David Bradford set up a bowl of chips, salsa, and some grapes in the common room of his Center City apartment building.
He was hosting a presidential debate-watching party for Joe Biden supporters just blocks from the former vice president’s national campaign headquarters. He didn’t expect a big crowd, but in the end only one other person showed up.
The two men watched in silence and both left before the three-hour debate ended. A reporter turned off the TV on her way out. Bradford’s was one of three watch parties within a 20-mile radius of Center City registered with the campaign. None drew more than seven people.
Elsewhere in Philadelphia, fans of Sen. Elizabeth Warren pinned on buttons and wore “Philly for Warren” T-shirts. They gathered in six different locations from South Philadelphia to Wynnefield cheering at Warren’s responses and jeering when her opponents took shots. Local supporters of Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have also had well-attended watch parties here.
It makes for quite a contrast. But does it matter?
Biden draws from an older, less progressive, often less-educated crowd. That’s not the demographic that often gathers for watch parties. Polling shows his support is more pragmatic than passionate. His campaign has pushed back on the idea he has an “enthusiasm gap” before, arguing it’s something political operatives and journalists obsess over that means little to most Democratic voters.
“The Twitter Democrats are a very small subset of the Democratic Party,” said U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D.,Pa.), who supports Biden. “They are a much younger, more educated, wealthier, whiter subset — they’re important but let’s not make the mistake of extrapolating that they are the party.”
On the other hand, the kind of grassroots momentum that begins in bars and homes can turn into organization: Volunteers canvassing can have a tangible impact. And if some of Biden’s support is less enthusiastic, which polls suggest, there’s the risk it fractures.
Biden supporters themselves acknowledge the difference in how they feel about the former vice president and the way people lining up to take a selfie with Warren might feel.
“He’s kind of the shoe we know,” said Bradford, a registered Republican considering changing his affiliation to vote for Biden. “The comfortable shoe that fits. I see people going, ‘Oh he’s not the brand new shiny toy that others see and find appealing right away’ … I think as we narrow the field … that energy will pick up.”
All of the campaigns are focusing at this point on the early voting states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada. Pennsylvania’s primary is not scheduled until April 28.
‘I’ll tell you what Biden enthusiasm looks like … we vote’
Biden’s been around for a long time. People know him and that means there’s not much to discover or celebrate anew. He’s also cast himself as a moderate, which by definition is a bit less exciting than more progressive ideologies with bold proposals.
“No, he’s not exciting,” said Marilyn Silberstein, 74, a Biden supporter who hosted a watch party at her apartment in East Falls. “But haven’t we had enough excitement for the last three years? And you know what? That makes me more excited about him.”
Silberstein’s party drew only three people. Two supported other candidates.
She was undaunted by that. She’s followed Biden’s 36 years in the Senate and eight years in the White House. He’s “a mensch, a good man and that’s really important to me,” she said. “I don’t think he’s ever done anything that’s going to harm this country.”
While Warren draws huge crowds that wait for hours in selfie lines, Biden has only held a few rallies (including a big one in April in Philadelphia). He doesn’t have the younger, loyal following of Sanders or the growing excitement around the 37-year-old Buttigieg.
Where enthusiasm has been quantified, Biden doesn’t perform poorly but trails Warren. In a September Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, Warren led the pack when voters were asked which candidates they feel “enthusiastic” about. Her enthusiasm figures had grown from 20% in March to 35%, while Biden dropped from 33% to 23%.
In Iowa, where the campaign is in full gear, Biden hasn’t drawn the biggest crowds, and his poll numbers have dipped slightly more than they have nationally.
Tracy Davis attended the Democrats’ annual steak fry last month in Des Moines. Asked about Biden, she sighed. “There’s nothing wrong with him,” she said. “He just doesn’t excite me.”
A few feet away Bruce Hunter explained his take.
“I’ll tell you what Biden enthusiasm looks like,” Hunter said. “We go out and we vote for him.”
“Joe is Joe,” Hunter added. “You know what you’re getting. He steers older, and we’re more laid back – but we vote.”
Enthusiasm is a tricky thing to define and measure. Polls are more rigorous, and, while he’s dropped, Biden still leads in many. That’s a sign that “an enthusiasm gap — if it exists — will not make a difference in the primary,” said Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College.
In the end, an unenthusiastic vote counts the same as an enthusiastic one, said Chris Borick, a pollster at Muhlenberg College. “You don’t get bonus points for excitement.”
William Meade, who hosted six people at a Biden watch party in his Woodbury home Tuesday night, said the enthusiasm knock on Biden ignores the Democrats around the country, including African Americans in the South, who support him overwhelmingly.
“Biden is playing the long game,” Meade said. “And he’s way ahead of everybody in a state that really matters to Democrats — South Carolina.”
Watch parties, crowd size, and grassroots organizing tend to appeal to those who have the time for it, said Malcolm Kenyatta, a state representative from North Philadelphia. He said he doesn’t see a lot of people of color at anti-Trump rallies but he knows plenty who are fiercely against the president.
“I think we need to recognize and respect that there are a lot of people who are deeply engaged in this election but they’re also deeply engaged in their life,” Kenyatta said. “They’re trying to pay the bills, keep the lights on.”
Could his support erode?
Yet the burgeoning grassroots networks that create early buzz for some of Biden’s opponents can pay dividends. Warren, Sanders, and Buttigieg have local groups (that formed on their own independent of the campaigns) already knocking on doors – six months before the Pennsylvania primary. That support is also evident in the small-dollar fund-raising disparity between Biden and those three.
“That’s what intensity is,” Borick said. “Where you move from just saying, ‘Yeah I’ll vote for you’ to ‘Yeah, I’ll work for you’ … and doing all the other things and that could be helpful and turn more voters.”
The Philly for Warren group is organizing a trip to New Hampshire in November. The campaign offers online training on fund-raising calls and door knocking.
The Philly group is also canvassing for Working Families Party candidate Kendra Brooks, whom Warren endorsed for Philadelphia City Council. “I think that connects this seemingly far-off primary to people here,” said Beth Finn, an organizer of Philly for Warren.
Finn acknowledged Biden draws from a different crowd than “the Twitterverse” but noted “social media is also where a lot of people are getting their information today.”
“What surprises me is, Philly, you’d expect it to be Bidentown,” she said. “It really hasn’t felt like that.”
Staff photographer Tom Gralish contributed to this report.
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