The first thing you notice at a Joe Biden event is the age: Many of the reporters covering him are really young. Biden is not. The press corps, or so the Biden campaign sees it, is culturally liberal and highly attuned to modern issues around race and gender and social justice. Biden is not. The reporters are Extremely Online. Biden couldn’t tell you what TikTok is.
Inside the Biden campaign, it is the collision between these two worlds that advisers believe explain why his White House run often looks like a months-long series of gaffes. For a team in command of the Democratic primary, at least for now, they’re awfully resentful of how their man is being covered. And yet supremely confident that they, not the woke press that pounces on Biden’s every seeming error and blight in his record, has a vastly superior understanding of the Democratic electorate. This is the central paradox of Biden’s run: He’s been amazingly durable. But he gets no respect from the people who make conventional wisdom on the left.
Story Continued Below
“I don’t know of anybody who has taken as sustained and vitriolic a negative pounding as Biden and who has come through it with the strength he has,” said a top Biden adviser. “So why isn’t the argument not that he’s a ‘fragile front runner,’ but instead why is this guy so strong? How is he able to withstand this? Because it is unrelenting. Every story that has been written about Biden for a month has been negative! I would ask Warren and Sanders and these folks: He’s been pummeled for months. For months! So why is he going to fall apart now?”
In mid-June, when I spent a few days on the Biden campaign trail, one of the biggest stories on Twitter to circulate about his swing through eastern Iowa was about a young female activist who said she felt intimidated by Biden when she asked him a question about his reversal on the Hyde Amendment. A photo of the encounter went viral, with almost 25,000 likes and retweets. To many influential commentators on lefty Twitter, where Biden is sometimes accorded only slightly more respect than Donald Trump, it was a disrespectful and blatant act of Biden mansplaining. Vice reported breathlessly, “In the photo, Biden, the current Democratic frontrunner, is pointing his finger in Cayo’s face with his eyebrows raised.”
During another stop, at a diner in Eldridge, Biden’s only comment that made news was a cringe-inducing remark to a 13-year-old girl’s brothers: “You’ve got one job here, keep the guys away from your sister.” He’s been using a version of this avuncular bit of schtick for years, but this time it created a furious Twitter outrage cycle. (Biden seems to have learned a lesson and abandoned the line.)
On the same trip, Biden spoke at a mid-day event in Clinton, Iowa. At one point he discussed the benefits of electric scooters as a transportation solution in city centers, and he explained that after a rider hops off a scooter, he plugs it in. He pantomimed someone inserting a power cord into an outlet, which, as anyone who has used one knows, is not what you do. Reporters, myself included, snickered at the micro-gaffe.
To many Biden supporters, who polls consistently show are older, more working class, and more culturally conservative, these alleged gaffes are eye-rolling examples of the absurdity of the press or the woke left. They think the young activist in eastern Iowa should toughen up, that the throwaway line to the 13-year-old is endearing, and that Biden’s lack of precision when he speaks, about scooters or so many other things, is a sign of his authenticity. And they grouse that Biden is held to a standard President Donald Trump is not.
How Democrats see such episodes is at the heart of the Democratic primary. One side views these sorts of typical Biden campaign-trail moments as evidence of a politician well past his prime — casually sexist in a way that might have gone unremarked in, say, 1973 when he first joined the Senate. His supporters see them as good examples of why he’s the lovable Democrat best-suited to beat Trump. What is clear is that the critics, who are louder and more visible online and on cable TV, have had absolutely no impact on changing Biden’s status as the steady front-runner in the race.
This woke-working class divide is at the heart of the most salient fact about the Democratic primaries: Nothing has damaged Biden. Biden entered the race with about 30 percent support nationally and he has that same 30 percent today.
Perhaps this could all begin to change tomorrow night in Houston, when for the first time Biden and his two closest competitors, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, will be on the same debate stage. But so far, just as the press has been unable to disrupt Biden’s bond with his core thirty, his Democratic opponents seem similarly at a loss to understand, let alone undo, Biden’s enduring appeal.
