WILMINGTON, Delaware — Joe Biden spent his first day on the 2020 campaign trail in Pittsburgh, trying to sell Democrats on the power of moderation in a primary dominated by progressives.
He was back in Pittsburgh on Monday, on election eve, pounding on the lectern, calling healthcare a right, not a privilege. The candidate who once worried about going too far couldn’t hold back, couldn’t shout loud enough, couldn’t be more pissed at President Donald Trump.
“I’m sick of the wealthy guys gaming the system!” the Democratic nominee yelled at one point.
“It angers the hell out of me, the way he talks about our veterans!” Biden cried at another.
“Folks, everybody knows who Donald Trump is! Let’s keep showing them who we are!” he said in conclusion, torquing up to 11 a line he typically delivers more prosaically.
The last full day of what could be Biden’s final campaign carried an energy and a confidence that many of the 557 days in between did not. Starting in Cleveland — in a state that was not seen as an electoral battleground on the first of those days but became one in the race’s closing weeks — the former vice president focused on a tight message for working-class values and racial justice in a county that can make a president if the turnout numbers turn just so. Then it was on to neighboring Pennsylvania, the swing state to watch, where Biden, his wife, and his running mate spent the day rustling up any last-minute votes they could. And for the first time, Biden — who never drew big crowds during the primaries and then stopped holding large events because of the pandemic — looked and sounded like he was at an old-fashioned political rally.
“I chose western Pennsylvania for my first stop as a candidate,” he said at a socially distanced drive-in event in a parking lot at Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers. “And now it's my last stop before Election Day, because you represent the backbone of this country. Hardworking families who are asking for nothing but a fair shot, an even chance. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”
Since announcing his candidacy in April of 2019, Biden’s message has consistently revolved around a singular theme: a fight for the soul of the nation. It’s an existential riff on how Trump, through his indulgence of racism and his nurturing of hostile fringe movements and conspiracy theories, has steered the country away from decency and into chaos. The message didn’t require much alteration when the coronavirus pandemic struck and Trump failed to meet it with decisive action, or when his response to police brutality against Black citizens only served to escalate tensions.
“We can put an end to a presidency that has left hard-working Americans out in the cold,” Biden said at Heinz Field. “Tomorrow, we could put an end to a presidency that has divided this nation, and fanned the flames of hate. Tomorrow, we can put an end to a presidency that has failed to protect this nation.”
In recent weeks Biden has leaned more into a Scranton vs. Park Avenue binary — a value judgment that pits his working-class childhood hometown in Pennsylvania against an address of wealth and status in New York. And Monday was Biden 2020 at its most populist. That’s not saying much, because Biden isn’t exactly a populist, but the messages he emphasized reflected the winning coalition he needs to show up Tuesday: white working-class voters in western Pennsylvania and Midwest states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin; suburban women in those states and others; and Black and Latino voters. All of these Americans, Biden and Democrats have argued since the beginning of the campaign last year, have been betrayed by Trump.
Biden “is the dignity of work candidate,” Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who pushed Biden to add the Cleveland stop to his schedule at the last minute, told BuzzFeed News in a telephone interview Monday. “I say this without reservation, he's the most pro-worker, pro-union candidate either party's nominated in a generation.”
The tone from Biden on Monday was matched by senior campaign officials and staffers, anxious for the election to be over but not — as other Democrats have been with the release of each swing state poll — panicked about Tuesday.
“We want to make sure that we're having this dialogue and share with you what we're seeing, and that we also want to be fundamentally clear what we believe to be true,” Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s campaign manager, said in a video conference call with reporters to address expectations about election night and concerns that Trump might declare victory before full results are tabulated.
“Under no scenario will Donald Trump be declared the victor on election night, and we think that that's really fundamental to how we want to approach tomorrow,” she added.
The Biden team is preparing for a small, socially distant election night watch in Biden’s hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. Crews spent much of Monday assembling fences and concrete barriers across the street from the Riverfront district convention center where Biden’s campaign will gather. O’Malley Dillon, responding to a reporter’s question Monday, sounded confident that Biden will speak to his supporters and the nation from there at some point Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning.
“We believe that the level of data we have, all the early vote that’s in, and what we’re going to see on Election Day is going to give us a very good sense of where we’re headed, even if all the votes aren’t counted,” she said. “And again … we know that some are going to come in early, we know that some are going to come in later, but we’re going to be able to track that either way, because even in the Pennsylvanias, Wisconsins, and Michigans, data will be flowing. Votes will be counted at some point, just not all of them. So because of that, we’re going to be really focused on our understanding of where we are, and my expectation is that the vice president will address the American people — probably late.”