MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — Joe Biden limped away from New Hampshire with a devastating fifth place finish, zero delegates and the viability of his campaign in question.
It’s a precipitous fall for the former vice president, who entered the 2020 race last year with a lead in nearly every national and state poll.
By Tuesday night, Biden was so diminished, he fled the first-in-the-nation primary state before the polls even closed. Instead, he attended a “launch party“ in South Carolina, the state long considered his firewall, desperate to signal to nervous donors and African American supporters that he was not planning to throw in the towel.
“There’s blood in the water,” said Quentin James, executive director of The Collective, a political committee that backs African-American candidates. “Black voters are starting to leave him now … A big reason lots of black voters were with Biden is they thought he was the best person to beat Trump. And they thought one reason for that is that he had the support of white voters. Now they see he has done so poorly with white voters and he no longer looks like the electability candidate.”
The size and scope of the loss — he failed to crack double digits or win any sizable city or town — challenged the wisdom of Biden’s strategy of not competing hard in New Hampshire. Biden had downplayed expectations of doing well here, claiming New Hampshire favored politicians from neighboring states, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But two politicians from the Midwest, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, finished ahead of Biden, undercutting his talking point.
“This is horrendous. We’re all scared,” said a Biden adviser, speaking anonymously because the comments conflict with the brave public face the campaign is trying to broadcast. “I think we’re going to make it to South Carolina. I know we’re supposed to say we’re going to and we’re going to win. But I just don’t know.”
Biden’s fourth-place finish in Iowa further eroded Biden’s already tenuous foothold in the Granite State. In the final hours before the primary, the campaign concluded it was headed for another embarrassing defeat and recalibrated, moving the candidate to South Carolina for the forward-looking rally. Even before Tuesday, several Biden aides had predicted Biden could finish anywhere from third to fifth place in New Hampshire.
“It’s all about South Carolina,” said Dick Harpootlian, a former state South Carolina Democratic Party chair in who is helping steer Biden’s efforts in that state.
At his campaign launch party in Columbia, South Carolina, both Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, downplayed the former vice president’s lackluster performances in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“We just heard from the first two of 50 states. Two of them. Not all the nation, not half the nation, not a quarter of the nation, not ten percent — two,” Biden said to a standing room only crowd made up mostly of African Americans. “Where I come from, that’s an opening bell.”
Biden told the crowd that 99.9 percent of African-Americans and 99.8 percent of Latinos had not yet cast a primary vote. “It ain’t over, man,” Biden said. “We’re just getting started.”
However, polls are showing Biden’s African American support is already starting to slip.
The South Carolina event offered a stark contrast to what the Bidens left behind in New Hampshire. Here, the former vice president’s election night party was a somber event, marked by the absence of a candidate who left the state long before the race was called.
Scott Spradling, a top New Hampshire consultant and former top political reporter in the state, said he can’t remember a major candidate not being in the state on election night. And Biden’s announcement that he would leave before the polls closed probably damaged his campaign in the state further.
“He’s shooting himself in the foot in the last few hours at a time when he’s already shot himself in the other foot,” Spradling said. “New Hampshire is about being front and center. So, I think he could very well have hurt himself even more.”
Reporters and Biden staffers seemed to outnumber voters at the party in a half-empty ballroom of the Radisson Hotel in Nashua. The small crowd greeted Biden with muted applause when he addressed them via a webcast from Columbia, where he later addressed a local crowd.
“We’re not going to let them take this election away from you,” Biden said.
This week, the Biden campaign insisted South Carolina would remain Biden’s firewall, regardless of his showing in New Hampshire.
“I don’t think people in South Carolina are going to change their allegiance or their vote based on what’s happening in [New Hampshire],” deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said. “There’s a real sense that the first four states are part of a process, part of a package. That they are intentionally the first four because they give an opportunity from different parts of the country and for diverse voices to be part of the process.”
But fundamental questions about the health of Biden’s campaign persist. Biden’s has long played catch-up with his online fundraising and the independent super PAC that supports him just plowed $6 million into a losing Iowa effort.
A donor to Biden who also gave a substantial sum to the super PAC supporting Biden criticized the campaign for not being clear about how hard he would contest the state.
“The campaign didn’t let the super PAC know what to do,” said the donor, who didn’t want to go on record criticizing Biden. “So we spent $900,000 on TV in New Hampshire that we could have just saved for Nevada or South Carolina. And now that money is just gone.”
Trent Spiner contributed reporting.