Given Biden’s resilience and consistent lead in the national polls, his advisers range from bemusement to rage in their frustration with how he has been treated by the press and many liberal elites.
They brandish the many predictions of his demise as evidence of their more sophisticated understanding of the Democratic electorate. “He’s still leading the race nationally. He’s leading in Iowa. It looks like he’s in a dead heat in New Hampshire,” said the top Biden adviser. “I don’t know why the story in New Hampshire isn’t how Bernie Sanders went from sixty to fourteen. And why is it that Biden is beating Warren in Massachusetts? And he’s way ahead in South Carolina. And this is all on the back end of really the most vicious press I think anyone’s experienced. So that to me is a statement of strength. And anyone who’s sitting around waiting for him to fall apart—you know what, it hasn’t happened yet.”
To Biden’s advisers and allies, the gap between a press corps, as well as the wider online political class, that is largely in its twenties and thirties and a candidate who would be 78 at his Inaugural explains a lot about why the pundits and Twitter activists are so confounded by the former vice president’s resilience.
“You have a press corps in which most of them were in college when Barack Obama ran for president and they have fundamentally no understanding and experience in how politics works,” said a well-known Democrat backing Biden. “They have not really covered a true Democratic primary ever because there hasn’t been one since 2008. The 2016 race didn’t become a real primary until very late and the press corps never thought Bernie would win. And Bernie never got the treatment from the press corps that opponents like him typically get. So they haven’t seen this kind of race.”
This dynamic has produced what Beto O’Rourke might call a fuck-you attitude inside Biden world toward the press and liberal social media influencers who drool over Elizabeth Warren’s every policy paper and see Biden as hopelessly square.
The well-known Democrat said of the Biden press corps, “They view this party as dominated by woke millennials and through the lens of coastal issues. They are products, increasingly, of fairly elite schools and they don’t talk to a lot of voters who don’t look and talk like them except their parents, who also tend to be similar to them. Occasionally they are shocked to learn they have relatives who voted for Donald Trump. And they were not on the ground in the Midwest primaries for governor races in 2018 in Michigan and Ohio and Wisconsin where more moderate and older and more experienced candidates won against young cool left — often people of color — primary opponents.”
They are, this person argued, obsessed with a Democratic Party that exists only on Twitter. She pointedly noted that there are Democrats “outside of those 18,000 voters in Queens,” referring to the total vote share — it was actually closer to 17,000 — for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her June 2018 primary victory. “And by the way, those didn’t even tend to be the economically disadvantaged people of color who live in that district. They were the quote ‘new people’ if you talk to anyone from New York.”
Her point was that the AOC phenomenon “is emblematic of what most reportersthinkis going on nationally.”
To Biden world, it’s the media’s cultural affinity for this New New Left that explains why the Biden-will-soon-collapse storyline has such staying power.
“I get this question all the time: Why does the press hate him so much?” she said. “And the answer is because they are younger and they want someone cooler.”
Last Saturday, 19 of the Democrats running for president spoke at an all-day convention of the New Hampshire Democratic Party in Manchester. The event attracts the state’s most important activists, as well as a good smattering of Democratic political junkies from around the northeast, and campaigns are under pressure to create some theatrics with supporters and signage and post-convention parties in nearby parks and beer halls.
On stage before the party delegates, several candidates began to make a more robust case against Biden. Elizabeth Warren owned the room, and the day, with an electric performance that also showcased her campaign’s ability to organize. She brought in many supporters from Massachusetts and outfitted them with inflatable thunder sticks, producing a well-choreographed but authentic audience response that her campaign immediately used for a promotional video. (“We did the same thing with Dukakis in ‘88,” one longtime Democratic strategist noted about busing in supporters from the neighboring state.)
Biden’s message is that Trump represents a unique threat that requires Democratic voters to be careful and ultimately risk averse in choosing a nominee to face him —an unmistakable warning not to elect someone too far to the left, such as Warren or Sanders.
