Anatomy of a debacle: Biden supporters saw it coming, and it came

Casey DarnellContributor
Yahoo News

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Jill Biden made an impromptu visit on Monday morning to Joe Biden’s main field office. She thanked a group of 15 volunteers for working to get out the vote, in rain and snow.

Judi Lanza, a volunteer from New Hampshire, waited to take a photo with Jill. She started to cry as she stood next to the former second lady, who asked if she was OK. Minutes after Jill left, Lanza stood alone at the back of the office, away from other volunteers. 

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“I’m a little worried,” she said, her voice shaking. “We can only get nervous as it gets closer. The big thing is we’ve just got to stay strong.”

Lanza wasn’t the only worried Biden campaign volunteer. 

A Biden supporter holds a sign as the candidate leaves a polling station in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 11. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
A Biden supporter holds a sign as the candidate leaves a polling station in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 11. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

More than a dozen volunteers in New Hampshire told Yahoo News they didn’t expect the former vice president to win the primary. Some hoped for second place or at least third. Instead, the onetime frontrunner of the Democratic primary captured less than 9% of the vote. He was fourth in Iowa, now fifth in New Hampshire. 

Campaign surrogates, like former Secretary of State John Kerry, might be the most high-profile supporters in any election. But in a state like New Hampshire, volunteers can make a difference. They spend hours knocking on doors and making phone calls to persuade voters to support their candidate. 

Biden’s volunteers don’t view his subpar performances so far as a symptom of a flawed candidate. They echo the talking points from Biden and his surrogates: It’s impossible to win New Hampshire with neighboring senators in the race. He will do better in more diverse states. The first two states are just small parts of a much longer marathon. 

In the week leading up to the primary, Biden conceded the state and downplayed its importance to the rest of the race. Lanza has supported Biden since he announced his candidacy. She remains committed, and sometimes volunteered for 12-hour shifts when the office gets busy.

In Nashua, N.H., Francine Durant transformed her home into a headquarters for canvassing launches. Campaign signs hung on the walls next to family portraits. Sandwiches in Ziploc bags, granola bars and water battles covered a table labeled “Snack Station.” Kerry, Jill Biden and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., have passed through her house to speak with volunteers.

For Durant, her choice was simple: “Biden is the only one who can beat Trump.”

Snack table at the Durant home. (Casey Darnell for Yahoo News)
Snack table at the Durant home. (Casey Darnell for Yahoo News)

Fear of President Trump serving another four years in the White House motivated Durant to devote countless hours to Biden’s campaign. Beating Trump is the No. 1 issue for Democratic voters, regardless of which candidate they support. With Biden volunteers, however, there is an overwhelming anxiety that other candidates won’t survive a general election against Trump.

“Some people, I wonder why they even put their head in,” Durant said. “I don't know if it's just so they can tell their grandchildren, ‘I ran for president.’ I have no idea what possessed them to do it.”

Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., finished in second and third place in New Hampshire after Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — muddling the idea that Biden didn’t do well because the state favors neighboring politicians. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., placed fourth, just above Biden. 

Biden volunteers tend to reject Sanders as too far left and Buttigieg as too inexperienced to persuade a majority of voters to their cause. 

Brandon Smith, a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire, was volunteering Monday at the Biden office in Exeter, N.H., a town of about 15,000. Smith said Buttigieg supporters are similar to Trump supporters in that they want a candidate who isn’t part of the traditional political establishment. 

“It’s really straddling the line of deciding whether you want years of experience or whether you want someone new to enter the equation,” said Smith about the difference between Biden and Buttigieg.

Exeter decided it wanted Buttigieg, as did many suburbs and rural towns in New Hampshire. Biden volunteers who spoke with Yahoo News said there was nothing Biden or the campaign could’ve done better, as if the election were decided by fate. 

At rallies in New Hampshire, Biden portrayed himself as a resilient fighter who doesn’t give up easily. He often talks about tragic deaths in his family, winning tough elections and passing bipartisan legislation. New Hampshire volunteers said Biden is still the most electable candidate against Trump, and that they expect him to make a comeback in the next primary states.  

Biden at a campaign event on Feb. 10 in Manchester. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
Biden at a campaign event on Feb. 10 in Manchester. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Biden made a scheduled visit to the Manchester office on Saturday. The event garnered more press than supporters. Biden admitted that Buttigieg and Sanders were more organized in Iowa, but he was adamant about his chances of winning the nomination. 

“Nothing has ever been easy for anyone in this room,” Biden said. ”We’ve always gotten back up. We’ve gotten back up and we’ve won.’”

As he spoke, Lanza yelled, “That’s right, Joe,” offering her own words of encouragement as Biden gave volunteers a pep talk.  

About 150 people showed up to Biden’s primary night event in Nashua. He spoke via live stream to a subdued crowd that paled in comparison to the jubilant celebrations for Sanders and Buttigieg. Biden left the state hours before polls closed and headed to South Carolina, where he’s hoping for support from black voters. His mention of black and Latino voters received lukewarm applause from the audience.

The live stream ended after about three minutes, unusually short for Biden. Dozens left shortly after.

Lanza attended the event with other volunteers from the Manchester office. Around 9:30, it became clear that Biden wasn’t moving up from fifth place. She again began to cry, but she said she wasn’t worried. He can win Nevada, then South Carolina, then Super Tuesday.

“It hurts,” she said. “But you just pick up your bootstraps and you go on and forge ahead.”

The ballroom soon emptied; the music turned off well before the winner was called. Just on the other side of Nashua, Buttigieg supporters cheered as he gave a celebratory speech.

A torn Biden campaign sign in the snow outside a polling site in Manchester on Feb. 11. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
A torn Biden campaign sign in the snow outside a polling site in Manchester on Feb. 11. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

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