For a long time, Joe Biden was sort of the control of the Democratic primary experiment. Other candidates had greater range—they took their turns in the spotlight, they had louder (or meaner, or kinder…) supporters, or raised more money, or campaigned more, or delivered more polished speeches. But eventually they would run their course and the former vice president would still be there, never dropping too far in the polls nor veering too far from his essential, I’m-dead-serious, no-malarkey brand. That resiliency was woven into the message. His ads touted him as “the strongest candidate” to take on Trump (they even included charts of polling data), and in recent weeks, he emphasized the importance of nominating someone who would help downballot candidates running in swing states and districts. As impeachment reached its denouement, Biden used the drumbeat of Republican attacks against him as proof they fear him.
But evidently, the Iowa caucuses weren’t the only thing that broke last week; the aura of invincibility that encased Biden’s campaign also took a big hit. At stops in Keene and Lebanon on Saturday to see Pete Buttigieg, I kept encountering undecided voters and (more troubling for Biden) recently converted Buttigieg fans who had come to believe that nominating Biden might jeopardize the party’s chances in November.
In the eyes of these voters, the kind Biden is counting on to come home, the safest bet no longer looks so safe.
Samantha Elliott of Concord was, like a lot of people I’ve met this weekend, trying to decide between Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “I suppose he’s in the mix,” she said when I asked about Biden before a town hall in Keene, “but my biggest concern is electability.”
These are words that would have sounded implausible not long ago, including to Elliott. “Electability” was the buzzword in Iowa all summer and fall, and Biden was its leading champion—whatever you thought it meant. “I thought Biden was going to be the most electable,” she said, but “his performance lately hasn’t been living up to expectations, and so I have concerns whether young people will come out and vote for him. We need all groups, and I’m not sure he can deliver on that. The numbers in Iowa weren’t there for him.”
Besides, if Biden’s “the chosen one,” as she put it, she feels it’s New Hampshire’s job to elevate someone else to keep the race competitive. Joe Biden might be a scrappy kid in the childhood parables he sometimes tells, but he’s no one’s idea of an underdog. Hence, Pete, who she says is “eloquent, he’s a thinker.”
Inside the auditorium at Keene State College, Ted Braun, an undecided voter, was trying to choose between Buttigieg and the billionaire Tom Steyer, whose ads about confronting Trump had impressed him. “I need to see somebody who I feel confident has enough hard bark to be able to handle Trump,” he told me. Hard bark. Toughness, in other words. That’s exactly what Biden has been selling himself as for the last 10 months. But Braun has moved on.
“I’m a little bit concerned about his age and his ability to keep up with what needs to be done,” he said. “To me, as we went through this entire impeachment proceeding, you heard very little from Biden, even though he was the one that was under attack. If he’s under attack and has no response even defending his son, and didn’t come out vigorously against Trump under those circumstances, I worry about his ability to confront Trump in a heated race.”
Mike and Nancy Meagher drove up from Amherst, Massachusetts, to see Buttigieg speak at the event. (Candidates themselves can find the number of out-of-towners at New Hampshire events exasperating.) While they hadn’t settled on a candidate (Buttigieg was their current fave), Biden, in particular, had fallen off in their view. “We’re trying to determine who can win,” Mike Meagher said.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “I don’t know if he would motivate people to come out.”
Nancy Meagher jumped in with another point: “Look what Trump can do to somebody,” she said. “I think he broke Biden down.”
The kind of personal attacks Biden was subjected to are something that whoever wins the nomination will eventually have to deal with. Perhaps Swift Boat Veterans Against Pete is just around the corner. But Biden happens to be the candidate who’s just gone through the ringer, and the man voters in New Hampshire are seeing right now looks much less formidable.
Sofia Thornblad, who I met in Keene, had been preparing to choose between Sanders and Biden. But after Biden’s collapse last week, she can stick with the candidate she’d liked all along. “I’ve always liked Pete but for me it’s whoever’s gonna beat Trump, in the end, and I wasn’t sure that Pete could do that,” she said. “But after Iowa I got really excited about Pete.”
A few hours later in Lebanon, New Hampshire, I met Lynn Fisher, who was standing on the icy sidewalk outside the high school where Buttigieg would soon speak. “I think he could be the safe candidate, but maybe not?” she said, when I asked about Biden. “At one point I thought he was the most likely guy to get elected, but now I don’t know.” After watching Buttigieg during debates and seeing his recent successes, she was now convinced that he had “as good a shot as any” at beating Trump. When a canvasser came to her door about 45 minutes before she left for the event, she moved off the fence (for now, anyway). “He’s freakin’ smart!” she said.
Further up the line, Jonathan Kulp of Enfield, New Hampshire, told me he had long admired the former vice president but had second thoughts about Biden after seeing him speak. “I wasn’t inspired the way I was before.” He, like roughly 40 percent of New Hampshire voters, was undecided.
Until recently, Biden was so synonymous with safe that it started to become a joke in certain circles. Bernie Sanders surrogate Michael Moore went around Iowa last week analogizing Biden to a boring dating profile, suggesting that you’d never swipe right on someone who described themselves as “safe.” (This seems debatable.)
Now, Biden too seems to have acknowledged the shift in the electorate as he tries to make up ground in another state where he finds himself far behind. On Saturday, he ripped into Buttigieg, arguing that someone who was mayor of a city of 100,000 was not qualified for the job. His campaign released a new digital ad mocking the former South Bend mayor for handling requests for decorative lights while Biden was negotiating passage of the Affordable Care Act.
Whether it sinks in over the final three days could be the story of the race. “There’s still a part of me that thinks Biden’s the best one that can beat Trump,” said Melissa Mooney of Lebanon, who described herself as a single-issue “get Trump out” voter. But right now, “he’s not impressing anyone.”