In Joe Biden’s first visit to South Carolina as a presidential candidate, the former vice president kept it light: he spoke at a public rally and a private fundraiser on a Saturday, attended a church service on a Sunday, and then was gone.
There was no Elizabeth Warren-style town hall with questions from the audience, no swing through multiple media markets like Cory Booker or Kamala Harris, no frenzied schedule of events like Beto O’Rourke.
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There was no need. According to the most recent poll in the state, Biden already has a commanding lead there.
As his opponents in a sprawling primary field scramble to build their early state profiles, the Biden campaign is taking a different, more deliberate approach. The number of events per day are limited. The size of the venues are modest. Careful attention has been paid to his exposure to the press, with a slow ramp up of his availability to the media over time.
So far, it’s paying off.
Biden has led in every national poll taken since he announced his candidacy. He’s also established wide early-state leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina, while lapping up endorsements. And he’s done it with a measured, Rose Garden-style strategy that has played to his strengths while concealing his potential flaws.
“For Biden, direction is more important than speed. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And managing expectations will be the key,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist who worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 and 2008 campaigns in South Carolina. “There are some in the party who think he’s too old, or that he has too many miles on his political engine, or that it’s a woman’s time. But in his case, a slow and steady pace will win the race.”
By dictating his own tempo and setting his own terms of engagement, Biden has only underscored his stature as a party eminence — and subtly reinforced his status as the field’s front-runner.
The signs of it permeate his campaign. His team provides White House-style “daily guidance” to the media. His private fundraisers are covered in pool reports detailing every bit of news from behind closed doors. He largely ignores his 21 rivals for the nomination as if he were already running a general election campaign against Donald Trump.
Trump, in return, has directed his recent attacks at Biden, enhancing Biden’s visibility in the opening weeks of his bid and also intimating that the former vice president is a rival he views as a threat.
Biden’s careful roll-out, marked initially by limited interactions with the press, has served another function: it minimized the chances that the candidate known for his gaffe-prone ways would go off-script, while slowly reacquainting him with the demands of the 24/7 newscycle.
The former vice president started modestly — with a Good Morning America interview and a Radio Iowa interview on the day after his announcement — followed by remarks with two pool reporters chosen by the campaign at an ice cream joint in Monticello, Iowa.
About a week later, though, the training wheels were off and Biden was answering off-the-cuff questions posed by reporters outside a taco joint in Los Angeles. By Monday of this week, Biden was in full campaign mode in New Hampshire, engaging in a lengthy question-and-answer session with the press in New Hampshire.
His schedule has also kept him fresh and sharp at his appearances — always a concern for politicians of advanced age, but especially relevant for a 76-year-old candidate facing questions about the issue.
“I don’t want to discount the value of having a packed schedule but I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world to have a limited schedule,” said Jeff Link, a longtime Iowa Democratic strategist. And there’s already an argument it’s working. “He looks mature and seasoned, not old and tired.”
Biden’s campaign advisers insist that the first leg of his campaign schedule is aggressive in nature, noting that from the candidate’s April launch to a major rally scheduled in Philadelphia, he will have headed up two major rallies, traveled to all four early states and California, in addition to attending at least five private fundraisers.
But they also see little value in front-loading Biden’s travel with a litany of events this early in the primary season, especially with a candidate who needs no introduction.
The campaign, several advisers told POLITICO, is taking an “everybody knows Joe” strategy, banking on Biden’s name ID and high favorable ratings as built-in advantages that give him far more flexibility with his schedule than other candidates.
“Voters know Joe Biden. They know his values and his character,” a Biden campaign spokesman said. “What you’re seeing is events where he can meet voters, understand their concerns and demonstrate what he’ll do about it. And people are responding to that.”
Dante Scala, an expert in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary mechanics and a University of New Hampshire professor, said it’s understandable Biden has initially kept a relatively light schedule bereft of numerous town halls and stops — but it can’t last.
“At the outset, he doesn’t have to work as hard as a Cory Booker, for example,” Scala said. “But the concern, and it’s not an immediate concern, but down the road if you keep your schedule light in New Hampshire to avoid a lot of direct questioning from voters, that’s when the watchdogs of the process — the local media, the national media, the voters themselves – start weighing in.”
Biden himself seems to recognize the demands of early-state voters accustomed to close and frequent attention.
“You’ll see me in this state until you’re sick of me,’” longtime supporter Betty Brim-Hunter said Biden told her and her husband earlier this month in Iowa.
Iowa won’t settle for less, she said: “Older Iowans especially expect to have a few minutes with the candidate to have a conversation, rather than just sitting and listening.”
Mark Longabaugh, a former adviser to Bernie Sanders, says in New Hampshire, where voters have a tradition of asking candidates questions themselves in diners and town halls, there are similar expectations of frequent appearances.
“Nobody’s going to get a free pass. The activists and voters there won’t tolerate it,” Longabaugh said.
Even in South Carolina, where a recent poll shows Biden 31 points ahead his closest rival, he’ll probably have to spend more time in the state in future stops, said Scott Hogan, former campaign manager for the Democrats’ 2018 gubernatorial nominee, James Smith.
“You’re going to have to show up. You’re going to have to develop that grassroots energy, that grassroots base and excitement,” Hogan said.
“It’s no secret how you win South Carolina or any of these early states: you show up early, and you show up often, and you go everywhere,” he said. “The vice president just has a long history of doing so in South Carolina.”