For more than 80 days, Vice President Joe Biden kept America guessing about his next steps.
But in the end, even with 80 days of indecision, Biden’s aides and allies echoed the vice president, acknowledging, as he did on Wednesday, "we’re out of time."
One South Carolina operative with Draft Biden, the group setting up the pre-campaign early-state infrastructure for Biden in case of a run, noted the sheer size of Hillary Clinton’s operation would be tough to challenge.
“A concern that we had at this point in the game was that we were coming in so late against such a massive machine [for frontrunner Hillary Clinton] that we may not have the time to build what we need to build,” the operative said.
The operative was certain, though, with a few more weeks, things would’ve been different: “If he had gotten in the race over the summer, I can almost guarantee you that he would’ve swept the South and made this into a two-person primary.”
But grief knows no deadlines. While longtime aides were plotting an early-state strategy, and donors were pledging their support, Biden was very publicly struggling with the loss of his son Beau to brain cancer in May.
“The most relevant factor in my decision is whether my family and I have the emotional energy to run,” Biden said in September.
Dick Harpootlian, a Democratic donor who was one of the early forces behind the effort to get Biden to run, echoed many Biden loyalists, saying it seemed that by the time Biden was ready personally for a run, it was too late operationally.
“He saw that, after he could get himself in a position where, emotionally and intellectually he could go forward with this, it would be insurmountable,” he said. “The reason it was insurmountable was he waited so long. The reason he waited so long was because he was dealing with the death of his son.”
Launching now, strategists said, would’ve meant staffers and funds wouldn’t be in place and ready to go until Thanksgiving. Iowa would likely be off the map at that point, because of the high cost of the face-to-face campaigning necessary to play in the caucuses; Sen. Bernie Sanders’ loyal following in New Hampshire would’ve been tough to overcome as well.
But Harpootlian, like others, emphasized that Biden was in no way at fault.
“it’s pretty amazing that he has continued without going home and getting in the fetal position,” he said. “This is a very very traumatic event and I think he’s done more than most people would in his situation."
Biden’s maybe-campaign ended much as it began — unexpectedly and emotionally.
Maureen Dowd’s column recounting that it had been Beau Biden’s dying wish for his father to run for president kicked the speculation surrounding Biden’s plans dramatically into high gear on August 1.
It was just as dramatic when, on Oct. 21, the office of the Vice President alerted the press to an unexpected 12:10 Rose Garden announcement from Biden, who would be accompanied by his wife and the President.
The state directors for Draft Biden, the outside group readying an early-state infrastructure for Biden in preparation for a potential run, were on their daily conference call with Executive Director Will Pierce when they got notice of the impending announcement.
“We gotta go, guys,” Pierce said, hung up the call and turned on the TV in the group’s Chicago headquarters.
And though they all said they understood the Vice President when he said that “the window on mounting a realistic campaign for president” had closed, from Chicago to South Carolina to New Hampshire, Biden loyalists were universally crestfallen at his decision.
Trip King, Biden’s 2012 political director who was playing an integral role in plotting the potential campaign’s South Carolina strategy, lamented the loss of what would have been “an absolutely great president.”
“He has an empathy and compassion that I’ve not seen in any other candidate, an empathy and a sense for where the American people are and where they want to go,” he said.
In a veiled jab at the rest of the field, King added, “I’ve always thought he was the one person out there who could bring people together.”
The letdown was perhaps even tougher because of those 80 days of build-up: A roller-coaster ride of will-he-or-won’t-he where the peaks — a clandestine meeting with progressive darling Sen. Elizabeth Warren in August, or, as recently as Friday, an encouraging phone call with the president of a major firefighter’s union — that seemed to confirm his interest in a run confronted valleys that indicated the opposite at breakneck speed.
Biden poured cold water on a bid on Sept. 3, saying at a synagogue in Atlanta that “the most relevant factor in my decision is whether my family and I have the emotional energy to run.” Four days later, he sounded like a candidate with a fire-in-the-belly speech to union workers at Labor Day parade in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Over the past five days, a flurry of activity — including a personal call from the VP to a major union head, calls from his wife Jill to lawmakers on Capitol Hill a tweet from Democratic Rep. Brendan Boyle saying he was in — sent Biden watch into overdrive. On Tuesday, he seemed to draw pointed, if veiled, contrasts with Hillary Clinton on his foreign policy experience and willingness to work across the aisle.
Pierce said the speculation had grown so fevered that, “We joked that, we used to take it week to week, now we’re taking it hour to hour."
The final decision, according to an aide in the Vice President’s office, came down Tuesday night. Many of his closest supporters said they had no idea what he was planning until he stepped up to the podium, but noted his inner circle had gone curiously radio silent over the past 24 hours.
"I would’ve put my money my heart and my soul behind Joe Biden."
In public statements, his Democratic opponents thanked him for his service and, as Clinton tweeted, “commitment to change the world for the better.” Privately, though, some opponents wasted no time in courting the valuable infrastructure Biden leaves behind. Multiple sources confirmed former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a distant third in Democratic primary polling, has been making calls to Biden operatives and donors in the wake of his announcement.
“Martin O’Malley’s people called me and they want to meet next week,” Harpootlian said. He added that he was “underwhelmed” by the rest of the field.
“I would’ve put my money my heart and my soul behind Joe Biden,” he said. “I’m not particularly enamored with or enthused by any of the other candidates.”
But for now, many Biden supporters say it’s their time to grieve.
Mary Cary Foley, a longtime Biden loyalist in New Hampshire who considers the Vice President a friend, said she was at work at a restaurant in downtown Portsmouth when she received a text from a White House aide to “turn on the TV.” The restaurant doesn’t usually play anything but sports, but for Foley they made an exception.
“I was ready to go — I was ready. But when I saw him come out with just Jill and the President, I knew. I had an awful feeling,” she recalled.
Foley said she excused herself to the kitchen “and had a good cry.” Hours later, an audibly upset Foley told a reporter that she was still feeling “very, very sad.”
“I’m just heartbroken,” she said. “I’m sad for the country, but I’m so sad for him that his presidential dream will never be realized.”