‘He can kiss me on the head any day’: ‘Uncle Joe’ Biden goes home
The former US vice-president believes he can win back Trump voters in rust-belt states
Former US vice-president Joe Biden speaks during his first campaign event as a candidate for US president at Teamsters Local 249 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on April 29th, 2019. Photograph: Saul Loeb /AFP/Getty Images
Within the historic surroundings of the Teamsters’ Hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Joe Biden strode out onto the stage to roars of approval. “Hello folks,” he said, eyes twinkling, sleeves rolled-up. The local boy had returned.
Joe Biden kicked off his campaign to become the Democratic party’s nominee in the 2020 presidential campaign in the Keystone state on April 29th. His decision to hold the first rally in Pennsylvania was not accidental. Biden was born and raised in Scranton in the north-east of the state, and has long touted his links with Pennsylvania.
The choice of Pittsburgh for his campaign launch also captures his central strategy as he vies for the Democratic nomination. He believes he is the candidate who can win the back voters in the rust-belt states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan who supported Donald Trump in 2016, helping to propel him to the White House.
Seventy-six-year-old Biden was unequivocal about his motivation as he addressed the crowd in the Teamsters Hall. “If I’m going to be able to beat Donald Trump in 2020 it’s going to happen here, in western Pennsylvania,” he said. “With your help I think we’re going to be able to do that.”
This directness is part of his folksy persona – honest, upfront, “Uncle Joe”, as he is known to many. He is hoping his particular brand of old-style politics can win over Americans in the Trump era.
First elected to the US senate in 1972, Joe Biden served almost seven terms in Congress. But it was his role as vice-president to Barack Obama for eight years that ensured him national recognition.
Biden twice ran for the Democratic nomination unsuccessfully, and considered a bid in 2016, but was discouraged by many – including Obama – in part due to his intensely difficult personal circumstances following the death of his 46-year-old son from brain cancer in 2015.
It was not Biden’s first experience of personal tragedy. His first wife and daughter were killed in a car accident in 1972.
Here in Pittsburgh, Biden is on familiar ground, buoyed by the dozens of union workers and firefighters that pepper the crowd following the decision of their main union to endorse his candidacy. Much of his speech touches on the importance of labour and how to make the economy work for the average American. “The country wasn’t built by Wall Street bankers, CEOs and hedge fund managers. It was built by you. It was built by the great American middle class,” he says to cheers, pledging to double the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
In a barely-veiled reference to Hillary Clinton, he notes his party had “a little bit of trouble” in the state in 2016.
But while he may be on comfortable territory in Pennsylvania, his decision to contest the nomination has opened-up questions about whether a 76-year-old white man best represents the Democratic Party at a time when the party elected a record number of women and minority candidates to Congress in the recent mid-term elections.
His treatment of Anita Hill, a woman who accused then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, during a committee hearing in 1991, has again come into focus, raising questions as to Biden’s suitability as a candidate in the #MeToo era. Similarly, he has been forced to apologise for his tactile interactions with women over the years, admitting it may have made some women feel uncomfortable.
Outside the Teamsters Hall in Pittsburgh, voters are broadly supportive of Biden.
Lynn, who is standing in line with her granddaughter Hayley, says while she likes Biden, she hasn’t made up her mind who to support. She says she is frustrated with the number of candidates vying for the Democratic nomination.
Democrats need to figure out what their strategy is to defeat Trump. It’s going to be an uphill battle and I don’t think having 20 people running is the way to do it
“Democrats need to figure out what their strategy is to defeat Trump. It’s going to be an uphill battle and I don’t think having 20 people running is the way to do it. We should have narrowed it down from the get-go – it’s wasting a lot of time.”
Though her granddaughter Hayley is now 16, she will cast her vote for the first time in 2020. She says the election of Donald Trump has motivated her generation to become interested in politics.
