Democratic presidential candidate former Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event on Saturday in Manchester, New Hampshire. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Joe Biden’s campaign spent the day after the Democratic debate on clean-up duty after conceding Friday night that he probably wouldn’t win New Hampshire.
“I’m not writing off New Hampshire,” he told reporters. “I’m going to campaign like hell here in New Hampshire as I’m going to do in Nevada and South Carolina and beyond.”
But the damage had already been done with voters like Tricia Owens, a 59-year-old therapist from southern New Hampshire and Biden donor, who said she was so disappointed that she won’t volunteer for him “for a whole bunch of phone-banking” she had signed up for over the coming days.
“I could not stop thinking about what he said about how he wouldn’t do well in New Hampshire,” she said, noting many New Hampshire voters are undecided “and then he said something stupid like that? I just thought it was so disrespectful to us in New Hampshire.”
“You got to show up and do better,” she said. “I can’t give up 12 hours of my time — I’m a busy person myself — if he doesn’t think it’ll make a difference.”
Biden once predicted he’d win the state but, in recent months, began lowering expectations. At the outset of Friday night’s debate in Manchester he said, “I took a hit in Iowa and I’ll probably take one here.”
Meanwhile, a new poll of the first-in-the-nation primary showed the former vice president slipping to a distant third in the race with Bernie Sanders as the frontrunner and Pete Buttigieg in between.
Chris Moyer, a former senior staffer for Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign in New Hampshire, said the risk for Biden in having a repeat fourth-place finish here — especially if Sanders can claim a second win in a row — was that it could cause a catalytic effect that fuels a Sanders win in Nevada while undermining Biden’s self-proclaimed firewall in South Carolina.
“A weaker-than-expected showing for Biden in New Hampshire raises the stakes for Nevada and makes it harder for him to rely on South Carolina as a firewall,” Moyer said, noting also that “other candidates desperately need to win or perform very well on Tuesday in order to make a credible claim at the nomination, but Biden can survive a bit longer.”
Biden never competed as vigorously in New Hampshire as others – he did half as many campaign stops in here as the other front-runners, according to a tracker from NBC Boston. He skipped a number of traditional events, like Politics and Eggs with the state’s business leaders and ribbing it up with voters at the Puritan Backroom, where presidential candidates have visited since the 1960’s.
Two weeks ago, Biden flatly told local news outlets he did not need to win New Hampshire to win the nomination. But the outright admission he probably wasn’t going to win was still a surprise, local supporters said.
Most recently, he has pared down his schedule here to one or two 30-minute speeches per day — without taking questions — followed by a brief rope line session with voters. And, just two days after being shellacked in Iowa, he skipped a full day on the campaign trail Thursday as his campaign reeled from the setback.
Former Ambassador Terry Shumaker, a top Biden surrogate in the state, downplayed the significance of missing a day on the campaign trail.
“It’s not like people are going to say, ‘I was going to vote for him, but now I’m not because he took a single day off to see his grandkids and do debate prep,’” Shumaker said.
Shumaker was still holding out hope for a second-place finish, as well as the distant hope of a victory, but acknowledged third place was a possibility.
Biden advisers dread a fourth-place finish so much that they won’t even discuss it as a possibility.
After Friday night’s debate, Biden adviser Symone Sanders scolded reporters that “folks have been attempting to write the obituary of our campaign.” Yet, she pointed out, Warren and Sanders are “two basically home-state senators competing for the nomination” and that it’s a “state that tracks pretty good for Pete Buttigieg, given its demographic makeup.”
Asked if the campaign would be content with a fourth-place finish, Sanders avoided answering: “what I’m saying is we continue to be competitive. We’re going to be competitive.”
Pressed to answer if a fourth place would be considered “competitive” by the campaign, she continued by saying, “whatever happens here in New Hampshire, we are going on to Nevada. We are not giving up New Hampshire by any means. We’re here. We’re on the ground. We are competing.”
Sanders also subtly turned the focus to South Carolina, the presumed Biden stronghold where African American voters will cast more than half the primary vote.
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“We do plan to vigorously compete here,” she replied. “But at the end of the day, I’d like to remind you all that the Democratic nominee since 1992 has been the person who has been able to garner a substantial amount of votes from the African-American community. That will not happen if some people attempt to curtail this nominating process, by some people I mean the media….”
State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a veteran of decades of local campaigns, said Biden needs to finish third or better to keep momentum in the race.
“If he doesn’t come in third, I’ll start to worry,” D’Alessandro said. He said Biden’s feisty performances in New Hampshire have reinvigorated his campaign.
“I feel good about Joe, the fight he’s showing. It’s what we like about him,” he said.
Still, D’Allesandro said he would like to see Biden take questions from the crowd at his events. “It’s part of a tradition here. It’s the way people measure the candidate.”
Biden’s expectactions-management also irked those close to the Bernie Sanders’ campaign, who saw it as intentional broadside against the senator from next-door Vermont. They called it a subtle effort to raise expectations for Sanders after he won the state with 60% of the vote against Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“This was done to boost Bernie and basically say, ‘well, if these freaking yahoos don’t break 30 percent of the vote, there’s something wrong with them,’” said a source close to the Sanders campaign. “He’s basically ceding the field, like pulling his defense, saying if Bernie can’t score a touchdown in the first snap, well, then your whole offense sucks.”
Holly Otterbein contributed to this report.