WILMINGTON, Delaware — About five hours before polls closed on Election Day, 21 empty pickup trucks appeared in the parking lot of the Chase Center, sitting in two careful rows facing the stage where Joe Biden was supposed to address the nation in a victory speech later that evening.
The fleet of Jeep Gladiators and Jeep Wranglers, along with some Ford Rangers and Chevy Silverados, had been arranged in alternating colors of red, white, and blue, all with open backs or sunroofs, and hoods stamped with BIDEN–HARRIS decals. They were reserved for the family and friends who would be arriving with Biden to his socially distanced “drive-in” rally — the proverbial front row in a sea of other cars. Sitting opposite a freshly installed panel of bulletproof glass, US Secret Service protection befitting a president-elect, they had the clean and perfect look of new rental cars, windows darkened, paint gleaming in the sun. In the style of a tailgate, aides had placed a pair of blue folding chairs in the back of each truck.
By 11 p.m., it was clear there wouldn’t be a final result that night. Light-up foam batons, stamped with the campaign logo for guests in the parking lot, never got distributed. After midnight, when Biden finally did arrive, his motorcade sped into the parking lot of the adjacent Westin hotel, and his party took their seats in the Jeeps: There was his brother Jimmy Biden, Jill Biden’s sisters, and the former vice president’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, watching from the roof of a Jeep. They had waited a long time for this night. Around 12:30 a.m. on Wednesday, they finally got to see him take the stage, only to say “we’re going to have to be patient” and “keep the faith.” After three minutes, Biden waved goodbye, and headed home.
So began a long and unsettled period of anticipation, with every new batch of results from Wisconsin, then Michigan, then Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, seeming to throw the election into a new phase of uncertainty. Joe Biden didn’t get his big party the way most presidents-elect do. He didn’t get one on the next night, or on the night after that, or on the night after that. The stage, the lights, and the Jeeps sat in position, looking both unmoved and resolute, waiting for a final result, and like the shadow of the blowout that some Democrats had hoped for early in the week. The hundreds of people who worked for the Biden campaign, already divided physically by the restrictions of a pandemic, were left to process the swings of the week from a distance, many of them on Zoom calls or alone. President Donald Trump made a deliberate attempt to undermine the vote, muddying things further. Biden inched closer and closer to a decisive victory. The country waited and waited and waited.
On Saturday, about 96 hours after polls closed, Biden delivered the speech he had to put off for four straight nights. The uncertainty and stress of the week, and the eerie desolation that took over the parking lot in the intervening days, seemed to give way to a shared joy and relief and, finally, to a party.
All day, people had been gathering in Wilmington’s surrounding Riverfront district eager to see history. Hundreds of cars made it into the lot. Supporters stood outside them, wearing their masks, waving their American flags, sipping beer from cans and other beverages from conspicuous red cups. It was a proud hometown crowd, quite likely the largest crowd Biden had drawn since declaring his candidacy 18 months ago.
For the Biden campaign, big celebrations have been scarce. He decided to run, he said, after seeing white supremacists and Nazis protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, without the president’s explicit condemnation. Few thought he could win the Democratic primary. By the time voting began with the caucuses in Iowa, the first contest of the nominating process, Biden was looking at a fourth-place finish. Campaign aides were drafting exit memos. The remarkable turnaround that came just a few weeks later, beginning with a third-place finish in Nevada and a 30-point win in South Carolina, almost immediately ran up against the reality of the coronavirus. In March, on the very night that sealed his path to the nomination, states started to shut down, ending in-person campaigning and transforming the country into a quiet, chaotic place, distanced and alone together. When Biden accepted the Democratic nomination this summer, he wasn’t able to share the moment with his family. “I will be an ally of the light, not the darkness,” Biden said in his speech that night. Only his wife got to accompany him backstage. There is no confetti, it turns out, at a virtual convention.
Even in victory, the central promise of Biden’s campaign — a call to “restore the soul of the nation” and return a sense of normalcy to America’s institutions of government — has begun to look like a more far-off and distant proposition in the days since Tuesday. The tightness of the race bucked national polling and delivered a narrow repudiation of Trump and his politics, which showed staying power and strength even in defeat. Democrats lost key races in the House, diminishing the party’s power there, and did not sail to the Senate majority they expected. Four years after he left the White House as vice president, having touted his ability to work with the other party with a kind of old-fashioned folksy brand of politics, Biden will return to a different Washington in January. Trump’s model of Republicanism runs strong and deep, and his top allies and his children are already commanding allegiance from the next wave that might rise to seek the party’s nomination in 2024. The first supporter of QAnon, the delusional conspiracy theory that Trump is fighting a satanic cabal of people who sexually abuse children, is headed to Congress. And on Saturday, after networks and the Associated Press called the race, Trump refused to concede, standing by unfounded accusations of widespread voter fraud.
