senior adviser. But when the campaign tried, in close quarters, to get Biden to have crisp answers to the big questions, they found him ruminating on legislation he introduced in the 1970s or hearings he attended in the 1980s and 1990s. Ask him a question about the Green New Deal and he’ll remind his crowds that in 1986 he introduced the first climate-change bill in the Senate.

Biden remains as likely as anyone to be the nominee. More than anything, Democratic voters want someone who can send Trump into retirement. And Biden advisers argue that he is uniquely positioned to beat Trump. “It’s not just because he’s popular. It’s not just because they like him. It’s because he fills all the voids Trump leaves as President of the United States,” says campaign pollster John Anzalone. And after decades in the public eye, Biden has a connection with voters. He is a skilled grief counselor at moments of national sadness: school shootings, natural disasters, state funerals. “America knows this guy. For Democratic primary voters, they really know him,” Anzalone says.

To win the primary and the White House, Biden must maintain his strong reservoirs of support in the African-American community. Among African Americans who plan to vote in South Carolina’s Democratic primary, Biden leads the field on the question of who would best handle questions of race (28%) and “is most in touch with the concerns of people like you” (31%), according to a July poll from Fox News. In public and private polls, Biden’s Eastland detour did nothing to shake black voters’ support. But Biden advisers anticipate continued criticism of his record on race, especially in a contest against two African-American rivals in Harris and Senator Cory Booker.

The campaign is also preparing for more attacks on his record. Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation battle, which included what is now seen as unfair treatment of Anita Hill, a law professor who accused Thomas of sexual harassment. Biden shepherded the 1994 crime bill, viewed by many Democrats as biased against African Americans, into law. He voted for the war in Iraq. In the years since he left the White House, he and his wife made more than $15 million from book deals, paid speeches and an Ivy League teaching gig that could undercut his self-image as “middle-class Joe.” All run counter to what the loudest voices in the Democratic Party are demanding.

For all that, catching Biden may prove difficult. The rules Democrats will use to select the nominee in Milwaukee next July are favorable to Biden. Candidates cannot win pledged delegates from a state unless they reach 15% support. Apart from Biden, only Warren, Harris, Sanders and Pete Buttigieg appear currently in position to hit that threshold right now, and Biden has the moderate lane mostly to himself. Even then, the states will divvy up the delegates proportionally. Biden’s deep ties throughout the party would come in handy in a long battle.

But that remains a long way off, and in the early rounds of the fight, Biden has not inspired much enthusiasm. On the same day Biden met with those 200 voters in Dover, Buttigieg beat him to town by a few hours. Awaiting Buttigieg a 10-minute stroll across the river? Almost 900 people.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com