MANCHESTER, N.H. — Joe Biden found little mojo for his candidacy among Democratic Party insiders at their state convention here Saturday, despite leading the polls in the first-in-the-nation primary state.
Dozens of state representatives, party leaders, operatives and volunteers said they weren’t planning to vote for the former vice president in the nomination contest — and many publicly aired concerns about his age, energy and gender.
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A striking number of party activists said they were undecided as 19 presidential candidates delivered stump speeches over seven hours at the SNHU Arena, according to interviews with 100 delegates by POLITICO.
Elizabeth Warren led the way among the surveyed delegates who had made up their minds, followed by Bernie Sanders in second and Biden in third.
“I’m not here to criticize any other Democrat or anyone else’s campaign,” Warren told reporters. “What I saw in that room were a whole lot of Democrats here in New Hampshire who are not only ready for change. They’re ready to get out there.”
Just over half of the 100 delegates said they haven’t picked a candidate yet. Of those who have decided, a third named Warren as their favorite.
“I think that Joe Biden is too old to be president,” said Richard Post, a 26-year-old delegate who is undecided. “We need someone who is younger, more attached to the future of the planet.”
The complaints about Biden from party soldiers often centered on his campaigning skills, and a desire for more diversity in Democratic leadership. Notably, few undecided delegates named Biden when asked who they were leaning toward.
“I’m tired of old white guys telling me what to do,” said Rachel Cisto, an uncommitted delegate who is leading toward Warren or Sanders.
Warren, on the other hand, showed significant strength among those who said they hadn’t selected a candidate, but were moving toward one or more contenders. Of the undecided delegates surveyed, a third said they’re leaning towards Warren, either exclusively or as part of a small list of others.
Warren had also won the support of a handful of people who backed Sanders four years ago.
“She has the most thought-out policies, and I’m particularly in favor of Medicare for All,” said Jessica LaMontague, who voted for Sanders in 2016. “I think Bernie’s a little too old and grumpy.”
Dressed in her trademark “liberty green” T-shirts, Warren’s supporters swarmed the convention. When Warren took the stage, the audience exploded, at one point chanting “2 cents, 2 cents!” in reference to her proposed wealth tax. Sanders also received an enthusiastic welcome from the crowd.
Warren and Sanders are familiar faces in New Hampshire, living in bordering states and visiting more frequently than Biden. Both progressives have high expectations in the state due to the proximity and other factors. Sanders won the New Hampshire primary by 22 points in 2016.
“I met him in 1996 and had a chance to talk to him,” said delegate Mark King of Sanders, who he is supporting. “He talks about the same things and has the same attitudes he had back then.”
Biden has strong connections and endorsements in the state, some of which go back to when he first started running for president in 1987, making his lack of support among the surveyed delegates notable. One of Biden’s most formidable allies in the state confronted him during his trip to the state this week, warning him to speak less and be more concise in his answers.
“I like all of them very much,” said Carol Shea Porter, a former New Hampshire congresswoman and delegate who has endorsed Biden. “But because of his experience in the White House and experience on the international stage, he is probably the person who can best remind ourselves and the world of who we are.”
The 1,280 party delegates who gave up their Saturday to cheer on their party are key to the ground game in New Hampshire: They’re some of the most willing Democrats in the state to make calls, knock on doors and plant lawn signs. They run town and county committees and are instrumental in the retail politicking of the first primary state.
“These are the 1,280 most influential Democrats in the state,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley.
The delegates are selected in local elections throughout the state. In off years, they would vote on platform issues, but this year will only serve as party evangelists.
Local powerbrokers met privately with candidates in private suites at the arena during the day. Several hopefuls moved from suite to suite, kissing rings of party leaders, unions and some of their campaigns’ biggest backers. Biden spent a significant amount of time at the International Association of Fire Fighters’ room, shaking hands with everyone and whipping out cash to buy a non-alcoholic drink.
Sanders’ campaign did less so-called “visibility” outside of the convention than other campaigns, opting instead to organize, aides said. A staffer said his team knocked on more than 9,000 doors on Saturday as of 4 p.m., and Sanders greeted a large crowd of volunteers at a canvass kickoff at a local pub after he spoke at the convention.
Biden’s campaign this week downplayed expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire, upsetting some of his strongest supporters here who said he needs to make fixes to his campaign in early states to win.
Sanders and Warren made remarks during their speeches Saturday that could be interpreted as subtle jabs at Biden. “It is not enough just to defeat Trump,” said Sanders. And Warren commented, “We can’t ask other people to vote for someone we don’t believe in.”
The latest poll of likely New Hampshire voters, conducted more than a month ago by Suffolk University and the Boston Globe, showed Biden in the lead with 21 percent, followed by Sanders at 17 and Warren at 14. It also found that half of the general electorate was undecided, similar to the party operatives interviewed Saturday.
The largely friendly tone among the different campaigns’ supporters and “Anybody But Trump” signs were a stark contrast to the event in 2016. The party’s annual convention that year was marred by chants and boos, forcing former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schutlz to stop speaking.
In a sign of unity this year, hundreds of delegates agreed to hold signs for whichever candidate was speaking at the time, regardless of which contender they backed personally. The only jeers were when several candidates couldn’t remember or pronounce the names of the state’s congressional members.
“Whoever wins the primary is who I’m supporting,” said delegate Stephanie Vuolo, adding that she is undecided in the race for the nomination.