“For all those of you who voted for President Trump, I understand your disappointment tonight,” Biden said Saturday, acknowledging his two previously unsuccessful presidential campaigns, in 1988 and 2008. “I’ve lost a couple times myself.”
“But now, let’s give each other a chance,” Biden added, to approving honks from the cars. “To make progress,” he said, “we must stop treating our opponents as our enemies. They are not our enemies, they are Americans!”
Fractured through the lens of this week’s chaos — with conflicting network calls, procedural questions about mail-in ballots, and an intense focus on pockets of the country (Maricopa County, the Pennsylvania Convention Center) — Biden projected a calm and somber confidence, reassuring the country that everything would be OK on the other side.
The day after the election night, a campaign aide led the few reporters left in Wilmington across the parking lot, past the Jeeps, through a side door of the Chase Center, for another appearance from the candidate. Scattered around outside was an empty bottle of Merlot and a discarded face mask. Folding chairs in the press pen, arranged the night before an equidistant 6 feet apart on the pavement, had been left in haphazard formation, like their occupants had departed in a hurry. On one, an empty hotel room service platter lay abandoned.
A stage inside the convention hall, lined with eight US flags, seemed prepared for a president-elect’s morning-after news conference. As Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, took their places, a brief cheer, loud and awkward, erupted from the back of the room from the small group of campaign aides who had traveled to Wilmington for the election.
“It's been a long and difficult campaign,” Biden said. “But it's been a more difficult time for our country, a hard time. We've had hard campaigns before. We've faced dark times before. So once this election is finalized and behind us, it'll be time for us to do what we've always done as Americans: to put the harsh rhetoric of the campaign behind us. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to one another. To hear each other again.”
Throughout the week, his campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon hosted daily Zoom briefings, laying out projections for the outstanding vote. On Thursday, Biden published a transition website, saying he was dedicated to preparing for his possible administration and would “continue preparing at full speed.” That afternoon, he and Harris attended briefings on the economy and the coronavirus pandemic, which is deep in a deadly third wave that has brought the total number of American deaths to more than 236,000. On Friday, Biden aides believed they would finally get their call, going public with plans for a victory party, broadcast live on primetime television. The networks held off, and once again, Biden passed the stage, empty and waiting, to address reporters inside the Chase Center.
“As slow as it goes, it can be numbing,” he said of watching the numbers come in on TV. “But never forget: The tallies aren't just numbers. They represent votes and voters, men and women who exercise the fundamental right to have their voice heard.”
The commercial plaza that houses the Chase Center, alongside the Westin and a large Planet Fitness, is made up of mostly empty parking lot. It does not seem like the place that would mark the end of the Trump presidency.
This was not the Javits Center, where a grand celebration on election night in 2016, complete with twinkling lights, a glass ceiling, and a custom-built America-shaped stage, ended with Hillary Clinton supporters sobbing on the ground. The scene here at the Chase Center, inside a perimeter lined with jersey fencing and guarded by Secret Service agents, was something more muted and uncertain. As the world waited for the result, there was an emptiness to the place. The parking lot outside the stage was quiet, except for the media tents set up around the perimeter. On Wednesday, the CBS News crew set up a grill for their remaining stay. Inside the Westin, returns came all week long on a single television, positioned near the automatic double-doors of the lobby, playing CNN on low volume. Outside, a sign advertised brunch at the hotel: “Did somebody say...mimosa?!”
Political writers in search of people to talk to had to settle for Chris Coons, a US senator from Delaware and a close friend to Biden, who celebrated his own reelection Tuesday night by wandering between the Westin lobby and the parking lot drive-in rally. Coons would reappear throughout the week, the outstretched arms of reporters holding audio recorders not far behind.
On the first election night, when results looked uncertain, Tom Perez, the Democratic National Committee chair, ignored inquiries. His party had drawn 27 candidates with the shared aim of picking the candidate to defeat Trump.
“I’ll pass,” he said, hurrying into the elevator shortly after 1 a.m. on Wednesday morning, following Biden’s first speech at the Chase Center, saying curtly that he would hold off on commenting until Biden spoke again.
On Wednesday, when a small group of reporters spotted senior Biden adviser Anita Dunn as she left the hotel, they quickly surrounded her. “You guys cannot stand this close to me, OK?” Dunn admonished them as they followed her into the parking lot for an impromptu gaggle and failed at first to properly social distance. She nonetheless offered the campaign’s prevailing message of confidence that 270 electoral votes soon would belong to Biden.
The campaign’s presence was more felt than seen throughout the week, largely via the daily Zoom briefings and in tweets from reporters sharing anonymous quotes from sources mirroring their boss’s sturdy and calm confidence. “We feel good. We are going to win today,” one campaign official told a CNN reporter on Wednesday. (They did not win that day, and wouldn’t, at least not according to the AP and networks until 11:25 a.m. on Saturday.) “We’re going to pull this off, but it’s not going to be painless,” another said in a text message that morning. (And it wasn’t.)
