Throughout the summer, as members of the political media–industrial complex observed the Democratic presidential primary, it became a Smart Thing to Say that it was a two-way race between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, even though Warren was usually tied for second place with Bernie Sanders. Biden led most polls, while Warren appeared to have the most momentum, drawing crowds of thousands and fans so adoring that her dog, Bailey, became the most famous golden retriever since Air Bud. Did anyone even know the name of Joe Biden’s dog? How long could the former vice-president really manage to remain ahead of the senator from Massachusetts?
The truth is that the two-way race between Biden and Warren didn’t exist until after Iowa, where both candidates performed poorly — Biden worse than Warren, but both worse than they had anticipated. As voters in New Hampshire make their decisions in today’s primary, Biden and Warren are tied for fourth place in the Real Clear Politics polling average — behind Sanders and Pete Buttigieg by a large margin and Amy Klobuchar by almost a point.
“They’ve both taken on the stench of death,” a staffer on a rival campaign told me.
“Biden has lurched between different messages each of the last few days and delivered them to rooms so quiet you could hear a pin drop,” the staffer said. “His events have all the enthusiasm of a wake.”
“Warren has been squeezed — she was never going to out-Bernie Bernie,” the staffer added, “and she’s struggled with how exactly to position herself. Given that she’s from Massachusetts and shares a massive media market with New Hampshire, it’s hard to imagine how anything but a first- or second-place showing could be good for her campaign.”
Onstage at the Rochester Opera House, Warren was singing the same old song. It was Monday, the eve of the primary that will determine the fate of her campaign, but at her GOTV rally, there was little talk of getting out the vote and even less rallying. Warren hardly spoke of getting out to vote at all, and when she did, it was like an afterthought.
She delivered an introduction to the small crowd of 200, many of them undecided, not a closing pitch — a version of her stump speech, heavy on now-familiar biography and anecdote. Her momma this, her daddy that, she was an outsider who went inside and, oh boy, is everything really fucked up in there and so we need big structural change which is a hard sell because it appears people in power who fuck things up rather like the structure that grants them power and would prefer to keep things as they are but she would like to persist in trying to fix the whole mess if that’s okay with you. She emphasized her recent message of “unity.” She contrasted herself with President Trump rather than with her immediate competitors, all of whom also agree that President Trump is the WOAT.
“I believe in the America we can build together: an America where everyone has value. An America where every child is worth investing in. An America where people, not money, are the most important part of our democracy,” she said. “I believe in that America and if you believe, just a little, that that America is possible, and that that America is worth fighting for, then I’m asking you: Get in this fight with me, be in this fight with me. Vote for me tomorrow. Go to elizabethwarren.com and volunteer. But get in this fight. Because, understand: This is our moment in history, and this moment will not come our way again. This is our moment to choose hope over fear. This is our moment to show courage. This is our moment to dream big, fight hard, and win.”
Asked about the state of her campaign, Warren is quick to lean into her persistence persona. Earlier Monday, she told reporters that the race wasn’t a foregone conclusion. “The best evidence of that is how good the predictions have been over the last year,” she said. “Who was supposed to still be in this race today? And who wasn’t? I think I wasn’t. And a lot of people who were supposed to have locked it up by this point are not here. So I think the prediction business right now is not something I’d be investing heavily in.”
“I’ve been counted down and out for much of my life, but Mitch McConnell had it right: nevertheless, she persisted.” She added, “I cannot say to those little girls, ‘This got hard and I quit.’”
But when she said, “Vote for me tomorrow,” it sounded like an insignificant idea, like, call me tomorrow.
On the record, onstage, Warren is a disciplined speaker. You catch glimpses of her ability to be sharp and funny, as when on Sunday night in Lebanon, a man asked her if she ever whispers in Bailey’s ear and asks, “Who’s gonna be my Mike Pence?” and Warren replied, dryly, “I already have a dog.” But she has been steadfast in her resolve not to go negative on her opponents, and it seems that in the face of setback, she retreats further into her well-formed habits, a decision that is reinforced by the fact that her fight with Sanders — picked by or thrust upon her, we may never know — blew up in her face as it did. Why risk another catastrophe?
“Her message was all over the fucking place in that last week in Iowa,” a second staffer from a rival campaign told me. But Iowa is roulette, especially if you’ve never been there before. In New Hampshire — a state so close to Warren’s home that she perhaps accidentally, or jokingly, referred to a crowd here as the voters of Massachusetts the other day — things are different. “The expectations are high and you’ve gotta meet them — especially when you’re running as the senator next door,” the second staffer said.
As for Biden, well, it depends on who you talk to and what time of day it is. Internally, the mood within the campaign is volatile. Staffers are relieved that he emerged from Iowa energetic rather than defeated. The campaign always set expectations for the first two voting states low, offering a theory of a path to victory that involved doing respectably but not winning in either, and then moving on to a landslide in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday.
At Biden’s recent events, he narrates various scenes of American horror in caps lock, screaming out in anguish: children in poverty, babies with no sweaters on, soup kitchens where people are hungry but they don’t take any more than they were given, fathers losing jobs, women being “smacked” by their husbands, cancer, and so on. He rarely connects these episodes to specific policy proposals. Their intended effect seems to be to explain that Biden does not just empathize internally, does not coolly feel your pain, but that he is shattered by the way we allow one another to live and to die, that he is practically crucifying himself to save the soul of America, even as he articulates no belief that our systems have any fundamental flaws that would never allow for such things as the eradication of poverty and child hunger and cancer.
There is an uncomfortable sense, watching him, that he’s grasping. And I guess that’s because he is. “The smell of death thing is a little premature,” a senior Biden staffer said. “But if he’s the winning candidate, we have to start winning.”