Warren’s response remains subtle, for now. “There is a lot at stake and people are scared,” Warren told the crowd on Saturday. “But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in because we’re scared. And we can’t ask other people to vote for someone we don’t believe in. I am not afraid and for Democrats to win you can’t be afraid either.”
The assumption embedded in Warren’s line is that many of Biden’s supporters aren’t really enthusiastic about him, that they are backing him out of some misguided sense of obligation and fear, which also might explain his modest crowds and the lack of any Biden thunder-stick moments in this campaign.
This line of attack drives people inside the Biden campaign mad. To them it smacks of elitism and suggests that Warren and her most vocal supporters believe that Biden’s voters, who polls consistently show are more likely to be working class and people of color, are somehow not smart enough to understand why they support him.
“This gets back to the vitriol of the left,” said the prominent Democrat. “They seem to feel like, ‘Why don’t you dumb voters see what we see? If we yell at you enough will you start to listen to us?’”
“The party is older than people think. It’s more centrist than people think,” said the senior Biden adviser. He noted that Biden’s favorability rating among Democrats has been in the mid 70s since the start of this race.
“But they say he’s out of step with the party! Well he’s the only person to demonstrate substantial support across a multiracial coalition. So actually he is mostin stepwith the party. But no one ever sees it that way because that is not the world as seen through Twitter.”
Speaking early in the day on Saturday, Biden gave his typical stump speech about beating Trump and rebuilding the middle class, but the only thing that really made any news was when, at one point, he accidentally said “hump” instead of “Trump.”
Other candidates have begun beta testing a more direct anti-Biden message, and the intensity of the message seems closely correlated with how poorly the candidate’s campaign is faring. “Democrats are long past believing that we want to be led by folks that supported the Iraq war and are long past a generation of politicians that couldn’t do anything about the income stagnation that exists in this country,” Sen. Michael Bennet told me in an interview backstage. “When you hear the vice president, who I’ve nothing but the highest regard for, say that if we just get rid of Trump it will all go back to normal, which is what he’s saying, it misses the 10 years that I’ve been in the Senate when it’s never been normal. And for the last six years of the Obama administration he couldn’t get anything done.”
Like others, Bennet argued that the polls were misleading and would get more volatile as voters focused more closely on the race. “If history is any guide, the people that are leading today are not going to be the people that win in Iowa and win in New Hampshire,” he insisted, adding with self-deprecation: “And I’m prepared to let history be our guide since I’m at 1 percent today.”
After his speech, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, played cornhole and ate ice-cream at a nearby park while mixing with supporters. In an interview, he made an anti-Biden case that put him somewhere between Warren and Bennet.
“Every single time Democrats have won it’s somebody who’s generally viewed as outside of Washington, typically somebody from a new generation and somebody with a different approach,” he told me, noting the victories of Kennedy, Carter, Clinton and Obama. “And every time we’ve tried to do something very conventional, and very safe and had a very established Washington nominee, every time we’ve come up short. This is not just a pattern. This has essentially been an iron law for the last 50 or 60 years.”
The Biden camp scoffs at the generational argument. “The last guy who tried this was out of the race in a week, that congressman from California,” said the senior Biden adviser, who couldn’t remember the name of 38-year-old Eric Swalwell, who tried in vain to create a viral moment about generational change during the first debate. “He was going to pass the torch.”
Swalwell told me he was wrong that this was the right moment for that message and doubted that a candidate like Buttigieg would be any more successful than he was. “I felt like I was in a bad traffic jam with no offramp and no way to get ahead,” he said in an interview about his short-lived campaign. “And certainly the lead car was the vice president. I don’t know if this is a generational election because of who the president is. Beating him is so important because of who he is and what a threat to democracy he is. It is still early and there are still other generational candidates but my sense is that this isn’t a ‘Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow’ election. The stakes are so high with this president that there is a fear of rolling the dice.”
