As Joe Biden decides whether to run for president in 2020, top Democratic leaders in the first caucus and primary states have heard little, if anything, from the former vice president.
Biden’s plans remain a mystery to state and county party chairs, as well as other prominent activists who spoke to BuzzFeed News. Many said they’re not even in touch with close advisers or allies who would have to spring to action if and when Biden announces.
“I am unaware of any communication by anyone associated with Biden to anyone in New Hampshire in [the] past year,” Raymond Buckley, the Democratic chair in the nation’s first primary state, said Wednesday in an email. “If it has happened, I have not been told.”
Asked if a late start devoid of much preliminary outreach could hurt Biden, Buckley responded: “This year is so extraordinarily different that it is hard to guess at anything.”
Name recognition would not be a challenge for Biden, a former senator, two-time presidential candidate, and two-term vice president under Barack Obama. Early polls show him leading the large and unsettled field of Democrats. He also has relationships dating back decades in many of the important states, and last fall he campaigned for dozens of Democratic candidates across the country, so he is not completely out of touch with party insiders. But he is taking his time and holding his decision-making process close.
As he does, several high-profile Democrats already have launched campaigns. Others who, like Biden, could perform well with some combination of Midwest, blue-collar, and establishment voters, are considering runs and taking more overt steps. (One of them, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, will reveal her plans Sunday.)
Biden’s methodical approach to 2020 is “definitely a calculated risk,” Steve Drahozal, the Democratic chair in Dubuque County, Iowa, told BuzzFeed News last week after attending an event for Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who is touring early states as he makes a decision on a campaign. “His support is so strong, he may be banking on that.”
A Biden spokesperson and others close to his political operation declined to comment.
Activists in Iowa, which will hold the first caucuses in less than a year, stressed that Biden is well-liked there and that many Democrats are likely to wait to see what he does before pledging support to another candidate. But the lack of contact leaves them with little more than gossip.
“You know, you hear rumors,” said J.D. Scholten, who nearly unseated Rep. Steve King in Iowa’s 5th Congressional District and wants to host all of the 2020 candidates — Brown was his guest last week — through his new anti-poverty nonprofit, Working Hero Iowa.
Those rumors are all some top Democrats have to go on. Bret Nilles, the Democratic chair in Linn County, which is Iowa’s second most populous county and includes Cedar Rapids, spoke of a friend whose girlfriend had worked on Biden’s staff and heard something about a March decision.
“From a practicality standpoint,” Nilles joked, “I don’t know if anyone wants to be out here in Iowa in January or February.”
Even so, Nilles rattled off a list of other Democratic prospects he’s seen or heard. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand “have called me just to chat, so that’s been fun.”
Teri Goodman, a Dubuque activist and longtime Biden loyalist, said she met with Biden during his last visit to Iowa — a week before the 2018 midterm elections last fall. She wouldn’t elaborate on what she’s heard from him or his network since, but she plans to support him if he runs.
Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price said he hasn’t heard “from anyone self-identified as being part of a Biden campaign or organization” since the midterm visit. He also hasn’t heard “any sort of antsiness or any consternation at this point.”
Price noted that Biden “is someone who still has a network in the state dating back to 2007 or 1987, so that would give any candidate who had that an advantage.”
Biden can count on similar relationships in South Carolina, another early-voting state. Some Democrats there cite his friendship with Strom Thurmond, the state’s late segregationist senator, as an asset — even at a time when the party has several prominent black presidential candidates and other Democrats are branding President Donald Trump as a racist.
“Let’s not forget he gave the eulogy at Strom Thurmond’s funeral,” Dick Harpootlian, a South Carolina lawmaker and longtime Biden supporter, told BuzzFeed News recently.
Harpootlian said he has taken “every opportunity” to urge Biden to run. Asked if he had heard from the former vice president or his team about his 2020 plans, Harpootlian replied, politely: “If I had, I wouldn’t tell you.”
Trav Robertson, the South Carolina Democratic chair, said Wednesday that he has not been in touch with Biden or his advisers.
“That’s not necessarily uncommon, per se,” Robertson said. “I think that we all know that the vice president marches to the beat of his own drummer.”
Biden, given his relationships in the state, would “come into South Carolina kind of like the favorite son, to a certain extent,” Robertson said. He also said that in a state where black voters account for a majority of the Democratic electorate, hopefuls such as Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California will be contenders. And candidates and prospective candidates have been reaching out to Robertson for months. To illustrate the point, Robertson mentioned one of the 2020 field’s long shots, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper.
“Hickenlooper,” he said, “is sitting in my office right now.”