The Times, We Are Campaigning! (Starting With Biden)

Those readers familiar with my 2016 election coverage remember that I strongly believe that to fully understand a presidential candidate, it is necessary to see them in their natural environment: on the campaign trail, speaking to, and with, voters.   Without attending the rallies, it is easy to let prior assumptions drive election analysis, as happened to me when I initially failed to understand the scope of and reasons for Trump’s support, and instead was too quick to write off his presidential candidacy.  (For my analysis of what I saw and heard at his campaign rallies, see here). Direct observation also helps sidestep the influence of a media that is often too eager to fit a campaign event into an existing narrative that may not fully capture what actually occurred.

With that in mind, and given that the “invisible” primary has become slightly more visible (thanks to the first set of debates (see my debate analysis here), once again I’ve begun my quadrennial madness, dashing from campaign event to campaign event in order to give you an unvarnished (as much as possible) ringside seat for what is shaping up to be another fascinating, and portentous, election.  My initial focus will be on the Democrats’ side of the nominating process, since that is where the action is.  We begin with my visit to a Biden campaign event in New Hampshire, once of several he held in the Granite state yesterday.  Biden, of course, was coming off a subpar debate performance two weeks ago highlighted by his exchange with Senator Kamala Harris regarding mandatory busing to integrate public schools – an exchange that, as replayed by the media, likely contributed to a post-debate erosion in Biden’s polling support.  Much of the polling support Biden lost appeared to move to Harris, as she saw her polling numbers increase by about 8%, pushing her into a virtual tie for second in national polls, with Sanders and Warren.

RealClearPolitics Polling Averages

So, I was eager to see how Biden would respond in the aftermath of the debate.  Would he continue to position himself as a front runner, focusing primarily on his ability to beat Trump?  Or would he respond to the attacks by his Democrat rivals?  As it turned out, he did a little of both.  (As always, in writing these posts I am relying on contemporaneous tweets send out by me during the event, notes taken by my fellow campaign analyst and wife Alison, and my increasingly faulty memory.  All references to statements by others are paraphrased, unless in quotation marks.)

We arrived at Mack’s Apples, a picturesque little farmer’s market in Londonderry, just as Biden launched into his speech.  Although Biden was speaking from inside a small barn, most of the 300 or so people attending (but not the media) were outside, trying to stay cool on an extremely hot day. 

Inside The “Barn”

Biden prefaced his talk by saying he was in the race for three reasons: health care, climate change, and to bring the nation together. We did not hear Biden mention his Democrat rivals by name, but it was clear they were on his mind when he launched into a strong defense of the Affordable Care Act, arguably Obama’s signature domestic achievement, saying he would oppose any effort to replace it.  In a not-so-slightly veiled barb at his opponents who are pushing to supplant the ACA with some version of Medicare-For-All, Biden argued instead for strengthening and extending the existing health care legislation, in part by adding a public option, which he sees as both a less expensive and more politically feasible approach.  He also sought to link health care to criminal justice reform by emphasizing the importance of drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration for addiction.

He then turned to climate change, saying everything else pales in comparison.  He promised that the first act of the Biden presidency would be to rejoin the Paris climate accord, which generated strong applause from the audience. He noted that although the U.S. contributes 15% of global carbon emissions, it should use its position of influence to work with other nations to reduce overall emissions.  Trump, he argued, hurt this effort by isolating the U.S. and damaging relations with our allies – a pattern Biden pledged to reverse, citing his extensive experience on the Senate Foreign Relations committee. He also pointed out that there were immediate steps the country could take to curb emissions, such as increasing the number of charging stations for electric cars.  

