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The Atlantic - May 19, 2019

PHILADELPHIA—If the new rules of politics post-2016 were to hold up, the official launch rally Joe Biden held here on Saturday would mean that he is in trouble: The crowd wasn’t huge, was largely white and older, and, for the most part, only really got into it when he mentioned Barack Obama or Donald Trump.

Yet Biden’s high-and-getting-higher poll numbers, the early fundraising success that has surprised even his own aides, and the enthusiastic responses I heard from supporters who came out on a hot afternoon to see him don’t show a candidate in much trouble at all. Biden’s campaign is a bet: that in the four years since Trump launched his campaign, the country hasn’t changed, the Democratic Party hasn’t changed, and politics hasn’t changed.

If any of Biden’s competitors believed the same thing, they wouldn’t be planning killer schedules in Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond, giving up vacations and time with their family to meet with donors and activists and to have reporters constantly shove microphones in their face. Trump and Bernie Sanders were the breakout candidates of the last presidential election, but unlike most of the other people running, Biden and his aides haven’t adjusted to that reality—because they don’t accept that it is reality.

Read: Joe Biden wants everyone to lower their expectations

Biden’s message is very Trump-aware: “If you’d asked me a few years ago if our democracy was at stake, I would have smiled and laughed a little bit,” the former vice president said on Saturday. “No more: The threat to this nation, to our democracy, is real, it’s clear, and it’s present.” But the operation he’s running seems to track with the kind of campaign he would have put together if he’d run in 2016 (or any of the other half-dozen times he launched or almost launched a bid)—before Trump and Sanders supposedly changed everything.

Biden is not getting into name-calling, a la President Trump. He’s not getting into Sanders-style proposals such as Medicare for All. And he’s definitely not getting into crowd sizes. The roughly 6,000 people who stood in the sun waiting for him were less than a third of the crowd that showed up for Kamala Harris at her launch in Oakland in January; less than half the number Sanders drew for his first rally in Brooklyn in February; and a full 3,000 people behind the crowd who stood in a snowstorm to watch Amy Klobuchar give her kickoff speech in February. In the heart of Philadelphia, nearly half a century after he launched his national political career just down the highway in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden had roughly the same number of people as those who went to Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s kickoff rally in South Bend, Indiana, a month ago.

Ted Kaufman, Biden’s longest-serving aide and close friend (who served two years as a senator himself after Biden resigned his Delaware seat to become vice president), smiled in apparent bemusement when I asked him on Saturday what he’d say to those who would see the crowd’s makeup and doubt the enthusiasm behind the campaign.

“If you’re saying that, you’re totally not focused on what’s going on here,” Kaufman said, as I walked with him toward the spot where he was slipping in backstage. But didn’t 2016 show that crowd sizes are a good indicator of support? I asked again. Kaufman looked at me and replied, “Beto O’Rourke.” The former Texas congressman was indeed known for drawing large throngs during his unsuccessful run for the Senate. And at this point, he’d be lucky to get a tenth of the support for his presidential campaign that Biden is generating in the polls.

Cedric Richmond, the Louisiana congressman and the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, told me the crowd’s size wasn’t an indicator, with Biden more focused on getting his message out to the TV audience on Saturday. “Trump’s the one who cares about crowd sizes,” said Richmond, who told me he’s talking about signing on as an honorary co-chair of the campaign, an important get for Biden in a primary that features two black candidates and a lot of black voters up for grabs. ...
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