Further down the line, Susan and Cathy, two Democratic voters in their late 50s, are waiting patiently to enter the building. I ask them if they are concerned about Biden’s stance on women.
“He’s just a compassionate, affectionate person. He is aware that he has to reign that back,” says Kathy. Susan chimes in: “Considering what Trump’s done, and what he’s outwardly said? It’s totally offensive.”
Of Biden she says, “He can kiss me on the top of the head any day.”
A recurring theme in conversations with those in attendance is the need to elect a candidate who can beat Donald Trump. Local resident Mark, who grew up in the once heavily Irish-American neighbourhood of Lawrenceville, where the Teamsters’ Hall is located, reflects the view of many.
“Like a majority of Democrats now I think that the priority is to make sure that the incumbent is not re-elected. If it emerges that Joe Biden is the best-placed to do so, then I think people will vote for him.”
George, a retired teacher from the Pittsburgh area, agrees.
“A couple of years ago I might have said, it’s just another insider, he’s an establishment figure, we need someone new. But after seeing what’s gone on in the last few years when an outsider was elected, I think I’ll go with Biden.”
This issue – the question of electability – is emerging as a key strength of Biden as he enters the race.
Several polls this year show Democratic voters are more concerned than in previous elections about the candidate’s ability to win the election. Further, many voters – even those who don’t see Biden as their first choice – believe he is most likely to beat Trump.
As a result, issues that might usually stymie a candidate like Biden – his age, “insider” status and relations with women – may not feature as much as usual.
Christopher Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, says Biden is likely to continue to try and sell his “electability” as the primaries get under way.
Given the spectre of four additional years with Donald Trump, a lot of Democrats may vote more with their heads than their heart
“Given the spectre of four additional years with Donald Trump, a lot of Democrats may vote more with their heads than their heart. If their head tells them Biden is most likely to beat Donald Trump, that is a real advantage in this cycle,” he says.
But he warns that Biden’s weaknesses could also become more apparent as the primary contest progresses. “For example, he is not the first choice for younger voters. Given that younger voters came out in large numbers in the 2018 mid-term elections, this could become a problem for Biden if a higher number of younger voters participate in this democratic primary cycle.”
With the first primaries still nine months away, it is still very early days in the primary contest. Nonetheless, Biden holds a commanding lead among Democratic primary voters.
Two polls this week show Biden has surged in the polls since he announced his run 10 days ago, opening up a double-digit lead between him and his nearest rival, Bernie Sanders.
A CNN poll released on Tuesday found Biden’s support jumped 11 points to 39 per cent. Similarly, a Morning Consult survey put Biden with support of 36 per cent. Biden is also polling high among non-white voters and – significantly – in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire
The fact that several candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke, have visited Pennsylvania this early in the cycle, suggests the outsized role the state may play in the 2020 election. Democrats already made strong gains in the state in the mid-term election and Republican strategists are worried.
With its 20 electoral college votes, Pennsylvania is always an important prize in the general election. But because Pennsylvania traditionally holds its primaries after states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and North Carolina, a front-runner candidate has typically already emerged by the time it holds its primary.
Things could change in this cycle, however. Not only has the state moved its primaries earlier in the cycle, the huge number of candidates running makes it more likely that a single front-runner may not have emerged by next April.
“Where Pennsylvania may play a pivotal role is if there is a prolonged primary season,” says Prof Borick. “If a scenario emerges whereby Biden and one or two others emerge as the front runners, then Pennsylvania could be a place for candidates to make their case or regain momentum.”
In the meantime, as America looks ahead to next year’s general election, at least one Republican is getting worried about Biden. As attorney general William Barr’s testimony to Congress on Wednesday dominated news coverage, Donald Trump was retweeting tweets from firefighters who said they don’t support Biden. “I’ve done more for Firefighters than this dues sucking union will ever do, and I get paid ZERO!” he said in one of 60 tweets sent that morning. Evidently, Biden is the one to watch from the president’s perspective.