Biden’s final point centered on an issue that has gotten him into difficulties with some of his opponents: the need to work with political opponents to get things done, which he sees as crucial to bringing the nation together. The President, he said – using language drawn straight from Richard Neustadt’s classic work Presidential Power “must be able to persuade.”   (At this point I tweeted that he had already earned my vote simply by quoting my dissertation adviser! – if I voted. Which I don’t.)  He defended the need for political pragmatism and pointed out that it was that focus on reaching across the aisle for support that led to Democrats’ victories in predominantly red states in the 2018 midterm elections.  He also made a plea to the millennial voters, arguing that they could have a transformative impact if they voted at the same rates as everyone else.  

Biden finished on a rhetorical high note by trying to draw contrasts with Trump and his political supporters. “We are for hope, they are for fear,” he roared, “We are for unity, they are for division” and finishing with “We are for truth, they are for lies!”   The music kicked in, and he waded into the small crowd in the barn to meet and greet, followed by a line for those seeking selfies with the candidate.

Biden Meeting and Greeting

Biden took no questions, and in total his talk lasted perhaps 15 minutes. This was a quick campaign stop wedged in among longer events he held in other spots in NH that day. In that time, however, it was clear that he was not apologizing for some of the stances for which he has been criticized, particularly his effort to position himself as the candidate best able to get things done, even if it means working with political rivals, and as someone with a voting record that supports that contention.  His tone was feisty, as he doubled down on what seems to be the core of his candidacy: that he has the best chance to beat Trump – a point reiterated by an older man when I asked him what he thought about Biden’s speech.  “It was great.” he said.  “He’s the only one who can beat Trump.”  “Well, that’s what he said,” I responded.  “He’s right,” the man replied.

It remains unclear whether Joe will get the chance to prove that claim, or whether Democrats will view him as too old, and too willing to compromise core Democrat principles as articulated by the more progressive wing of the party.  On the surface he remains as folksy and confident as ever, continuing to banter with the crowd from his SUV as he left the event. Meanwhile, we headed north to see Beto O’Rourke in action.  It was an entirely different campaign experience – one I’ll post about tomorrow.

Biden Has Left the Building!


  1. Your parenthetical statement puzzles me: do you not vote in the general election? In any primary? Or in the New Hampshire primary?

  2. I vote in local elections in which my wife is running. Not saying who I vote for, of course. That’s it!

  3. Hey Matt

    It’s your old pal Sally the die hard Hillary fan from NYC. This year l would like Biden/Beto. Both have a lot of work to do but I dislike Kamala who came to the debate with a skill shoe agenda. I am sick of mean people. Pete is too young, Bernie didn’t come out for Hillary for a month…..sour grapes , Amy has a bit of negative in staff treatment… well a lot more pressure being Pres. Joe and Beto have loyalty elegance and l believe a code of ethics. So I will be interested to follow you right now! Cheers Matt

  4. Hey Sally – Great to hear from you! I hope to start posting a bit more regularly now that the campaign is underway, so it’s good to hear from some familiar voices. I’ll have an extended post up on Beto soon – work permitting, I’ll post it tomorrow. Several people have mentioned to me that Beto would make a great VP selection. For starters, he potentially puts Texas in play (at least he claims as much!) He also has appeal among younger voters. I haven’t seen Klobuchar yet, but of course have heard the talk about her mistreatment of staff. The Bernie story is fascinating – a lot of Clinton supporters have not forgiven him for what they see as his lukewarm support for her candidacy in 2016. I’m not sure how much that is contributing to his failure to expand his coalition, but for whatever reason he’s been treading water for a while now. Kamala got a big boost coming out of the debate, but it’s not clear she can sustain it.

    It’s going to be a fascinating campaign!

  5. Matthew,

    Glad to read a post by you. I appreciate your viewpoints. I haven’t voted for a mainstream presidential candidate since 1992 when George Bush I had the courage to go back on his promise of ‘No new taxes” and raise taxes in the face of the small 1991-92 recession. All the rest have been ciphers.

