Earlier this year, Cumberland County Democratic Chairman Lou Magazzu found himself on a Washington-bound Amtrak train with U.S. Sen. Joe Biden.
The two already knew each other. Cumberland County sits just across the Delaware Bay from Biden’s home state of Delaware, and Biden had once come across to participate in a fundraiser for the county party.
During the ride, Biden asked Magazzu to consider supporting his candidacy for president.
“Then he said something to me that was very compelling,” said Magazzu, who’s also a freeholder. “He said ‘Lou, I understand you’re an elected official, and if the Governor and leadership go one way, I would never ask for a guy to undermine his position.' And I thought that was extraordinarily generous.”
But it wasn’t to be. Two days ago, the Cumberland County Democratic Committee voted to endorse Hillary Clinton for president, giving her the line in this corner of south Jersey. Magazzu, citing Clinton’s visit to the New Jersey Democratic State Convention and stressing that he felt no pressure from party leadership, joined the committee in endorsing her.
Biden has been known to jokingly refer to himself as the third Senator from New Jersey, and Magazzu returns the label in praise. South Jersey shares Philadelphia’s television market with Delaware, and people there have witnessed Biden’s extraordinarily young rise to power, the tragic death of his first wife and daughter in a car accident and his aggressive opposition to Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in the 1980s. Biden’s Irish Catholic background could also play well with New Jersey voters.
There’s also a significant New Jersey connection on Biden’s campaign staff. His political director, Danny O’Brien, is former Chief-of-Staff to former New Jersey Senator Robert Toricelli and worked as the coordinated campaign director for Jim McGreevey’s 2001 gubernatorial run.
But none of that has translated to any significant support for Biden in New Jersey – not even in its southernmost regions.
“If you’re asking why does Biden not have more support in south Jersey, that’s a very fair question,” said Magazzu. “Although he’s enormously respected and there are a lot of people who in their hearts would like to have gone with him, a lot of people would like to go with the money, the national numbers, the poll numbers and how things are going in Iowa and New Hampshire.”
While New Jersey politicians like Magazzu acknowledge Biden’s extensive foreign policy experience and compelling personal narrative, the latest Quinnipiac poll puts his support here at 3%. No New Jersey elected official or county chairman has publicly backed Biden, and although he got enough signatures to make it onto the primary ballot, his campaign has nominated no delegates for the Democratic Convention in Denver.
In neighboring Salem County, parts of which are virtual suburbs of Wilmington, the county Chairwoman, Brenda Hall, has endorsed Hillary Clinton as well.
“I get a lot of emails from (his campaign), but at all the places I go and the meetings I’ve attended, I don’t hear people speaking about Mr. Biden,” said Hall.
Still, Biden’s New Jersey campaign coordinator, Larry Stempler, remains optimistic that his chosen candidate will pull off a better than expected showing in Iowa, leading to momentum that could help him gain some real support here. The problem right now, he said, is that the media is unable to focus on any Democrats but Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards and the massive amount of money they’ve collected.
“We’re not part of that media frenzy. Those who listen and pay attention to policy know the quality of the man and I’m hoping cream rises as it has in the past,” he said.
But right now, Stempler said, he understands that Biden needs to shore up support in Iowa before concentrating on a state that’s as much of a reach as New Jersey. And while Biden’s national poll numbers range from two to five percent, Stempler mentioned that John Kerry wasn’t in a much better position towards the end of 2003. Indeed, a CBS News poll published exactly four years ago showed John Kerry with four percent of Democratic support nationwide.
Stempler has hosted some small Biden events and fundraisers, but no major rallies. He has an email list in the “high hundreds” and estimates that some of the candidate’s other grassroots organizers have lists, and noted that Biden had almost as many supporters as Hillary Clinton at a recent mock caucus. But he expressed afrustration that a politician with credentials as impeccable as Biden is so easily ignored – even as the other candidates seem to recognize his policy prowess.
“He’s the guy they all look to. They all say ‘I agree with Joe.’ When it comes to policy I don’t think there’s anyone better in either field. That said he didn’t go around the last 20 years polishing his credentials with the county chairmen and doing what he does to become a money raiser,” said Stempler.
Biden’s foreign policy experience, however, is a liability with some liberal members of the party. Not only did he vote to authorize the Iraq war along with Edwards and Clinton, but he’s been subject to criticism for more hawkish positions than most other Democrats. This past September he took an unpopular stance when, citing his push for armored vehicles in Iraq, he went against the party and voted to continue funding the war even without a withdrawal commitment from President Bush.
“If you tell me I’ve got to take away this protection for these kids in order to be able to win the election, some things are not worth it. Some things are worth losing over,” he told Tim Russert on Meet the Press.
“Many people said that’s the death knell of this campaign,” said Stempler, who used the vote to Biden’s credit. “I appreciate our other candidates and we have a very strong field, but when it comes to truth to power I look at Joe Biden.”
But Biden hurt his chances of being a serious contender a week after announcing his candidacy, referring to Obama as the “first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” That was after a previous foot in mouth moment from the summer before, when he said "you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.” None of that could have helped his fundraising early on, and right now he’s got about $1.9 million cash on hand – a tiny amount compared to Clinton’s $50.5 million and Obama’s 36 million.
Ingrid Reed, director of the Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey Project, said that she’s not surprised about Biden’s lack of support in south Jersey given the makeup of the me
Citing Eagleton Institute statistics, Reed said that the Philadelphia television news networks ran 176 stories on Pennsylvania politics during the 30-day run-up to the 2006 elections. During the same time, the networks ran 29 stories on New Jersey politics and just five on Delaware. While Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton both come from neighboring New York, they had the advantage of home-state networks to make them well-known in New Jersey.
Biden, on the other hand, shares a crowded and expensive media market. Being a quick shot across the Delaware Memorial Bridge doesn’t automatically make Biden a household name in south Jersey – even if he got a lot of favorable coverage for high profile events decades ago.
“If you think about how infrequently our senators are covered even on public television, it would be a real stretch to think that New Jerseyans would know about Joe Biden. The coverage is just so poor from our data,” said Reed.