NASHUA, New Hampshire — Before a winner had been declared in the nation's first primary of 2020, the already sparse crowd at Joe Biden's primary night party had thinned to a handful of staffers and volunteers.
Joe Biden himself was elsewhere.
"Welcome to the celebration of Joe Biden for president of the United States," said former New Hampshire governor John Lynch, a little earlier, at the peak of the party, to a group of about 150 at the castle-themed hotel headquarters Biden’s campaign had been based out of during his final New Hampshire swing.
“I can sense him in the air, I know my big brother’s around here some place," Valerie Biden Owens, the former vice president’s sister, said, right before Biden beamed into the room on TV screens from South Carolina.
Biden, who had left New Hampshire earlier in the day with the polls turning against him, thanked his supporters. "We'll be back, New Hampshire, we'll be back in the general,” he said.
“Now we are moving on Nevada and South Carolina and beyond, beyond. And we want you all to know how much we appreciate everything you’ve done, truly from the bottom of our hearts,” he said.
"We need to hear from Nevada and South Carolina and Super Tuesday states and beyond...99.9%, that's the percentage of African American voters that have not had a chance to vote in America — 99.8% of Latino voters haven't had a chance to vote," Biden said in South Carolina shortly after, to mild applause from the New Hampshire crowd.
The scene was consistent with the small crowds Biden has drawn at events in both Iowa and New Hampshire over the last two weeks — but it was in stark contrast to Biden’s Iowa party, which was buzzing with senior staff, surrogates, and volunteers before it became clear that the former vice president would be finishing not first, not second, but further down the list.
“He’s fighting," a senior Biden adviser told reporters on a conference call before Friday’s debate in New Hampshire. "I think you saw that from him this week.”
While Biden was more combative and willing to take direct shots at his opponents after taking a “gut punch” in the first caucus, his New Hampshire schedule was lighter than both Pete Buttigieg’s and Bernie Sanders’ in the aftermath of Iowa.
At the same time, he lowered expectations. Biden himself began talking about how New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, and South Carolina should be viewed as a package and not individually — “I've always viewed the first four encounters, two primaries and two caucuses, as the starting point,” he said at the debate.
”It's a long race. I took a hit in Iowa, and I'll probably take a hit here,” he conceded.
On Tuesday morning, less than a week after telling voters in Somersworth, New Hampshire, that he was “counting on” their state and several hours before his own primary night party began, Biden announced that he was leaving for South Carolina.
Local volunteers seemed resigned to the results in New Hampshire before they’d even come in — and supportive of Biden having moved on.
“We’ve had a lot of Joe here for the last several months. New Hampshire enjoys a special attention when it comes to the first in the nation, so we’re happy to share him with the rest of the nation,” said Heather Ledoux, 42, one of three New Hampshire volunteers the campaign pointed reporters searching for locals in the room to. The campaign said they did not know how many volunteers in total were at the event, but would provide numbers if they get them.
“I hope he does better. I think Michael Bloomberg suddenly coming in has taken the wind out of his sails. We’ll see. I don’t give up on people,” said Gary Mathews, 62, a volunteer from Massachusetts who said he had driven over the border to canvass in New Hampshire for Biden every weekend for the past month. He said he would be disappointed if Biden didn’t win the nomination but is prepared to “be out there on the streets” for any Democratic candidate against Trump.
Several others who spoke to BuzzFeed News at the event were volunteers from out of state or curious voters (also from out of state) who were supporting other candidates but just happened to be staying at the same hotel as the Bidens.
One surrogate arrived ahead of the rest to take on the television cameras — former governor John Lynch.
“I feel good about it. I advised him to go to South Carolina,” Lynch told reporters, in the mostly empty ballroom. “I think he did everything he could do in New Hampshire. He was going to polling places right up until the last minute. I think it’s a smart strategic move for him to go to South Carolina.”
“You told him to go early?” asked a reporter.
“I told him to go to South Carolina,” Lynch said.
“He loves New Hampshire. He’s very supportive of the New Hampshire first in the nation primary, but now it’s time to move on,” Lynch said.
A few feet away, four men stood at a table with beers in their hands, the solitary guests at the party for a while after guests were allowed in. They were members of the American Political Items Collectors, and they planned to go to several parties collecting memorabilia.
They were, said David Stelzer, 59, from Colorado, “scholars dedicated to the preservation and study and collection of political US campaign memorabilia,” going to various campaigns’ events on primary night — something of a tradition for the group.
He said he’s still behind Biden “because this country has never been favorable to socialism and there’s a good reason for that.”
“I’ve been coming up to the New Hampshire primary since 1988, and we’ve been coming up since last Feb to see the candidates,” said another member of the group, Mike Dunham, 63, from Massachusetts. He said he had been backing Biden but wasn’t so sure anymore. He said he’s considering Tulsi Gabbard now. But still, he said, he’s looking forward to taking home some Biden memorabilia when the race is over.