Forty-five minutes after Joe Biden’s first campaign event was supposed to start on Saturday, his crowd had grown restless. The former vice president wasn’t at the Rex Theatre in downtown Manchester and those crammed inside were wondering just how much longer they’d have to suck in the heated air before they get to see him speak.
In the rafters, a chant broke out.
“We Want Joe!” the voices said, overpowering the soundtrack of classic rock and commercial motown that had been playing on blast to keep the crowd from completely dozing off.
But no one picked it up. Instead, after two renditions, the men simply stopped. And those who’d bothered to consider joining in the chorus did what they’d been doing since it became clear that the event would not start on time: they dumped their faces back into their cellphones.
“This is a microcosm of the failure of this campaign,” said Adam Ross, a Long Islander who helped start the chant. “The energy is slowly dissipating from this room.”
Biden’s campaign is running on fumes. A candidate with all the trappings of a traditional frontrunner—the long résumé, party backing, relevant experience, and steady poll numbers—suddenly is on electoral life support. A fourth-place showing in the Iowa Caucus days ago has raised the stakes for the upcoming primary. But even Biden himself seems to be grappling with the likelihood that another humiliation is on the horizon. His first answer during Friday night’s debate was devoted, in part, to explaining how he was likely to lose on Tuesday.
For a candidate staring down another major setback—one that could irrevocably derail his presidential ambitions—one would expect Biden to be infused with a sense of urgency and desperation. But none of that was apparent on Saturday morning. And the lethargy that has come to define his campaign has begun to have an effect on voter perceptions.
“I had a hunch, watching the debate last night, that maybe, just maybe, his heart was not in it,” said Jim Barry, who had come to New Hampshire from Buffalo, New York. “This was a call to duty for him. But it doesn’t feel like he actually wants it.”
“2008 was his time,” said Kevin Both, who also was from New York, and who had traveled there with Barry. “Now, there’s not much gas left in the tank.”
Inside the Rex Theatre it was almost impossible to find an actual Biden supporter. Most of those in attendance were not even from New Hampshire, and those who were said that they’d come not to lend their support so much as to survey their options. For those on the fence, Biden has done painfully little to win them over. The former VP has spent months selling Democrats on the notion that he’d be the best in the field to take on Trump. But no one on Saturday seemed convinced of it anymore.
Take Pat Young, 62, who hails from Manchester and said he was preternaturally animated by a desire to get the current president out of office.
“People are saying, ‘Vote the issues, vote the issues.’ Well, fuck the issues,” Young said. “Trump has made this country so much worse and this is all about getting rid of Trump because if he wins I don’t think our democracy can survive.”
But with just days to go before he had to cast his primary ballot, Young admitted he was no closer to figuring out who fit his criteria than when the primary truly started. What he did know is that Biden was no longer “the surest bet.”
“Even for someone like me who says it’s about getting rid of Trump, there is not much there, there,” he explained.
Whether Biden has permanently lost voters like Young will ultimately determine the success of his candidacy. Privately, aides have downplayed expectations in New Hampshire by arguing that he simply can’t compete with two senators from neighboring states: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But the truth of the matter is that there are a number of Granite Staters who want to vote for him but feel like he has not given them a reason to do so.
Sitting one row over from Young was a woman named Terri, who was also from Manchester but who declined to give her last name. Biden, she said, was confounding to her. A politician who had built his reputation for wearing his emotions on his sleeves, sometimes to his own detriment, suddenly seemed sapped of emotion.
“What is happening to him, what Bozo—which is what I call Trump—is doing to him, I would expect him to have more fight,” she said. “And it worries me that he doesn’t. That’s his son [Trump]’s attacking. Why isn’t he fighting back more? Why isn’t he saying, ‘How dare you say that about me and my son? I brought my kids up with integrity!’”
Soon, Biden was running almost an hour late and his crowd’s patience was truly being tested. Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” came on the speakers. And yet, Biden didn’t come out. Half of the crew who had started the “We Want Joe” chant decided to leave. A speaker was introduced but there were audible ”ughs” when Richard Komi, a Nigerian refugee who represented Manchester's Ward 5, came out instead of Biden.
But Komi was the introductory speaker. And soon, Biden entered.
His gait was slow and his shoulders slumped, his blazer draped almost lazily against his body. He looked over to his left, just past the rope that was blocking the crowd from him. Two young kids were there. He joked with one about how if he sits through the speech without acting up, ice cream may await. The next kid was introduced to him as Beau and suddenly, the room went quiet.
“I have a Beau too,” he said, a reference to the son he lost to brain cancer but whom he still speaks about as if he’s there.
The crowd relaxed, their frustration with waiting melting away, reminded that the man before them is layered with tragedy and optimism. They truly care about him, in their bones, even if they have come to conclude that he’s not the right person they want to take on Trump.
And, for a little while, Biden gave them no reason to second-guess that conclusion. When he recalled how he outworked his opponent as a 29-year-old vying for a Senate seat—literally going door-to-door to win over votes—it merely served as a contrast to how sedentary his effort is now.
But then, a light was turned on, as if he reminded himself that he’s in the fight of his political life. He became infused with energy. He went after Trump for fundamentally changing the nature of America. He went after Sanders for being wrong on gun policy. He went after former mayor Pete Buttigeig for having the audacity to run for president from the perch of a mayoralty. There was vim and vigor in him now. “Gloves. Are. Off,” is how one Biden aide put it.
Biden was suddenly finding a rhythm. A crescendo of attack lines was followed by a well-placed pause, signalling that there was gravity in the words he’s about to utter.
“I’ve lost a lot in my life,” he said, referencing not just Beau but the wife and daughter who died in a car crash shortly after that first Senate win. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand by and lose my country too.”
He would go on to reprise that line later in the night, at a dinner organized by the state Democratic Party for the various candidates. And for good reason. It gave those in attendance a reason to feel good about him again. At the Rex Theatre, people stopped looking into their phones and started using them to take photos and videos. A few stood up to cheer. But no sooner did Biden have them on the edge of their seats, he cut it off. The speech ended not too long after it began. Biden stuck around to take pictures and do some retail politics. He was noticeably happier doing that. But in the rafters, the sale wasn’t made.
“Good man,” said one of the guys who started the chant. “Good speech. But his time has passed.”