Perhaps the one line of attack that just might work against Biden is, at least for the moment, the only area of criticism considered strictly off limits by almost every campaign. Most of Biden’s opponents are scared to directly confront the one issue that both his gaffes and all the talk about generational change tiptoe around: his age.
I rode with Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana, to the convention arena. He is supremely confident and polished and in the back seat of his SUV discussed his successes as governor, his frustrations about being excluded from the next debate, and his concerns about the leftward lunge of his party. The only time he seemed to hold back was when I raised the issue of whether Biden was really up for the job. “I think that’s one for the voters to figure out more than me,” he said. (His campaign manager escalated the rhetoric slightly in a memo sent to reporters on Tuesday that said, “there is a growing fear that the candidates promising revolutions are out of step with general election voters while others fear Vice President Biden may be unable to take down Trump.”)
In the afternoon, the issue of Biden’s age and mental acuity suddenly burst open in the airless media room where most of the candidates, though not Biden, spoke with reporters after their speeches. I asked Rep. Tim Ryan, who the previous day had been quoted saying that Biden was “declining,” whether he meant declining in the polls or mentally declining and he made it clear he meant the latter. Pressed further by reporters, he would only say “there’s a lack of clarity” when Biden speaks. (“You know, with Ryan, if he declines anymore he’s going from like one to zero,” the senior Biden adviser told me in response.)
But Ryan was alone in raising the issue. Afterward I visited Sen. Amy Klobuchar in her suite and, she too refused to engage on the subject when I mentioned Ryan’s remarks. “I’m running my own campaign,” she said through bites of an apple, explaining why she wouldn’t discuss Biden or any of her other opponents. After five minutes of pressing her about how to differentiate herself from Biden, she essentially ended the interview. Like several other candidates, her strategy remains one of waiting for Biden’s collapse rather than trying to trigger it.
But offstage, in the backrooms of the SNHU Arena and nearby hotel lobbies where activists and aides gathered, the discussion frequently turned to whether Biden is up to the task of facing Trump.
“The narrative that Biden has staying power is bullshit,” said a senior adviser to one of Biden’s rivals. “It is just too fucking early. Did we not learn anything from 2016 that polls are shit? The dude does not know what is going on. He is not in fighting shape to beat Trump. You put him on stage together with Trump and they’re both gonna forget shit but Trump is sharper. The dude is just old and it’s showing and they’re fighting every day to make the case that’s not happening but it is.”
But only Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state legislator and supporter and informal adviser to Sen. Kamala Harris, was willing to say the quiet part out loud.
“Joe Biden has been running for president since before I was born,” Sellers said. “Joe Biden is nearly 80 years old and he’s running to be president of the United States. My dad was president of an HBCU and will be 75 this year and his doctors told him he couldn’t do it anymore. He didn’t have the energy and strength to lead that campus anymore. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great man and a great leader and a great visionary. But it is a justifiable conversation.”
Sellers went further and lumped Sanders and Warren into the debate about age. “The three front-runners are all older than Ronald Reagan was when he took over,” he said. “Democrats are afraid of criticism, which is silly to me. But we are going to have a contentious primary on vigor and issues about fitness to be president.”
Then he paused and added, “But at the end of the day I’ll take a 90-year old Joe Biden over Donald Trump.”
The tricky part about attacking Biden is that few Democratic voters have any hostility toward Biden personally. The most aggressive public attack against him was by Harris in the first debate, when she confronted him about his past positions on busing and working with segregationist senators. She juiced her fundraising in the days following the debate and received a spike in national polls, but her numbers soon settled back down to where they were, at about seven percent. Biden’s advisers now frequently mention the episode as a cautionary tale for others.
“Kamala going after Biden didn’t really work out for her so I’m curious to see how many try that again on Thursday,” said a Democrat close to the Biden campaign. “How do you tear down the front-runner that everyone actually likes?”
He added, “Do I believe that Joe Biden is the future of the party? No. But he’s the right person to beat this president in 2020.”