FULLERTON, Calif. — By the time Joe Biden decided not to run for president in 2016, many Biden loyalists had become convinced that weak fundraising and his lack of infrastructure in early primary states would have doomed him if he ran.
What a difference now.
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One month before the 2020 presidential primary begins in earnest, Biden continues to lead in early polls. He is ramping up his schedule of midterm campaign appearances and, perhaps more significantly, meeting with donors.
This week, before appearing at a rally here Thursday for several House candidates, the former vice president raised money for his American Possibilities PAC at two fundraisers in the Los Angeles area.
The host of the first event, film studio executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, was critical to then-Sen. Barack Obama’s fundraising success in the 2008 presidential primary. And while Katzenberg has met with many prospective 2020 candidates, Biden’s appearance in Beverly Hills served as a reminder of the connections he still can tap into.
“Don’t let anyone fool you: If he decides to run, you will see a national infrastructure come together,” said the hotel magnate George Tsunis, an Obama megadonor. “In the past when he’s run, there has been a formidable primary opponent … If he chooses to run in 2020, he would be the Obama-Clinton-like candidate. I think people would feel his time is now, and I think a lot of the country would feel that we need a Joe Biden as president.”
In 2016, said Tsunis, many Democrats “thought Hillary was due, and importantly, the first woman president was due.”
Now, Tsunis said, “I think people just want to win.”
Biden, who will turn 76 next month, has a record of losing campaigns for president. But the expansive primary field unfolding this year stands to benefit Biden, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders, as one of the few potential candidates with pre-existing, near-universal name recognition.
Four years ago, said Ed Rendell, a former Pennsylvania governor and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, “people in our party … thought that we had a candidate, and the candidate was Hillary Clinton and it was her turn and she deserved it, and she was going to be a great president.”
“There was one powerful roadblock in [Biden’s] way,” Rendell said. “Now, if Joe Biden is out of it, who’s the front-runner? … There’s no one big roadblock.”
Biden will be running against the leftward tilt of the Democratic Party’s base if he does enter the race, with progressive Democrats critical of his legislative record on issues ranging from bankruptcy reform to the 1994 crime bill. And the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have revived Biden’s own handling of Anita Hill’s testimony during then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings in 1991.
Implicitly addressing the criticism Thursday, Biden, the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he committed after the Thomas hearings “that there would never be another hearing where there weren’t women on the Democratic side of the committee.”
He said that when he wrote the Violence Against Women Act, “it was the proudest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” and he addressed men in the audience directly, saying, “Guys, let me get something straight with you … It’s your responsibility as much as it’s anybody else’s responsibility.”
Biden supporters are betting that Democratic primary voters will look past the most controversial elements of Biden’s record if they become motivated chiefly by a candidate’s perceived ability to beat President Donald Trump in a general election. For Democrats desperate to succeed in 2020, Biden’s ability to connect with working-class voters — especially in Midwestern states that flipped from Obama to Trump in 2016 — could factor more significantly than in any previous primary in which he has run.
“It’s a little different today than in years past, right?” said Robert Wolf, an investment banker who helped raise Wall Street money for Obama in 2008 and 2012. “The primary’s going to be very different than the general. But when people think of the general, a lot of people will absolutely think that somebody like Vice President Biden matches up very well … That brings an immediate excitement, and puts him top dog, where he has not been before.”
Biden’s rally with House candidates in California’s Orange County on Thursday was the latest in a series of appearances he has made across the country. Biden canceled a recent trip to South Carolina and Georgia in part because of flooding in South Carolina, though he is expected to return to the Southeast this month. He is scheduled to campaign with Sen. Joe Donnelly in Indiana next week. And he is also likely to return West, to the early voting state of Nevada, to support Rep. Jacky Rosen’s Senate campaign.
At the Katzenberg fundraiser on Wednesday, Biden met with about 25 donors and raised more than $100,000 for his PAC, according to a source familiar with the event. He raised about the same amount at a separate fundraiser in the area on Thursday.
