The first major in-person event organized by Joe Biden’s 2024 campaign took place last week onstage at the Frank Gehry-designed pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park.
But the public was not invited.
As more than 100 of the wealthiest Democrats in the nation dined under the late summer sky, a star-studded array of party leaders took turns demonstrating their commitment to reelect a president two in three Democratic voters now say should step aside.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg flew in to speak, as did California Gov. Gavin Newsom, party chairman Jaime Harrison, Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who declared to the crowd, "Joe Biden has gotten results."
Delaware Sen. Christopher A. Coons turned in the stemwinder of the night, according to several attendees, mocking a recent piece by a Washington Post columnist calling for Biden to step aside because of his age.
"David Ignatius revealed a deep secret to me in that column, one I didn't previously know. Our president is 80. I was unaware! Struck dumb by the experience! I've careened around the halls of the Senate today, saying, 'My God, my God, did you know? Nancy Pelosi is 83?'" Coons joked, referring to the California congresswoman and former House speaker. "Sharp as a tack."
By the end, he was drawing on old-time Democratic religion, provoking the buttoned-up crowd to their feet. "I don't just like Joe Biden. I didn't just succeed Joe Biden." he said. "I love Joe Biden. I genuinely, deeply, love this man. And I want to know if you do too! Do you love Joe Biden? Will you elect Joe Biden?"
Nearly five months in, the Biden campaign remains, by design, a mostly behind-the-scenes operation, save the steady stream of television ads popping up in swing states and on cable news. There have been no solo campaign rallies, and just a few public political events with supportive labor or activist groups. The swing state offices won't open for weeks or months, along with a major push for volunteers. When Vice President Harris makes stops on a college tour this month to excite young people about voting, she is doing it in her official capacity.
But away from the television cameras, in private events, at suburban Washington homes or a Broadway theater, Biden and his team have begun to lay out his argument for reelection and to confront the age questions that have dogged the early months of his campaign. His rapidly growing campaign staff have moved into a Delaware office tower and developed strategies for polling, digital outreach, data and the electoral college map that they briefed privately to donors over a two-day National Finance Committee meeting last week in Chicago.
Ten people who attended the event or were familiar with what happened described an upbeat gathering at a time of troubling polling, stepped-up House investigations of Biden and the indictment of his son on gun charges. The staff earned plaudits for their presentations. Harris, who spoke at the opening dinner, grabbed attention for extended remarks on abortion rights and what some described as a much-improved personal touch as she worked the room after the first night's dinner.
"She grabbed a hold of me like I was a long-lost friend," remembered one surprised donor, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private event.
Campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez and her deputy Quentin Fulks gave a presentation about the electoral college map that Democrats see as favorable - simply holding Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania again is enough for victory. But they made clear there are many paths they will pursue to win, focused on seven states, including Nevada, Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia. The crowd nodded along, said two people familiar with the presentation, until Florida appeared in a slide.
"Everybody who was in the audience was doing deep eye-rolls over Florida being on the expansion map," one of them said.
Officially the campaign has not settled on a Republican opponent, but for several who attended it was clear that this operation was being built to take out Donald Trump, who currently dominates the GOP primary field. Senior Democrats have identified the former president as a major fundraising and turnout asset, along with the still-roiling backlash to the Supreme Court's decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion.
"I think the top-line message is this is going to be as close to a two-party reelect as we have ever seen. There is no Jerry Brown," said one participant, referring to the former California governor's challenge of President Jimmy Carter in 1980. "There is just no room for anybody to complain."
Biden himself has underscored that message, recounting Monday at a Lunt-Fontanne Theatre fundraiser in New York his revulsion over Trump's behavior after white nationalists marched in 2017 in Charlottesville.
"I'm running because we've made progress, but our democracy is still at stake," Biden told the crowd, in remarks that were not filmed by the press. He also returned to joking about the issue that has dominated much of the recent discussion of his campaign.
"I've never been more optimistic about our country's future in the 800 years I've served," he said to laughter, according to a transcript provided by the White House.
At the donor event in Chicago, Mindy Myers, the newly announced campaign polling chief, cautioned those in attendance to place little stock in early national polls, most of which have been showing a margin-of-error race, with Biden sometimes trailing. She also said, in response to a question, that it was too soon to know the impact of possible third-party campaigns by Green Party contender Cornel West or the centrist group No Labels.
The data presentation, by senior adviser Becca Siegel and chief analytics officer Meg Schwenzfeier, explained in some detail how the current $25 million ad campaign through mid-December was doubling as a road test of the messages and tactics for turning voters to Biden.
