A few weeks ago, as the ranks of Democrats running for president ballooned, Joe Biden sat down in private with Terry McAuliffe. Both the former vice-president and the former Virginia governor were openly considering joining the field, but McAuliffe had made it clear to his friends and allies atop the party that he’d likely hold off on running if Biden was going to get in. Not only was Biden vastly better known than McAuliffe, he figured, but also, if the Delawarean committed to suitably representing the centrist Democratic perspective, there wouldn’t be much room for the Virginian in the race. The notoriously garrulous pair, who’ve known each other for years, caught up like old pals. By the end of the conversation, Biden had an offer on the table for McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, multiple Democrats briefed on the meeting told New York. I’m almost certainly going to run, Biden said, so lead my money-raising efforts. He wanted McAuliffe — one of politics’ legendary big-money fundraisers, and a close Clinton family friend — to join his campaign in a role akin to finance chairman. McAuliffe, still weeks away from publicly passing on a run of his own, demurred.
But Biden was armed with a phone and something vaguely approximating a plan, and as his launch approached, he was undeterred. While the team of strategists around the former vice-president has spent recent months constructing a political machine that they hope can steamroll over a historically broad primary field, Biden — who’s now scheduled to formally enter the race on Thursday — has been doing what he’s most comfortable doing: catching up with old friends and allies, looking to gather their support for Day One.
The effort has occasionally faltered, including, at times, with prominent would-be supporters — like it did with McAuliffe, who’s not expected to endorse or become involved with any candidate’s campaign anytime soon. When Biden visited with former Senate majority leader Harry Reid in Las Vegas a few months ago, he took the unusual step of directly asking his onetime colleague, the father of the Nevada caucuses, for his endorsement. Reid said no, and made clear he wouldn’t be endorsing anyone at all before his state’s contest — he never does, and Biden would be no exception.
Biden’s push is, in part, ad hoc — “Beto’s going to go around and Instagram his teeth cleaning, Biden’s going to call everyone he knows. That’s just who he is,” says one of his advisers. And it’s a neat example of why those closest to Biden’s pre-campaign have dusted off an old refrain in describing their strategy as they prepare to dive into an unruly race with a hyperfamous candidate who hasn’t run a campaign of his own in over a decade: They’re “just going to let Joe be Joe,” three different Biden allies said to me separately this week.
But Biden’s calls are also part of a real, traditional show-of-force strategy to demonstrate, from his first week in the race, that he is in a category of his own — a pol to be reckoned with this time, complete with more institutional support in the form of endorsements, surrogates, and defenders than all the other candidates combined. “I think you will see a lot of key elected endorsements come out of the chute,” said James Smith, the Biden friend and former South Carolina legislator who ran for governor unsuccessfully in 2018. Biden is wagering that in an age of digital fundraising, insurgent politics, and Trump’s Twitter wars, this kind of thing still matters, especially when he’s likely to be target No. 1 for the rest of the field. Yet in the Biden team’s eyes, it’s only natural: Their guy is in a unique position to approach even the top potential endorsers who are unlikely to weigh in for anyone else and say, “We’ve known each other forever, and I’m your best bet.”
Wary of the perception that Biden has wavered on running (he didn’t exactly expect to be the 21st Democrat in the race), and that his initial fundraising numbers and crowd sizes won’t blow anyone else away, they’ve sought to demonstrate his backing across the country’s most politically powerful precincts. The strategists working to get the campaign off the ground have set up calls and in-person meetings to brief their allies on Capitol Hill, in the states, and in fundraising circles, led by senior aides including Steve Ricchetti and Greg Schultz. And such Biden loyalists have in recent months proactively calmed potential supporters’ nerves whenever other buzzy candidates — Beto! Bernie! Kamala! Pete! — have launched campaigns to significant fanfare, and as rumors flew in recent days about how, exactly, Biden would be kicking off. (A video! Three rallies in a day! A fundraiser! A different video!)
Biden has taken it upon himself to reestablish close contact with party leaders who are likely to play the biggest roles in the early contests ahead, with varying degrees of success. “I would be surprised if Biden doesn’t make an aggressive move for the Establishment,” said Jim Hodges, South Carolina’s last Democratic governor. But Hodges, for one, has made clear to all suitors he has no intention of endorsing anyone anytime soon. A number of unions in Iowa, burned by failed endorsements in last year’s governor’s race, are also expected to stay out of the fray for a while.
Still, Biden speaks regularly with House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina congressman who’s widely acknowledged as the most influential Democrat in that early-voting state. And he’s remained in close contact with a number of labor leaders he’d like to play important roles in his bid, including AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, and Harold Schaitberger, who runs the International Association of Fire Fighters union that’s expected to endorse him later this month. Team Biden is expecting this relationship, specifically, to come in handy soon: While most national labor organizations are expected to stay on the sidelines for the foreseeable future given the sheer number of candidates, local firefighter unions are already planning their efforts for the former VP. “We’re absolutely going to be supportive,” said Joe Van Haalen, the president of the Des Moines chapter, previewing what’s likely to be a union-led RV tour of Iowa’s 99 counties on Biden’s behalf.
And, of course, Biden has maintained close touch with a wide range of former Senate colleagues and prominent elected politicians whose endorsements he hopes could provide him with considerable early political clout. He already has at least three senators — Delaware’s Tom Carper and Chris Coons and California’s Dianne Feinstein — on his side, and at least one governor, too: Andrew Cuomo. That’s more than anyone else. Plus, he’s spoken repeatedly with officials around the country down to the city level, like Boston mayor Marty Walsh.
The Biden camp isn’t expecting to roll out dozens of endorsements in one sudden motion when he launches, but the overarching early-days plan to flex his political muscles — a video, a union rally, preplanned endorsements trickling out — is a microcosm of the overall Biden effort to portray himself as far and away the most electable candidate against Donald Trump, especially among a traditional national electorate, and not necessarily, in his advisers’ estimation, the woke Twitter crowd. What Biden will soon find out is whether an effort to highlight institutional support like this is too old school or out of step with today’s Democratic Party. “Does this actually help him? The fact that he has supporters is a core strength,” said one leading Democratic operative who’s in close touch with the Biden team. “But they’re insiders, so it’s a core weakness.”
This, of course, is the existential question Biden’s entire 2020 effort faces. “He is making the same waves he would have in 2016,” lamented one prominent South Carolina Democrat of the expected campaign rollout. Or, in the words of a top Democratic donor who’s been in touch with Biden and his team in the weeks leading up to the launch, upon hearing of yet another Biden call to a potential elected supporter, “That’s so Hillary.”