HAMPTON, N.H. — It was two days before the New Hampshire primary, and Joe Biden was talking about 13th century common law.
The point Biden was making is that he wrote legislation in the U.S. Senate to protect women from domestic abuse, the Violence Against Women Act. But it was hard to make out the connection between Biden’s detour into the Middle Ages with his argument that domestic violence is a modern sign of cultural decay.
“We have to change the culture,” he told an audience of a few hundred people inside a hotel ballroom in this seaside town. “You all know what the phrase ‘rule of thumb’ means, the derivation of it?”
“So many women were dying at the hands of their husbands beating them, that English common law, in the late 1300s ... 1390 or something like that, changed the law and said you could no longer beat your wife with a rod thicker than the circumference of your thumb,” Biden said. “But you could beat her. … We have a serious cultural problem in this country. But we can change it. That’s why I wrote the legislation.”
Biden then melded together a reminiscence of his work on domestic violence in the Senate and as vice president for eight years under President Obama, when the White House started a movement to raise awareness about sexual assault.
But it was a disjointed trip down memory lane.
“When I wrote [VAWA], I got criticized for it. I said, ‘Imagine all the women suffering from post-traumatic stress, just like men on the battlefield and women on the battlefield. You’re worried your husband gets home and you’re eating dinner at the table and he smacks your head against the wall. What happens? What do we do? What do we do?’” Biden said. “That’s why I started the ‘It’s On Us’ campaign ... inside the vice president’s office. What happened was I wanted to know the progress we were making.”
This is Biden’s third run for president. He ran in the 1988 cycle and dropped out in the fall before the primaries began. He ran in 2008 and dropped out after finishing fifth in the Iowa caucuses. This is the furthest he’s made it in a presidential campaign.
But Biden’s attempts to minimize his fourth-place finish in Iowa last week have done little to stop his support from plummeting in public polling. He had one of the smallest groups of supporters at a gathering of all the candidates on Saturday night. And his campaign events here in New Hampshire on Sunday did nothing to counter the idea that his candidacy risks flaming out.
Three weeks ago, Biden held the lead in the RealClearPolitics average of New Hampshire polls, with 23.3 percent. Now, on the eve of the primary Tuesday, he is in fourth place, at 12.7 percent. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is in the lead with 26.1 percent, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has 21.3 percent, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is at 13.4 percent.
Biden has already set the expectations very low for himself in New Hampshire. “I took a hit in Iowa, and I’ll probably take a hit here,” Biden said Friday night during the most recent debate.
He is setting his sights on the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29, of which he has been the frontrunner all year in polling, in large part because he has retained the support of African-American voters in that state.
Biden argued Sunday that all four of the first primary contests — the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11, the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 22, and the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29 — should be counted together when assessing the strength of any one candidate.
“You have to take the first four as one,” Biden said. “Not a single person has won without overwhelming support from the black community, overwhelming, overwhelming. OK? … Right now, I am far and ahead in the African-American community.”
But he allowed that things could change. “It remains to be seen,” he said.
Indeed, as much as Biden might want the first four contests to be counted together, that is not the way presidential campaigns work. Bad results bring bad polling in the next contest, dwindling financial support, and negative media coverage, and voters move to more viable candidates.
Biden’s campaign is short on grassroots energy, meaning he may lack the organizing muscle needed to mobilize voters to the caucuses in Nevada, and he also is without the self-sustaining money supply that Sanders has from small-dollar donors who give a few dollars a time on a recurring basis.
And if the polling in South Carolina shows his support dropping as it has the last few days here in New Hampshire, he’ll face even steeper odds.
Biden stayed behind after his event here in Hampton Beach for 45 minutes after it ended, shaking hands, taking selfies with supporters and fans, and hugging children before he left for his second and final event in Hudson. He bent down to greet Shelly Bell, 63, who has lived her whole life with Seckel syndrome, a congenital nanosomic disorder. He kissed her hand. They made faces at each other.
Another woman held up her phone and asked Biden to record a video greeting for someone else. Biden cheerfully obliged, then ended with a request.
“Need your help, pal,” he said. “Need your help. Need your help.”
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