MIAMI—By the time the Democratic candidates began to deliver their closing statements at last night’s debate, most of the roughly 375 reporters in the spin room were already out of their chairs, getting in position to grab interviews with the competitors and their teams.
Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper popped in first, followed almost immediately by one of his home state’s senators, Michael Bennet, and then Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Roving clumps of reporters shouted questions at the candidates as they made their way from cable-news camera to cable-news camera. Think Frogger, the 1980s arcade game, if the frog had microphones shoved in its face while it tried to hop between lily pads.
The spin room is a strange post-presidential-debate tradition, where campaign staffers and surrogates try to tell the press what to think about an event reporters just watched with their own eyes. Only this time, for the first set of Democratic debates, there was a twist: The candidates showed up themselves.
Well, most of them did. But not the front-runner. Joe Biden’s campaign never planned to send him there, and after the hammering he took onstage from Senator Kamala Harris of California, staffers didn’t change their minds. After the debate ended, Biden chatted with debate moderators and posed for a few selfies with audience members, holding his arm out to take the photos himself. He was the last candidate onstage as others ventured into the crowd, until an MSNBC reporter started asking him about Harris. Biden tried to explain why he thinks Harris misrepresented his long record, until his wife, Jill Biden, interrupted and pulled him away.
Joe Biden’s competitors are running for president. Biden is still strolling.
The former vice president spends most of his days off the campaign trail, and when he does get on, he doesn’t tend to do many events. He grants interviews to reporters in early presidential-primary states, but overall he doesn’t spend a lot of time talking with the press. And he’s hesitant to discuss his policy positions with much depth. He was the only high-profile candidate who declined to participate in a recent project from The New York Times, in which the Democrats answered the same set of questions about their proposals and positions. His campaign has declined to comment about his position on the death penalty, just as earlier this week it did not respond to questions from The Atlantic about whether he still supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
He skipped the California Democratic Party State Convention at the beginning of the month; a week before, he attended his granddaughter’s high-school graduation instead of the Iowa Democratic Party’s unofficial kickoff to the caucus campaign. And this morning, despite having told a voter in New Hampshire that he would visit an immigrant-detention facility near Miami while he was in town, he went on his way to do some high-dollar fundraising in Chicago, as six of his competitors made the 40-minute drive to try to inspect the conditions.
Biden’s team is unapologetic about his approach. They think no one beyond a small group of political insiders and Twitter maniacs cares where he goes. They’ve drawn lessons from some of the mini controversies that have popped up so far in the race—the accusations of inappropriate touching, the flare-up over his flipped position on federal funding for abortion. The backlash faded. His poll numbers didn’t.
“They’re trying to run out the clock, and the game hasn’t even started,” a seasoned Democratic operative, speaking on the condition of anonymity to remain neutral in the race, told me this morning after watching the debate.
Candidates aren’t obligated to attend every event or do every interview in a presidential-primary season. The race is long, schedules conflict, and staffs routinely make judgment calls about the best use of a candidate’s time. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg also didn’t come to the spin room last night, the only other contender not to appear. His campaign, his press secretary told me, wanted to “let the performance speak for itself.”
Biden’s critics and rivals say he’s scared of saying or doing the wrong thing in public. Biden’s advisers see a candidate who has the luxury of not having to take any chances, so he’s taking the opportunity to sit back.
“One of the reasons we hold these very difficult, arduous campaigns, [where] people have to fly from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina on five days’ notice, is that we are seeing the hustle and the desire and the drive you have to make your appeal to voters, and to ultimately go through the gauntlet that will be a huge general-election campaign,” Bernie Sanders’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, told me after the debate, reflecting on Biden. “I don’t fault [Biden] on strategy … But at some point it seems clear that he probably needs more exposure” to effectively connect with voters.
