‘Do you like Biden?’ N.H. Democrats say, ‘Sure, but ...’

Why We Wrote This

Democratic voters have a choice to make for 2020: Do they pick a uniter able to build consensus, or a trailblazer advocating big changes? 

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Joe Biden holds a campaign rally in Belknap Mill in Laconia, New Hampshire, on Sept. 6, 2019.

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Former Vice President Joe Biden is on a mission to “restore the soul of America” and hopes to recapture Obama-Trump voters, drawing on his working-class background, Democrats’ nostalgia for the Obama years, and a wellspring of affection many have for “Uncle Joe.”

But in New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first primary in February, his surprisingly durable lead is showing cracks – particularly among the state’s more progressive activists at this weekend’s Democratic convention. Though he has stronger support among centrists and African Americans, the lack of enthusiasm speaks to a broader tension in the party.

As 10 Democratic candidates head into Thursday’s debate, they face a party divided over the best way to defeat President Donald Trump. Do they appeal to a broad swath of voters by nominating a moderate with a message of unity? Or aim for record turnout among millennials and minorities with a liberal pushing for systemic change?

“Democrats want to pick someone who can win,” says Andrew Smith, a political science professor and director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “Is that [someone] mainstream like Biden? Many others are saying, ‘Look, Republicans picked Trump and they mobilized and won.’”

The line to see Joe Biden stretches two blocks from the Belknap Mill in Laconia, New Hampshire.

“Do you like Biden?” a reporter asks those waiting to see the former vice president. “Sure,” three people say. They like him. They think he’s a good guy. But they’re listening to everyone.

Some 200 or so file in, packing the modest room, with some attendees left standing in the back. Former Gov. John Lynch tries to warm up the crowd: “President Joe Biden – doesn’t that sound nice?” 

There is a pause, then a smattering of applause, spearheaded by volunteers and campaign workers in the back. The audience follows suit and dutifully claps, before subsiding back into silence. 

Later, a golden retriever in the crowd with a JOE sticker on its head punctuates the quiet atmosphere with a bark.

Mr. Biden is well into his speech before the room erupts in cheers and hoots of laughter, when he jokes, “Trump inherited the economy from Obama. Just like he’s inherited everything in his life!”

This central New Hampshire city of 16,000 voted for the Obama-Biden message of hope and change in 2008, and again in 2012, before throwing its weight behind Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” in 2016. It’s these sorts of voters that Mr. Biden is hoping to recapture, drawing on his working-class background, Democrats’ nostalgia for the Obama years, and a wellspring of affection many have for “Uncle Joe” – not least because of the personal tragedies he has endured. He’s also seen as possessing the experience needed at a turbulent time.

“He doesn’t need training wheels, he’s ready to be president on the first day,” says Ambassador Terry Shumaker, who worked on Mr. Biden’s first presidential campaign in the 1980s and went on to co-chair Bill Clinton’s campaign in New Hampshire. “I was part of Bill Clinton’s campaign, part of the transition, and I watched a very bright, capable governor having to learn on the job. And it took him quite a while to get his footing.”

As 10 Democratic candidates head into Thursday’s debate in Houston, they face a party divided over the best way to defeat President Trump. Do they try to appeal to a broad swath of voters by nominating a moderate who offers a message of unity? Or aim for record turnout among millennials and minorities with a liberal who’s pushing for systemic change?

Mr. Biden, who is a household name nationwide, has defied pundits with a surprisingly durable lead since entering the Democratic primary race in April, and could well still capture the nomination. Roughly 40% of New Hampshire voters are independents, and eligible to vote in the nation’s first Democratic primary next February.

But the momentum appears to be shifting away from Mr. Biden and toward the liberal firebrands – particularly Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who received a three-minute standing ovation at the state’s Democratic convention this weekend before she even started speaking. One new poll this week shows Ms. Warren inching past Mr. Biden in the state, while another shows her in a statistical dead heat with him – with the vice president having a far better likelihood of beating Mr. Trump.

“We are sick of milquetoast,” says Christie West of Mont Vernon, New Hampshire, who says she knows only one potential Biden supporter in her network of 50 Democratic activists across eight towns – most of whom support Senator Warren or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. “We just can’t take the risk of … all these moderate policies.”

To be sure, New Hampshire is a small and overwhelmingly white state, and its party convention was dominated by progressive activists, leaving two key groups of Biden supporters underrepresented: African Americans and centrists. But the divide between moderates and liberals extends across the country. 

“Democrats want to pick someone who can win,” says Andrew Smith, a political science professor and director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “Is that [someone] mainstream like Biden? Many others are saying, ‘Look, Republicans picked Trump and they mobilized and won.’”

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Sen. Elizabeth Warren had the loudest welcome of all the 19 Democratic presidential candidates who spoke at the New Hampshire Democratic Party State Convention on Saturday September 7, 2019. The arena was a sea of mint green “NH for Warren” t-shirts and the Senator received a three-minute standing ovation – before she even started speaking.

“We need historic-level turnout ...”

As Mr. Biden kicks off a jam-packed day of speeches at the Democratic convention from a long list of presidential candidates, he gets a rousing reception from a contingent of “Firefighters for Biden” up in the balcony, and a standing ovation from the delegates. But many attendees interviewed by the Monitor commented that overall the response seemed lukewarm.