They were followed by a briefing by digital adviser Rob Flaherty and communications director Michael Tyler, old friends who mentioned as an aside that they can do a quality version of the 2004 OutKast single "Roses" as a karaoke duo.
They laid out in some detail the campaign's plans, developed over the last two years with the Democratic National Committee, to adapt to the new media environment, with an increased focus on organic social media sharing and the role of influencers to reach voters. In response to a question, they explained their strategy for deep fakes and other misinformation during the final months of the campaign.
"There were definitely hallway conversations of, 'Hey these guys are pretty smart,'" said one donor, a sentiment echoed by others.
Formal finance kickoff events like this are a right of passage for presidential campaigns, and many of the people in the room have been through many election cycles. Donors were given documents explaining the terms of joining this year's National Finance Committee, with minimum contributions of $46,000 to be a part of the group. That grants admission for the donor to one event with Biden and one with Harris, regular Zoom updates from campaign staff and a chance to attend quarterly meetings.
But deeper pockets receive bigger perks. The top tier of participation, the "Biden-Harris Presidential Partner" level, requires either $1.85 million in donations or $2.5 million in fundraising. These donors get tickets for four to special events with Biden and Harris in Washington next summer and another event at the convention in Chicago. They also get access to the "Millennium Park Package" at the convention, with VIP hotel rooms, top level convention credentials, box seats for the festivities, an invitation to a "podium preview," and access to the convention center VIP hospitality suite.
Some of those present had attended a hastily arranged April donor event in Washington, just days after Biden launched his campaign, when top Biden aides had little to offer in the way of strategy and almost no campaign staff on payroll. The format then only underscored long-standing concerns by some heavy hitters - some of whom have complained that they were largely ignored during the first years of Biden's presidency - as they struggled to get their phone calls returned and a lack of events, in part because of covid concerns, that kept the president and his team distant.
This time, by contrast, the presentations were robust, people involved said. Rufus Gifford, the former chief of protocol at the State Department who had a senior fundraising role in the Biden's 2020 effort and in the campaigns of Barack Obama, oversaw the event as finance chair. He was joined by co-finance directors Michael Pratt and Colleen Coffey and the head of the joint fundraising effort Chris Korge.
Gifford told the crowd was that it was a mistake to think an opponent with dozens of criminal indictments could never be elected president again, according to a person present.
"The truth is this will be hard. This will be expensive," the person remembers Gifford saying. He told the crowd that they needed to build the biggest and best operation in the history of politics, and they needed to move fast. "If we do, we will win," he told the crowd.
The question of Biden's weaknesses hung in the air, chatted about in the hallways but rarely raised in public sessions. A column by Washington Post's David Ignatius, calling for Biden to give up the nomination because of age, was evoked by Coons and discussed as some donors toured the Democratic convention skyboxes at the United Center, home of the Chicago Bulls, where they were treated to lunch. But the party concerns did not dominate, people said.
Among the top tier of Democratic politics there is little disagreement over the path forward, despite widespread public misgivings. A late August CNN poll found just 28 percent of Americans said Biden "inspires confidence," and 67 percent of Democratic voters wanted a nominee other than Biden. But with the first filing deadlines for president in mid-October, there is no evidence of a rival candidate with a clear path to challenging Biden.
One prominent Democrat said he has been spending five hours a day calming the nerves of Democratic donors. "I know he is old but he has got good people around him," the person has been repeating over and over. "Get over it."
The campaign leadership is certain that such concerns will dissipate with time, as the paid and volunteer outreach to voters ramps up and the hypothetical option of another Democratic nominee fades away. Biden's two most organized rivals for the Democratic nomination, attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and author Marianne Williamson, have yet to gain much traction in polling, with Biden taking about two thirds of the vote in national surveys.
Behind the scenes, Biden has also started telling more jokes about his own age, hoping to defuse the concerns of many voters and party leaders. "I know I look like I'm 30, but I've been around doing this a long time," he said at an event at a private home on Thursday.
He has also stepped up his attacks on Trump, describing his continued shock at the thought of the former president sitting in the private dining room next to the Oval Office and doing nothing to stop the rioters who attacked the U.S. Capitol in his name on Jan. 6, 2021.
"He tells his supporters, and I'm quoting him, 'I am your retribution,'" Biden said at another donor event in New York this week. "What a hell of a good way to run."
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a veteran fundraiser and strategist for presidential efforts going back to President Bill Clinton, appeared with Biden at a fundraiser in Northern Virginia this month, where the president made similar comments. McAuliffe said the time for Democratic second-guessing had passed.
“The ticket is set. It is Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,” McAuliffe said. “We have a lot of great successes. Let’s go out and talk about those successes. That’s all Democrats should be talking about going forward.”