Biden’s campaign did try to shape perceptions of his performance, inviting about two dozen reporters to an hour-long briefing yesterday afternoon. In the third-floor boardroom of an art museum down the street from where the evening’s action took place, some reporters asked for insight into Biden’s thought process. Some asked for colorful tidbits about how he’d prepared, and what the campaign’s overall objective was for the debate. (“Keep Joe Biden, Joe Biden” was one answer offered.) That’s when officials said he wouldn’t be in the spin room. When I asked why Biden thought he didn’t have to come—not submitting himself to the same intensity of examination as the other candidates—the officials pushed back, saying he’d been doing more than the campaign was being given credit for.
Biden’s team didn’t think he had to be there, said one official, who like others there spoke only on the condition of anonymity. Other candidates aren’t as well known as Biden, the official said. They’re looking for attention; he already gets it.
Reporters’ prodding about candidate access can come off as whining. But there was a practical consequence to Biden’s truancy last night: Where other candidates had the chance to explain themselves in more detail, the press, and thus the voters, were left with unanswered questions about what Biden was trying to say.
A few hours later, in the spin room, three campaign officials who were not Biden tried to answer these questions. Did he mind what Harris had said: that his comments about working with segregationists in the Senate had been hurtful, and that his views on busing to integrate public schools seemed out of touch? Why was he still defending his opposition to busing decades ago? How is it that he now supports providing health care to undocumented immigrants under the Affordable Care Act, when Barack Obama had specifically not included that measure in his plan 10 years ago?
Several of Biden’s answers seemed to be creating confusion, I said to the Biden-campaign operatives—confusion that some voters might have, too. Why not have him come out and explain his positions himself?
“He just spent two hours talking to the American people,” said Anita Dunn, the longtime Democratic communications adviser who’s helping the campaign. She was standing with Deputy Campaign Manager Kate Bedingfield and the senior adviser Symone Sanders, while a few feet away several of the lesser-known candidates did their own interviews. “He is, as a candidate, committed to making sure that we have a level of transparency on this campaign that not every other campaign has matched,” Dunn said.
In the absence of Biden talking, his aides filled the void on Twitter, too. A tweet by a top Biden aide seemed to be a direct rebuke of Harris: “To attack him because he worked to convince Repubs (yes, some with horrible views) to vote for the Voting Rights Act is outrageous and is exactly what Trump wants,” wrote the senior adviser Cristóbal Alex. (When a journalist tweeted that the Biden “campaign” had said that, Symone Sanders responded, “no we did not.”) Another tweet, from Kamau Marshall, Biden’s director of strategic communications: “Dear Black people: Don’t be black when it’s convenient. Be black 365/24-7. Period. Sincerely, a black man.” (What did he mean by that? I asked him over email, but did not receive a response. By Friday afternoon, he’d quietly deleted the tweet.)
“If 19 other candidates jump off a bridge, would you?” said Cedric Richmond, the representative from Louisiana who is also Biden’s campaign co-chair, when I asked why his candidate often avoids doing what his fellow competitors are doing. “One thing about Joe Biden: He’s a leader, not a follower.” Richmond claimed that Biden has kept busy trying to return phone calls from the more than 1,500 people who’ve contacted his campaign since he announced his run in April.
Former Representative John Delaney of Maryland wasn’t on the debate stage yesterday; he’d made his appearance Wednesday. But the underdog candidate was nevertheless back in the spin room last night. When I asked him about Biden’s absence, he told me that the former vice president had “probably earned the right” not to attend every event. “People know who he is. He should talk to voters. He doesn’t have to talk to the media as much as other people do,” Delaney said. But overall, “he ought to be campaigning the same as everybody else.”
Biden has tried to seed a sense of inevitability since he launched his campaign. Beating Donald Trump is the most important thing Democrats have to do in 2020, he says, and it’s clear he believes that he’s the candidate best positioned to win. But in setting himself apart from the field so deliberately, Biden may be risking his chance to explain to Democratic voters why he’s the one they should pick as their party’s nominee.