Robert O’Leary, a stay-at-home dad who came over from Vermont, has been skeptical of the vice president’s lead in the polls. But even he was surprised by the crowd’s lack of enthusiasm. He chalked it up to the early hour, assuming most of Mr. Biden’s supporters were still outside on the sidewalks, waving flags and singing cheers. He went outside just to be sure.

“No one was out there,” says Mr. O’Leary. Just some Biden volunteers breaking down their tent. 

On the flip side, some candidates polling in low or single digits – such as South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker – garnered a level of enthusiasm beyond what their numbers would suggest.

Campaign spokeswoman Meira Bernstein vigorously disputes that Mr. Biden faces an enthusiasm gap. She notes that his endorsements range from former Nigerian refugee-turned-state Rep. Richard Komi to state Rep. Denny Ruprecht, the youngest New Hampshire state lawmaker, and former progressive congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter. “The vice president has been able to build a broad coalition of support in N.H., which I think speaks to how he appeals across a wide number of groups,” says Ms. Bernstein.

Still, voters say they are worried about his ability to motivate voters who might not otherwise come to the polls. 

“We need historic-level turnout in black and brown communities, and Cory Booker is surest to get that,” says Katherine Rogers, a seven-term state representative from Concord. She worked as a political organizer in Newark, was impressed when Mr. Booker won the mayoral race there in 2006, and has been encouraging him to run for years.

“Cory Booker was great today,” agrees Faithe Miller Lakowicz, a Warren supporter from Laconia who works two jobs as a museum curator and restaurant hostess. “He hasn’t really been on my radar, but he did great.”

Ms. Lakowicz – like many here – says that if Mr. Biden gets the nomination, she will support him. Still, she thought it was “just appalling” when Jill Biden told New Hampshire voters last month that, even though another candidate might have a stronger position on issues important to them than her husband, they might have to “swallow a little bit and say, ‘OK, I personally like so-and-so better,’ but your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.”

Mr. Biden, who has campaigned on promises to “restore the soul of the nation,” has touted his ability to displace the president. And polls have consistently shown him beating Mr. Trump by wider margins than any of his Democratic rivals – including in key swing states.

But many Democrats say that’s not enough. 

“Beating Donald Trump is the floor. It is not the ceiling,” Senator Booker tells the convention crowd, preaching right on through the thunderous applause. 

And Senator Warren has repeatedly urged voters to vote based on passion rather than calculation. “We can’t choose a candidate because we’re scared,” she says.

Besides, many voters seem to doubt that would work, anyway. Amanda Gunter, a young mother and delegate from the conservative town of Weare who got interested in politics because of Senator Sanders, says “going old-school” is a losing strategy. 

“If we put up a Biden, we’re not going to beat Trump,” she says.

But Ambassador Shumaker says the convention is not at all representative of the broader New Hampshire primary voter field. “What you’re seeing at the state convention is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg and I don’t think that’s representative of the electorate,” he says. “I think what’s below the water line – those are Joe’s voters, and I think he’s going to do very well with that group.”

“The polls baffle me a little bit”

Asked about the discrepancy between the polls and enthusiasm levels at the convention, many voters interviewed by the Monitor call the polls into question.

“The polls baffle me a little bit, because it’s not what I’m hearing on the ground,” says Sarah Daniels-Campbell, chairwoman of the Grafton County Democrats.

Laura Halliday, a University of New Hampshire student, doubts pollsters are reaching many people. Having recently worked a phone bank for California Sen. Kamala Harris, she says: “Everyone was hanging up and saying dinner was ready.” 

Bonnie Wright, the secretary of the Salem Democratic committee, doesn’t trust the polls either – and for good reason. She confesses that when a pollster asked her to name her favorite candidates, she deliberately mentioned those she thought deserved to be on the debate stage, to help them meet the requisite polling threshold – even though they weren’t her top picks. “So, I lied,” she says sheepishly.

Some Biden supporters appear aware of the challenge. The Biden campaign has begun trying to lower expectations for their candidate in Iowa and New Hampshire, telling reporters recently that he does not necessarily have to win either state. And several outlets reported this week that Lou D’Allesandro, a longtime New Hampshire state senator who has endorsed Mr. Biden, told the former vice president he needs to make “immediate changes” in order to win here.

It’s still too early to know how the race will turn out in New Hampshire, says Professor Smith, who notes that at this point in the 2016 race, most people thought Hillary Clinton had the state in the bag. She wound up losing to Senator Sanders by 22 points.

But Mr. Biden’s lackluster reception shouldn’t be ignored, he adds. If he doesn’t win Iowa and New Hampshire, it will undercut a key pillar of his campaign: that he is the guy who can win. Though no one has yet come out and said the emperor has no clothes, at some point the reality on the ground may start to shift perceptions, says Professor Smith. In Dover earlier this summer, he attended an event where Mayor Buttigieg drew a crowd of 900. Later the same day Mr. Biden spoke to a tepid audience of 100.

“I think many people have turned to Biden almost as a comfort candidate,” says a former Democratic elected official in New Hampshire, who asks not to be identified. “He’s Uncle Joe – he’s been around for a long time, we know he has good values.” But he says, people are asking: “‘Is this really the guy who can get us across the finish line and beat Trump?’”

“He’s been through a lot,” the official adds. “I think he deserves a standing ovation every time he gets it.”

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