Over the past month, there’s been a steady uptick in will-he-or-won’t-he media speculation on Joe Biden’s plans for the future, and no one is more delighted than Will Pierce, the executive director of Draft Biden — the only super PAC in the vice president’s corner for 2016. Pierce has been downright giddy ever since The Wall Street Journal published a story in late June that stamped an August 1 deadline on Biden’s presidential decision. “Since then,” he says, “there’s been a lot more noise, a lot more chatter about the VP getting into the race, so a lot more attention on us.”
A veteran who served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, Pierce worked advance for the Obama-Biden ticket in 2008. He says he initially balked when, in early February, a few neighborhood team leaders he knew from that race — low-level, nonprofessional Obama organizers — tried to persuade him to start a draft effort. “That’s an uphill battle right there,” Pierce thought. But he’d always appreciated an underdog campaign — he had just finished working on a failed Chicago mayoral bid — and had long been a fan of Biden for what he saw as his unusually sincere approach to vets’ issues.
Pierce didn’t know anyone in Biden’s inner circle, so he started by searching the web for lists of folks who’d worked or volunteered for Biden in the past. “It’s been a lot of detective work,” he says. In March, operating out of a Starbucks along the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, he officially kicked off the Draft Biden effort with a website and e-mail list on NationBuilder, a lefty web tool that he chose for its free two-week trial. When he sent out the group’s first release on March 20, it landed in 2,000 email in-boxes — mostly those of former Obama for America volunteers.
That blast reached at least some of the right folks. The group’s college intern spent the afternoon fielding calls from The New York Times, MSNBC, CNN, and the like. Then, in April, Jimmy Fallon gave the super PAC another pop of publicity when he riffed on Draft Biden’s bumper sticker: an image styled after the Obama “Hope” poster, with Joe riding in a Corvette, aviators and leather jacket on, over the slogan “I’m Ridin With Biden.”
Draft Biden’s staff of 12 — some full-time salaried workers, some interns with stipends — now rents a fourth-floor office near Millennium Park in Chicago. Pierce’s initial “hires” were unpaid friends of friends from previous campaigns, but in the past month the group has brought on paid state directors in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and recruited volunteers to launch chapters in 20 other states; it plans to add 10 more states in the next few weeks. Two state representatives and two state senators in Iowa have endorsed the effort.
However, proving that there’s enough preexisting support for Biden to challenge the Hillary juggernaut hasn’t been easy. Draft Biden claims just 3,863 Twitter followers and 2,179 likes on Facebook. Its petition urging Biden to run — the group’s main focus — has garnered about 100,000 signatures, far shy of the 500,000 supporters Pierce initially told me the group aimed to lock down by Biden’s deadline.
“I look at a draft effort more maybe to signal the financial support,” says Iowa state Sen. Tony Bisignano, who has endorsed the group. But by that measure, Draft Biden hasn’t made a very convincing case either. When Pierce and I first spoke in May, he said he’d hoped to pull in somewhere between $100,000 and $250,000 before the July Federal Election Commission reporting deadline. He ended up with $80,000, about 75 percent of which came in after speculation about a possible Biden run spiked in June.
And the challenge Pierce’s group faces goes beyond money: It needs to establish a persuasive case for Biden — one that distinguishes him from Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders has staked out the space to Clinton’s left. Jim Webb is the Democrat for those who think Clinton is a foreign policy hawk. Martin O’Malley is a fresh face among aging boomers. Biden? He’s a bit older than Hillary. He dislikes inequality but is no socialist. In terms of policy, there’s no obvious way for the veep to differentiate himself from the front-runner.
As I spoke to the core members of Draft Biden, I searched for why, in their minds, Biden was a preferable choice over Clinton. One rationale centered on Biden’s charm — both the studied and unstudied varieties. Jim Lykam, one of the Iowa state representatives who’s backing Draft Biden, says he thinks Biden is especially good at the kind of politicking that precedes the early caucuses. “I think he does a great job with that style. When he talks to you, he just makes you feel like he’s talking to you.” And that whole lack-of-filter thing? Draft Biden says it is a selling point. “A lot of people talk about how he’s gaffe-prone,” says Pierce, but that’s because Biden is genuine. “What Joe says, you know it’s Joe. It’s not what some speechwriter put on a teleprompter.” Biden “speaks from the heart,” agrees Jon Cooper, Draft Biden’s national finance director, unlike Clinton who he says comes off as “cautious, calculating, and managed.” Or as Shaun Abreu, the head of the group’s New York chapter puts it, “When you see Biden, you see that he’s human.”
Then there’s the idea that Clinton comes with a fair amount of baggage, notes Linnie Frank Bailey, a former Obama delegate. With Clinton, “we still get a lot of the fighting, the negativity, and the gridlock,” she says, whereas Biden “would work better with the other side.” Cooper concurs. No candidate, he says, would have a better chance of “restoring civility to Washington.”
In addition, some Obama devotees are looking to Biden because they want someone they trust will keep the faith. Abreu says he wants the next Democratic nominee to build on “the successes of the Obama-Biden administration.” Likewise, when she joined Draft Biden’s national finance team this month, Shiva Sarram noted in a statement that she sought “a candidate who can best carry on the policies and legacy of this Administration that we all worked so hard for.” Cooper says he still has concerns about the way Clinton ran her 2008 primary campaign, whereas “there’s no one better suited than Joe Biden to carry on President Obama’s legacy.” “Some supporters are doing it for that reason,” Pierce acknowledges. “I’m doing it probably for that reason as well.” Ahmed Khan, Draft Biden’s communications director, goes further, saying that, because the vice president, unlike Clinton, stuck with Obama for both terms, he has “insight on the challenges the administration faced, what they were not able to achieve” — and that knowledge would allow him to “hit the ground running” if he were elected.
The sudden death in late May of Beau Biden, the vice president’s son, temporarily threw the super PAC into upheaval. Pierce briefly considered shuttering it. But ultimately he decided that providing a venue for Biden’s fans to show their support was the best way to help — especially since Beau had reportedly encouraged his dad to run.
Biden hasn’t said anything publicly either way, nor has he started the jockeying for staff and donors that would be required should he actually want to launch a campaign in August. A spokesperson would say only, “The Biden family is going through a difficult time right now. Any speculation about the views of the vice president or his family about his political future is premature and inappropriate.” But Luis Navarro, Biden’s 2008 campaign manager, said that the veep would likely be flattered by the attention: “I can’t imagine a politician who doesn’t appreciate a groundswell of popular support.”
Patrick Caldwell is a reporter for Mother Jones magazine in Washington.