Biden staffers worked Election Day — and election night, and the days after of unknowns — in a state of displacement. The campaign limited how many could be on-site in Wilmington, leaving most operatives a half-hour up I-95 near its old Philadelphia headquarters, or in Washington, DC, or scattered elsewhere across the country.
It was, for the Biden team, an extension of how they worked for months during the pandemic: a presidential campaign run largely by telecommute. They’ve had to celebrate big moments, such as Biden’s speech accepting the Democratic nomination in August, and wrestle with tragedy, such as the police killing of George Floyd, alone or in small groups. Many who joined the campaign or DNC staff since March still haven’t met their colleagues in person.
There was no central boiler room for campaign staff Tuesday, but rather virtual offices on Zoom and “mini boiler rooms” where aides could watch together at a distance. Biden’s DC-based pollsters gathered at the headquarters of Lake Research Partners to watch returns Tuesday night, where they wore masks, worked out of separate conference rooms, and ordered separate rather than communal food. The campaign’s chief pollster, John Anzalone, joined via Zoom. They were, a senior staffer on the team said, “trying to ‘be together’ as much as possible.”
“This is my team and today is the first time I’m meeting them,” the person said.
Sabrina Bousbar, the campaign’s regional organizing director in Florida, quarantined in an Airbnb she and several coworkers rented for the final weeks of the campaign, after they all tested negative for COVID-19. Her team turned their virtual canvassing office on Zoom into an election results watch party.“I think our society has gotten so used to doing things that are safe for us that they’re still pumped to get together on a call,” Bousbar said.
William Fairfax, the campaign’s trips director in Michigan and a cochair of the HBCU Students for Biden group, watched returns with his parents and sister in Prince George’s County, Maryland. “It’s weird to not be celebrating like I was in the South Carolina primary with hundreds of people around us,” Fairfax said Tuesday night by telephone.
“I envisioned a big Election Night watch party in Michigan, somewhere probably in Detroit,” Fairfax added. “Although I’m not spending it the way I thought I was going to be spending it, I’m spending it the safe way.”
Biden spent much of the actual day of the election on a nostalgia tour, designed less, it seemed, to bring in last-minute votes than for his own personal enjoyment. He stopped by his childhood home in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he scrawled on a living room wall: “From this house to the White House with the grace of God.” He flew back home to Wilmington, where he walked around town (“Gotta let me back in the neighborhood, ya know”) and stopped at the Joseph R. Biden Jr. Aquatic Center, the pool where he once worked as a lifeguard, regaling reporters with a long and winding story about what he learned about the country during his campaign. That morning, he and Jill visited their son Beau Biden’s grave at the family church, St. Joseph on the Brandywine. At the headstone, a simple structure under a small sloping tree in the cemetery, people had already laid fresh flowers and campaign pins next to a BIDEN–HARRIS sticker, taped to the bottom-right corner of the grave. Biden’s son would have been 51-years-old on the year his dad became president-elect.
The president-elect was home when the final call came at 11:25 a.m. In a picture shared by Biden’s granddaughter Naomi, he could be seen surrounded by family, their arms wrapped around him in a single embrace, his son Hunter clutching his father at the center.
On Saturday night, the Biden family returned to the Jeeps at the Chase Center. Event organizers had moved the cars even closer to the stage to be sure that Biden would be able to see his family from the podium.
As soon as he took the stage, making his first public moment as president-elect, he put his hand over his eyes and scanned the crowd for familiar faces — “the people who brought me to the dance,” he said.
“I see my buddy Sen. Tom Carper down there,” he said, pointing down at the Jeeps at the senior senator from Delaware, who wore a Biden ’88 pin on his lapel. “And I think Sen. Coons is there, and I think the governor’s around, and, I — is that Ruth Ann?! Former governor Ruth Ann Minner!”
When his family joined him on stage, Biden got to see his name light up the sky with fireworks that spelled “BIDEN” and “PRESIDENT-ELECT” and “46.” He pointed overhead, keeping his eyes turned upward, his mouth open in a smile. Everyone was gathered around him: Jill and Kamala and her husband Doug, and their two kids; his daughter Ashley, dancing on stage; Hunter and his wife Melissa; the grandkids Naomi, Finnegan, Maisy, and Beau’s children, Natalie and Robert. In his arms, Biden held his newest grandson to his chest, Hunter’s 7-month-old.
“They’re my heart,” he told the crowd at his party.
At the end of the night, the motorcade circled around the Chase Center. Cars let out a final round of honks and cheers. The family trickled out, walking backstage one by one until it was just Biden and his wife. He didn’t want to leave. ●