As 10 candidates head to Houston for the party’s third primary debate, tomorrow night, aides on multiple other campaigns tell me they hadn’t anticipated Biden’s resiliency, and many admit they don’t know quite what to do about it. They never counted on it being so hard for the race to move away from a 76-year-old who’s lost two other presidential campaigns, with a long record full of potential hazards and a history of putting his foot in his mouth.
But many Democratic voters don’t just have PTSD from 2016—they have a daily, constantly refreshed panic about 2020. To these voters, it’s understandable why the prospect of Uncle Joe, wrapping his arm around America and saying it’s going to be all right, resonates deeper now than it did when Biden and top aides started privately laying out a potential campaign pitch more than two years ago, still early into Trump’s first term.
Read: Joe Biden remembers when
“It’s a huge help for him that he’s running against someone so controversial,” Elizabeth Thayer, a 28-year-old from Litchfield, New Hampshire, told me last Saturday. She was waiting to see South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg at a picnic in a park in Manchester.
Biden has expressed annoyance over the past few months that people keep expecting his campaign to collapse. “You all said I was going to fail from the beginning. You said, ‘Biden is going to start off, and he’s going to plummet,’” he said on his second trip to Iowa in June, pointing at me. (As I told him then, I hadn’t said that, though it’s true I’d reported that other people had said it.)
His campaign isn’t coy about how much he owes to Trump. In a conference call with reporters last week, a person who, according to the ground rules set for listening, could be identified only as a “senior campaign official” said, “We think voters are really in a serious mood,” adding, “the fear about [Trump] being reelected is deep, and it’s defined.” This person insisted that the campaign’s research shows that voters are inclined to choose Biden for his character and sense of stability, not just because he’s a guy who can beat Trump. “Probably the most common word used to define Trump these days is erratic,” the senior campaign official said. “Four years ago, the most common word to describe Trump was disruptor … It’s a totally different calculation. It’s actually a very complicated and detailed assessment that voters have.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, in her Saturday-afternoon address to the New Hampshire Democratic Party convention in Manchester, made a clear dig at Biden. “There is a lot at stake, and people are scared. But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in because we’re scared,” she said. “I am not afraid, and for Democrats to win, you can’t be afraid, either.” The hundreds of volunteers Warren’s campaign bused in to cheer for her as she took the stage chanted, “Win with Warren!”