Joe Biden is confronting growing anxiety among would-be allies in the Democratic establishment about his ability to win the presidential nomination following underwhelming debate performances, lagging fundraising and withering attacks from rivals in his own party and from President Donald Trump.
The former vice president’s bank account is better suited for a city council race than a presidential election, warns Terry McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor and top Democratic fundraiser.
Democratic donor Robert Zimmerman describes group “therapy sessions” with some party financiers haranguing the direction of the race. And in New Hampshire, state House Speaker Steve Shurtleff is leaning toward backing Biden, but says “people wish he’d be a little more forceful.”
Their concern is heightened by the rise of Elizabeth Warren, a progressive long viewed by current and former elected officials, big donors and veteran strategists as too liberal to beat Trump in the general election. Warren and Biden are essentially tied at the top of the race with the rest of the field lagging behind.
With first votes in the Democratic primary fast approaching, the new dynamic is sparking widespread frustration among establishment Democrats who have increasingly begun to speak out about the direction of the 2020 contest as they implore Democratic donors sitting on millions of dollars to get off the sidelines to bolster Biden’s candidacy.
“Every dinner party and cocktail party becomes a therapy session,” said Zimmerman, a member of the Democratic National Committee based in New York.
West Coast alarms
The same alarms are going off on the West Coast.
“Why are they are not being more supportive of the vice president, who is a centrist?” said Michael S. Smith, a major Democratic donor and Biden supporter in Los Angeles. “If you’re worried about a flood, don’t you start piling up sandbags? I don’t understand the lack of support.”
Others direct their concerns at Biden.
McAuliffe, long a top fundraiser for the Clintons, seized on Biden’s fundraising and his pace of spending to raise questions about the campaign. In an interview, he said it might be time to fire some campaign consultants.
“I don’t think anybody likes to read about $1 million spent on private jets,” McAuliffe said, referring to Biden’s preferred mode of travel. “If I were advising the vice president I’d say, `Fly commercial, get a bag of peanuts or pretzels, go up and down the aisle handing them out. It’ll do wonders for you.’”
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell was more subtle, praising Biden as the safest political bet against Trump and the best potential president among Democrats. But he suggested the candidate’s performance so far falls short in some areas.
“I hear concerns about gaffes on this and that” and the campaign trajectory, Rendell said, recalling donor calls he’s made on Biden’s behalf. “Donors are always worried in any campaign,” Rendell quipped, but said he nonetheless must spend time “reassuring them.”
The former governor invokes the threat of Warren as the nominee to bolster Biden to nervous supporters.
“We know Joe Biden can win Pennsylvania,” Rendell tells prospective donors. “If Elizabeth is the nominee, we have to fight tooth-and-nail for every last vote.”
Despite the worries, Biden’s support among primary voters shows no sign of cratering — even with Trump and his allies trying to dig up dirt on Biden’s son’s work in Ukraine. While Warren has gained on Biden in many polls and fundraising, the former vice president has remained roughly steady in polls of national Democratic voters.
And perhaps most importantly, he is still the strong favorite among black voters whose support is decisive in a Democratic primary.
Still, anxious donors, party officials and strategists see the need for a stronger national organization. That means competing more aggressively with Warren’s ground game in the four early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, while building out an expansive operation for the Super Tuesday calendar and other states that follow.
Biden’s strategy leans heavily on that kind of sustainable, long-term campaign, because his coalition is anchored by non-white voters and white moderates who have much stronger sway in states that come after the initial Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. His campaign acknowledges as much, with aides insisting that Biden doesn’t have to win either of the first two states to win the nomination.
But there’s considerable risk in that approach, with a worst-case scenario for Biden coming if he falls short of expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire, then doesn’t have enough money to counter negative perceptions with his own advertising and outreach, setting him up to lose support from nonwhite voters and white moderates that he’d need in Nevada, South Carolina and diverse Super Tuesday states.
“A lot of people are with Biden because they think he can win. He’s got to make people continue to believe that,” said Carol Fowler, a former South Carolina party chairwoman who remains uncommitted. Holding that “soft” support would become harder if another candidate, particularly one of the female candidates, gathers momentum ahead of South Carolina, Fowler argued.
Up in New Hampshire, which will host the nation’s first presidential primary in February, House Speaker Shurtleff is concerned about Biden’s weak fundraising performance and stagnant polling.
“Nothing’s changed,” said Shurtleff, who describes himself as a centrist leaning toward Biden.
Biden’s most recent disclosures reveal that he spent about $2 million more than the $15 million he took in over the last three months and has a massive overhead, including a staff payroll that topped $4.5 million — plus the private jet travel that rankled some donors. He reported $9 million in the bank at the end of September compared to Bernie Sanders’ $33.7 million, Warren’s $25.7 million and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s $23.4 million.
“You got $9 million? You could be running a city council race,” an incredulous McAuliffe said of Biden’s relatively weak fundraising. “That has to be fixed.”
Still, some Democrats still see a Biden upside in the dynamics.
“People still view Biden as the most electable,” said Robert Wolf, a top donor for President Barack Obama and former chairman and CEO of UBS Americas, pointing to Warren and Sanders supporting a single-payer health insurance overhaul that would eliminate private coverage. “That makes me nervous,” Wolf said.
John Morgan, a Florida attorney who has helped Biden raise almost $2 million for his presidential bid, sees such nervousness stoking Biden’s fourth-quarter money collections. But he insisted that Biden would have plenty of money for the first four nominating contests.
“People are starting to wake up,” he said.
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