Team Obama quails at the suggestion that the president is reliant on Biden to reach blue-collar whites. “I think that’s way overstated,” Axelrod maintains. “The president is hitting some of the same targets, just at different times. So I wouldn’t say we need an ambassador into those communities, but Biden extends our reach in a really important way.”
Biden agrees—sort of. “Here’s the thing, and this is gonna sound self-serving,” he tells me. “Whatever year Sam Nunn left the Senate in the nineties, I remember pollsters coming into the [Democratic] caucus and talking about the race and saying Sam and I were the only, if memory serves me, two Democrats in the United States Senate who still got a majority of the white-male vote. No Democrat gets it! Barack’s no different from any other Democrat. Hopefully, I am a little different—and I’m not being a wise guy.”
Whether Biden is seen as a wise guy or Obama’s designated white guy, there’s no dispute about the political import of the constituencies with which he has special purchase. With the Democratic ticket having established wide and apparently unbudgeable leads with African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians, the focus for Romney’s operation has narrowed almost exclusively to white voters. The performance with whites that will be required for Romney to win can be pinpointed with some precision, assuming that turnout levels of the other blocs are roughly the same as in 2008. “If the president is below 40 percent, like 38 or 39, there’s a chance for Romney,” says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who with Democrat Peter Hart conducts the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. “If Obama is at 41 or 42, it’s not going to work.”
Obama, recall, won 43 percent of the white vote in 2008, bolstered by his strength with college-educated white women, with whom he is doing even better this time. Thus the significance to Team Romney of two overlapping constituencies with which Obama is much weaker: blue-collar and silver-domed whites. And thus its recent emphasis on two issues meant to drive high turnout among those groups: welfare and Medicare. With a series of hard-edged ads, the campaign has put volatile issues of race and class squarely on the table, accusing Obama of gutting welfare reform and draining $716 billion from Medicare (and its mostly white recipients) to fund Obamacare (and its mostly minority beneficiaries). That the ads are either blatantly false or wildly misleading is largely beside the point, which is that they are effective. And that effectiveness, in turn, makes Biden’s role in vouching for Obama with working-class and older whites—the cops and firefighters and aging Catholics with whom his bond is, as he puts it, “sort of in my DNA”—all the more critical.
Yet Biden’s appeal is hardly limited to such voters. He is also a force with African-Americans and Hispanics. (His speeches this summer to the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza were both huge hits.) The secret sauce for Biden is his skill as fingertip politician: his gifts for gab, for glad-handing, backslapping, ear-bending, and good-natured arm-twisting. “There’s a genuine love of people and of the game,” says his longtime consultant John Marttila. “The only analogous figure in modern politics is Bill Clinton. You know that moment in Primary Colors where the Clinton character is in a Krispy Kreme at 2:30 in the morning talking to the guy behind the counter? If you want to understand Biden, you have to understand that’s where it starts.”
But if Biden’s facility for retail politics is, on the one hand, a glorious thing to behold, it makes him, on the other, a kind of anachronism. “He is always talking to the people in the room—that’s why he thinks he’s there, and he can never get to a place where that becomes secondary,” says another of his long-serving adjutants. “But the truth is, you’re really only in part talking to the people in the room; you’re also talking to, you know, everyone else.”
That would be true for any politician, but its meaning and implications are amplified a thousandfold for a sitting vice-president—as Biden, as he exits the Coffee Break Cafe, is about to be painfully reminded.
At the speech a few hours earlier that day at which Biden had coughed up “put y’all back in chains,” the comment had provoked no immediate commotion. The V.P.’s traveling press pack had fixated instead on another, more typical and less incendiary, verbal miscue: Biden’s fiery exhortation of the crowd, “With you, we can win North Carolina again!”—when, in fact, the stage on which he stood was in Danville, Virginia.
But by the time that Biden’s motorcade is rolling out of Stuart, the “chains” controversy is raging on Twitter, cable, and the web. In the traveling press van, a young network-TV producer is imploring Biden’s press secretary for a comment. “My bureau chief says it’s a big story,” the reporter explains. “I mean, it’s leading Drudge.”