A full hour before Joe Biden is scheduled to speak at Manchester Community College, the only parking spaces left are way in the back of the lot, behind the welding shop. The neon letters on the school’s electronic sign trumpet through the darkness and drizzle: WELCOME TO NEW HAMPSHIRE JOE BIDEN.
Inside, the gymnasium is overflowing with checkered plaid shirts and fleece jackets, with teachers and geologists, bikers and firefighters, and people who drove an hour and a half from Republican enclaves where they don’t dare reveal their Democratic leanings.
As Mr. Biden steps up to the mic, ear-piercing whistles ricochet around the gym. “You know in your gut, this is the most important election you’ve ever voted in,” he tells the crowd.
Three African American teenagers in the back zoom in on him with their smartphones. For these teens, it will be the first election they’ve ever voted in. And they can’t wait to cast ballots for the former vice president who served alongside Barack Obama.
“Being a person of color, I’d definitely like to see someone like Kamala Harris [win]. But there will be a time,” says Layla Mohseni of Boston, who remembers watching President Obama’s inauguration when she was 7, and still has an Obama-Biden sticker on her smartphone.
Why not Senator Harris this time?
“I think [Mr. Biden] is the guy,” she says simply, though adds that it would be “ideal” if Ms. Harris became his running mate, a suggestion that has been gaining momentum among some Democrats as a way to combine experience and freshness, continuity and diversity, electability and possibility.
Since announcing his candidacy late last month, Mr. Biden has skyrocketed in the polls – to the surprise of Washington pundits, many of whom had predicted his first day on the trail might wind up being his best.
His front-runner status can be attributed in part to the strong support he’s getting from African American voters. But it’s not only that.
While it may have seemed that candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were pulling the Democrats inexorably to the left, Mr. Biden’s calls to unify a deeply divided country appear to be resonating with many voters whose No. 1 priority is ending what they see as a dangerous presidency that is corroding American democracy.
“One thing I like about Joe Biden is he has this red-blooded American, ‘badass grandpa’ [demeanor] that might appeal to Trump voters who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary in 2016,” says Lisa Coté, an ACLU volunteer. Even though she personally has reservations about Mr. Biden, she says, “It’s going to come down to people who didn’t vote or who regret voting for Trump.”
The 2016 election came down to fewer than 80,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, where Donald Trump eked out razor-thin victories thanks in part to the support of blue-collar Democrats who surprised many by throwing in their lot with the New York billionaire.
APPEAL TO BLUE-COLLAR MIDWESTERNERS
Before Mr. Biden entered the race, skeptics wondered if there was any room left in the Democratic Party for someone like him – someone who’s been in Washington longer than Mayor Pete Buttigieg has been alive, with a long list of controversial positions in his past, from his opposition to busing in the ’70s to his role chairing the Clarence Thomas hearings in the ’90s. Even though he had been VP under the country’s first African American president, he was too middle of the road, too willing to work with Republicans, too out of touch with the woke millennial masses and the party’s progressive transformation. And yes, a bunch of people thought he was too touchy-feely to survive in the era of #MeToo.
But Mr. Biden’s rise in the polls over the past few weeks suggests they were wrong. He was already the most popular Democratic candidate when he entered the race on April 25, but he has since more than tripled his margin of advantage over his closest competitor – Senator Sanders – from 4 points to 20 points, according to Morning Consult.
That likely reflects the fact that the party’s voters as a whole are not nearly as left-wing as its most activist standard-bearers. In a January poll, Democrats were offered a variety of labels and allowed to choose up to three. The most popular label? “Obama Democrat,” with 25%. Only 7% chose Socialist or Democratic Socialist.
Mr. Biden, who grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is banking on the votes not of liberal elites in Washington, but of average people who yearn not only for more comfortable financial circumstances but also a deeper sense of dignity and pride.
In the Manchester gymnasium on Monday night, he starts to roar as he talks about restoring the working class in America.
“YOU BUILT THIS COUNTRY,” he bellows. American workers are three times more productive than in Asia, he says. We have more great research universities and labs than any other country, and you own them – you pay taxes for them, says the former vice president, who once described the United States to China’s Xi Jinping in one word: possibilities.
“What are we doing? We’re walking around with our heads down, like ‘Woe is me,’” he said, sending the crowd into wild cheers. “The only thing that can tear America apart is not another country, it’s America itself. … So get up, and let’s take back this country!”
“You tell ’em Joe!” whoops a well-dressed man in the back, accompanied by more whistling. It’s Dick Swett, a former New Hampshire congressman and ambassador who sees in Mr. Biden a youthful enthusiasm that belies his age.
“If we’re going to win this election, we’ve gotta be enthusiastic,” Mr. Swett says afterward. “We need wisdom that comes with age, we need energy that comes with attitude, not just youth.
OLDEST PRESIDENT EVER INAUGURATED?
Many voters who came out to see Mr. Biden brushed off concerns about the fact that if elected, he would be the oldest president ever inaugurated, at 78 years old. (Senator Sanders would be 79.) He also would bring more experience in government than any other president-elect, according to a CNN analysis.
“I have a lot of friends in their late 70s and early 80s and they are still vigorous, active, bright,” says Carol Martell, who showed up the next morning for a Biden house party in Nashua, New Hampshire. “[Mr. Biden] doesn’t think old.”
Still, a recent Gallup poll found that voters were more comfortable voting for a Muslim, a gay or lesbian, an African American, or a woman – just about anyone except a socialist – than they were for someone over the age of 70.
Some voters notice that he sometimes trips over his words or interrupts himself and doesn’t finish his sentences. Maybe it’s the result of a campaign aide’s mandate to stop rambling, they muse. Or maybe it’s just the miserably cold drizzle.
“He looks better today,” says Mike Marsh, who also saw him in Manchester last night, close up, from just under the teleprompters. “There’s more color in his face.”
He and his friend Robert Schepis, who saw Mr. Biden Monday morning in Hampton, both agree his performance today was better.
“Everybody knows who Trump is. We gotta know who we are,” booms Mr. Biden, his voice carrying out into the New Hampshire woods, where damp oak leaves still lay compressed from the winter snows and the new buds were barely beginning to unfurl in bright greens and reds. “We choose hope over fear. We choose truth over lies. We gotta choose unity over division.”
More than 200 people turned out, despite the wintry weather, with cars lining both sides of the neighborhood’s streets for nearly half a mile and boots tromping all over the hosts’ beautifully landscaped backyard. There were immigrants and Bernie supporters and a woman in a blue headscarf and a man in a blue knitted kippa; longtime New Hampshire residents who had never come to such an event; and a high school student who asked what Mr. Biden would do to keep him and his sister safe from school shootings, then grabbed a hug in front of the whole crowd before he had to dash back to school for English class.
As people started trickling back to their cars, Chris Miller was glowing.
“We need to bring back humanity. … We need somebody who brings kindness, not brutality,” says Ms. Miller, who says she cries when she watches the news. “[Mr. Biden] is definitely the unifier.”
“I think Trump is in for a very rude awakening.”