When David Bradford hosted a Joe Biden debate watch party in his Philadelphia apartment in October, only one person showed up. More than a dozen people were running to be the Democratic presidential nominee back then, Biden’s early lead in the polls was slipping, and pundits were pointing to the lack of enthusiasm for his campaign as a sign it was doomed.
Eight months later, Biden easily won the Pennsylvania primary Tuesday, and was expected to win primaries in six other states and the District of Columbia. (Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign in April but remains on the ballot.) That put Biden close to formally clinching the nomination.
In Pennsylvania, where Biden is something of a favorite son, with roots in Scranton and a home nearby in Wilmington, the army of establishment Democrats who long backed him and fans who liked him from the get-go are celebrating — briefly, socially distanced, and with eyes toward defeating President Donald Trump in November.
“I’m excited,” Bradford said last week. “I was amazed then how few people in his own backyard were showing up for him. That feels like a whole different time now. He’s the guy to beat Trump.”
“I’m not an ‘I told you so’ person,” U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans said with a laugh. “I think there was always enthusiasm from the beginning, and I know that was a constant issue people kept raising, but look — I came out for him on Day One because I thought it’s what America needed, and I still do.”
U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, another Philadelphia Democrat, said Democratic voters “are completely animated to end this presidency. The enthusiasm question is one of the more overrated story lines in politics.”
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Despite winning a roller-coaster of a primary season, and now with the robust backing of Democrats who ran against him, Biden still doesn’t poll as well as Trump when it comes to at least one metric for enthusiasm. In an Economist/YouGov poll last week, just 39% of registered Democrats had a “very favorable” opinion of Biden. Trump, meanwhile, was viewed very favorably 66% of registered Republicans.
And given the coronavirus pandemic, Biden’s nomination is unlikely to bring the typical spectacle of celebration. The Democratic National Convention, where he will officially become the nominee, is slated for Aug 17 to 20 in Milwaukee. But both the party and Biden have said the event could take place virtually, at least in part.
When Hillary Clinton clinched the nomination in June 2016, her supporters attended a huge victory rally at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. That followed an A-list concert-fundraiser where John Legend and Stevie Wonder played. But Biden has been doing appearances mostly from a TV studio in his Delaware basement since early March. The campaign has held virtual fundraisers and rallies with varying degrees of reach and technological success, several focused on Pennsylvania, a key state in November and where his campaign is headquartered, in Philadelphia.
Protests over the police killing of George Floyd have shifted Biden’s campaigning back into the public this week. He walked through downtown Wilmington to meet with members of the community Sunday, and on Monday he did a rare in-person meeting with clergy and community leaders in Wilmington.
Earlier in May, his wife, Jill, did a virtual tour of Pennsylvania. He also hosted a livestreamed chat with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf last week.
While being out of the public eye has its political downsides, it has also kept other controversies largely at bay, including a sexual assault allegation by former staffer Tara Reade, which Biden has denied. Last month, Biden drew criticism for an exchange on The Breakfast Club radio program, in which he said, “If you’ve got a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or for Trump, then you ain’t black.” He later apologized, calling the comment “too cavalier.”
Biden polls best with voters over 45. He does particularly well with African American voters and women. In Pennsylvania, Trump currently trails him by about 6 percentage points in an average of state polls. That he’s leading Trump despite the handicaps of campaigning from his basement is notable, said Elizabeth Fiebach, a self-described Biden superfan.
Fiebach runs the Pennsylvania Women for Biden Facebook group and was part of the “draft Biden” movement in 2016, when he ultimately decided not to run following son Beau’s death.
“When Beau Biden died, to me it seemed like he was America’s Dad," Fiebach said. "But now I see that 2016 was not his time, that everything that’s happened to him and all of his experience in his life has led him to this moment.”
She met Biden at a fundraiser at former Comcast senior executive David L. Cohen’s house last year.
“You know, he just kind of twinkles with this good humor," she said.
Now her group is one of several Women for Biden state groups that have sprouted up as the general election draws closer — a sign, she said, of growing energy around the campaign. There’s also a “Philly for Jilly”’ group dedicated specifically to Jill Biden.
Cohen, a longtime Democratic power broker locally and nationally, also celebrated Biden’s coming win for the nomination.
“I don’t want to say I’m some genius," Cohen said. “I didn’t get 2016 right, but I got the 2020 Democratic primary right, and I really did think this would be where we would be from the very beginning. I’ve known Joe Biden for a very long time, 25 years, and his strengths are exactly what this country needs right now.”
Cohen has continued organizing fundraisers virtually, including last month for the Biden Victory Fund, a joint committee for the Biden campaign and the party. The event raised seven figures, according to a source with knowledge of it. Cohen said there were tiered Zoom rooms for people giving $50,000 or more, those giving $25,000 or more, and for young supporters.
Cohen said he thinks voters connect with Biden’s empathy. They also think he can win. “Ultimately, all you needed was the belief that Joe Biden was the best pick to beat Donald Trump," Cohen said. "That’s all the enthusiasm you need.”
Marilyn Silberstein, 74, a Biden supporter from Germantown, used to get annoyed at all the people who told her Biden didn’t have the goods.
“I always felt he was our best bet, but I wasn’t so sure he could do it," Silberstein said. "And then he pulled it off. I’m thrilled. I wanted it with all my heart.”
Mike Donahue, another supporter, lives three blocks from where Biden grew up in Scranton. Donahue’s been working with Democratic organizations and talking to neighbors he thinks might be on the fence. In the end, he predicted, it won’t be loud Biden supporters who make the difference, but former Trump voters who quietly pick Biden on Election Day.
“I think the quiet people are why Trump did win in Pennsylvania, why he did so much better than the polls were showing," Donahue said. "A lot of people were going to vote for him secretly but didn’t say. And now, it’s hard to find people who admit it, but I think this time, they’ll quietly vote for Joe Biden.”