    I would caution everyone here that doesn’t want Trump again. Unless you figure out how to reach the massively disaffected in our land, the “left behinds”, the struggling coal folks, the huge numbers of people suffering in all the so-called “Red States” and large portions of some “Blue” states, you will get Trump again. Because this terrible level of wealth and income inequality in our land is the major source of the angst, make no mistake about that. And that inequality leads to great inequality in opportunity. And all the talk about “free stuff” just makes them mad, especially “free stuff” for illegal immigrants and I haven’t seen any policy positions to deal with the above EFFECTIVELY. Warren is publishing like crazy but her policy positions are not going to fly, for the most part. Especially taking health care away from 150,000,000 folks who like what they have. Insanity squared.

    Some reading, if your interested, because economic pain causes people to want somebody different. If the minimum wage had followed the rise in productivity since 1975, it would now be $18.43 per hour. But, Capital decided, in a massive values shift, to keep all the wealth generated by productivity for themselves. First came “Greed is Good”, and the one killing Labor today, “Maximize shareholder value”, as if shareholders are the only stakeholders. Labor, Community and Government are ignored. That mantra is directly responsible for the Boeing debacle with the 787 (30 BILLION in losses) and the current 737Max mess. It could kill the company.—x-marks-the_b_7881768.html?imm_mid=0f5cef&cmp=em-business-na-na-newsltr_econ_20170901

    I wanted to post a graph on the top 10% of the wealth bracket but although I had it on my clipboard, I couldn’t get it to post. It shows the massive difference of the 1920-29 and 2000-2017 periods. Worse now than then.

    The ancient curse is upon us: “May you always live in interesting times.” I’m 82 and have seen a lot and our “Community” formed after WW II that generated the greatest middle class ever seen is being systematically destroyed. That is what elected Trump. And will again, unless whoever wins the Dem nomination speaks to that issue, inequality and inequity, in a believable and effective manner.

  6. The most electable Democrat will be the candidate who makes it through the gauntlet of rallies, debates, press availabilities, and the primaries, visible and invisible. The candidate will be acceptable to a wide swath of the electorate. The candidate will make gaffes, and recover, and will survive negative coverage in the press. There will be grumbling from some supporters of the folks who don’t win the nom, but it will fade.

    Who’s the most electable Democrat? Ask me a week before Iowa, and I’ll probably be able to narrow it down to three or so.

  7. Geoff,

    Thanks for the comment. It is clear that Democrats of all ideological stripes are more focused on the general election viability of their nominee in 2020 than they were in 2016, and for good reason: the other party holds the White House now. But it also seems to me that, at the risk of simplification, there seems to be a split among Democrats regarding what makes a candidate most electable. Progressives – Warren, Harris, Sanders – think the center of gravity of the party has moved left, making most of Bernie’s positions from four years ago palatable to most voters, and therefore a progressive candidate who can mobilize the base of upper-income liberals and urban minorities has a good shot of winning next November, assuming turnout goes up. But candidates like Klobuchar and Biden believe a more viable route is broadening the Democrat’s coalition to bring back the New Deal middle- and lower-income white voters in the midwest who have been leaving the Democratic Party in recent decades. This is a broad simplification, of course, subject to more detailed polling data, but I think it accurately captures some of the early dynamic in the race.

  8. Matt,

    Thanks for your reply. Ideally, I wouldn’t want to put all my eggs in the increased base turnout basket, nor in the disaffected former Dem basket. I think most of the candidates, with the possible exception of Bernie, will have the same goal. I don’t think that it will possible to win the nomination without capturing liberals and moderates, or put another way, anyone who pisses off the left or the mods will suffer. I could certainly be wrong, and if I am, it’s likely that I’ve underestimated the strength of the left.

  9. Geoff—I think you have underestimated the strength and anger of the disaffected. And the leftist positions will bring them out in droves to vote for Trump because the Dem alternative may be totally unpalatable, no matter how much they don’t like his style, they’ll like the Dem promises worse. When Friedman is worried, things are bad.

    I posted this on Matthew’s latest blog about Hickenlooper but in case you did not see it, here it is.

  10. Biden’s final point centered on an issue that has gotten him into difficulties with some of his opponents

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