But Biden is not traveling to Iowa and New Hampshire, and unlike Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, Biden does not have former staffers fanning out into early primary states. Biden’s advisers have spoken with potential donors, but they are not aggressively courting them.
“That’s how uncalculating we’re being,” one Biden adviser said. “We’re literally flying the plane the long way around Iowa and New Hampshire because we’re not trying to be cute.”
The adviser said, noting Biden’s pre-existing name recognition in those states should he decide to run in 2020, said, “The way Iowa and New Hampshire works, he’s probably visited every living room in Iowa and New Hampshire … The reality is, he was a two-term vice president.”
Biden has said he will decide whether to run by January, and he has a core infrastructure intact. His advisers include his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, his former chief of staff, Steve Ricchetti, and former Delaware Sen. Ted Kaufman. Greg Schultz, a former Biden aide and Obama campaign veteran, is running Biden’s PAC, and Biden’s wife, Jill, appeared Wednesday at a campaign event for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Richard Cordray in Ohio.
“He’s got some good people,” said Patti Solis Doyle, who served as Biden’s campaign chief of staff in 2008. Schultz, she said, “knows how to run races” and Ricchetti “has been around forever.”
“Particularly in an environment like this one, where we could essentially have, you know, 20 to 25 [candidates] running for the Democratic nomination in 2020, I think it’s important to get a ground game and a presence in some of these early states quickly, because talent just gets eaten up,” she said.
In the lead-up to 2016, Solis Doyle said, Biden’s lengthy deliberation about entering the race “was probably a debilitating factor for him to actually get in.”
“A lot of the money was taken, all of the talent was taken, and for him to be able to even get on the ballot in the early states …. was probably going to take a herculean effort,” she said. “So I’m sure that weighs on him this time around, and he will want to start early.”
Solis Doyle said, “I don’t think he’s behind the eight ball this time around.”
If he runs, the early primary map would appear to benefit Biden. Following a dismal performance in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses in 2008, Biden now holds a 21-point lead in a survey of likely Iowa Democratic caucusgoers released this week. And Biden’s political and personal ties to South Carolina are so deeply felt that Dick Harpootlian, a former state party chairman, said of Biden, “A number of people think of him almost as South Carolinian.”
“In a place like South Carolina,” Harpootlian said, “he’s got a built-in structure and constituency” based on years of relationships, including vacationing in the state … He starts off with an infrastructure that any other candidate would envy the day he announces, if he announces. And that’s true in a number of other states.”
Harpootlian, who is running for a state Senate seat in South Carolina this year, said he would “love for him to run for president,” calling Biden “the antidote to the malaise of Donald Trump and the division in this country.”
“Everybody wants more than anything else to win in 2020, and he’s our best shot,” Harpootlian said. “He certainly starts way ahead of anyone else.”
On Thursday, Biden cast the midterm elections as an opportunity to restore “civility and respect” to Washington, drawing cheers when he said that a Democratic-controlled Congress could “take this president on.”
“Our humanity’s being tested,” Biden said. “Our core values, the American story is being assailed. The fabric that has always held us together through good times and hard times is being shredded before our eyes. Look, we’ve been tested before. Americans have faced down our share of zealots, madmen and ignorant ideologues and hucksters who see public office as a way to make a buck off our backs. But we’ve never faced a moment like this.”
He said, “Folks, America knows who Donald Trump is. The question for all of us is, ‘Who are we?’ ‘Who are we?’ ‘How do we reassert what we stand for?’”
Biden drew raucous applause at a college campus where he spoke. In Pennsylvania, Rendell said, such public appearances are “good for his public image.”
“Is he building a ground game? No, not yet,” Rendell said.
But he added, “I think he has a less daunting task than others do in building a good ground game … If he’s running, I will give every ounce of energy I have left to see that he’s elected president.”