MADISON, Wisc. — On the eve of an election most in his party felt was all but won, Joe Biden couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that something was wrong. And a crowd in the mood to celebrate instead got something of a premonition from the outgoing vice president.
"There’s a lot of people who are going to vote for Donald Trump," Biden warned an audience of excited Democrats as he shared the stage in Virginia with Sen. Tim Kaine, the man he hoped would succeed him after 2016. "We've got to figure out why. What is eating at them? Some of it will be unacceptable. But some of it will be about hard truths about our country and about our economy. A lot of people do feel left out."
Two years later, Biden seems to be on a mission to again help his party answer that question head-on. And to do so, both he and former President Obama have been targeting those very voters who helped put them in the White House for eight years, then voted to elect President Trump.
Biden campaigned in working class Youngstown, Ohio on Monday, kicking off a week that will take him primarily to states or congressional districts that voted for Obama in 2012 but Trump in 2016. He starts Tuesday in the ultimate state that got away — Wisconsin — before traveling on to Iowa.
On Wednesday he’ll campaign in two suburban Illinois districts that Trump carried two years ago but where Democrats believe they can win now. He’s also been among a small handful of nationally known Democrats campaigning in red states, and will make return visits to Missouri and North Dakota this week on behalf of embattled Democratic Senate incumbents.
Obama’s first campaign rally of 2018 was with a half dozen candidates in California congressional seats the party hopes to flip. Since then he has similarly blazed a trail of states that slipped away from the party last time — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, plus a stop in Nevada last week that came two days after Trump had campaigned there.
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This weekend, both Obama and Biden are expected in the ultimate swing state: Florida. Obama’s trip to the Sunshine State will come before he travels into the heart of a red state he once come close to flipping blue: Georgia.
The campaign strategy for the last successful Democratic ticket stands in contrast to how the sitting president has focused his efforts. Only two of the dozen Make America Great Again rallies Trump has held since Labor Day were in counties he lost, NBC News noted earlier this month.
An aide to the former president said his strategy has primarily been based on four goals: Engaging in close races where he can make a difference; targeting states or districts that can help better position Democrats in the 2020 redistricting process; supporting alumni of his administration who have answered his call to continue their service in elected office; and supporting the next wave of Democratic talent.
But Obama has also been mindful of the advice he gave to Democrats at one of his final presidential news conferences, where he asked, “How do we make sure that we are showing up in places where I think Democratic policies are needed, where they are helping, where they are making a difference, but where people feel as if they're not being heard?”
“I became a U.S. senator not just because I had a strong base in Chicago, but because I was driving around downstate Illinois and going to fish frys and sitting in VFW halls and talking to farmers,” he noted in December 2016.
And it was no coincidence that his first major political speech this year came in just such a place, Urbana, Illinois.
“Neither party has had a monopoly on wisdom, neither party has been exclusively responsible for us going backwards instead of forwards,” Obama said there. “But over the past few decades, the politics of division, of resentment and paranoia, has unfortunately found a home in the Republican Party.”
Biden’s standard pitch to voters, like Obama's, also speaks to a concern that he says is bigger than politics — America’s values and standing in the world. It’s a message that seems designed to offer a permission slip to Independents and Republicans who reluctantly turned to Trump to return to the Democratic fold.
The former vice president, in fact, has predicted that returning Congress to the hands of Democrats would free more Republicans to speak out against the White House.
“I sometimes get criticized because I have good friends on the other side of the aisle,” Biden said in Las Vegas earlier this month. “I’m amazed what’s happened to my Republican friends. Because of gerrymandering and unlimited spending they are in fact choosing party over their country," he said.
"But if they know the consensus in the body is to do the right thing, they will join.”
In the same speech, Biden had some choice words for his own party as well, saying that while the American people have seen enough of Trump to know what he stands for, they still aren’t certain what Democrats would do.
“It’s not enough for us to show who they are. We’ve got to tell them who we are,” he said. What do we stand for?”
His answer was middle class security.
“For the first time in over 70 years, the American middle class thinks their children aren’t going to do as well as they do,” he said. “America’s always been about possibilities. And folks, it’s our job to restore the bargain.”