Grief, relief, and jubilation: How Biden's team survived a wild five days

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WILMINGTON, Del. — In the hours and days after Election Day, top advisers and Joe Biden himself were glued to the TV as messages flew across an internal group chat.

With frequency and precision, his analytics team delivered a picture of what was happening in each of the remaining states. They knew what the returns were showing, who voted from where and which votes were remaining.

As each night wore on, aides grew confounded. It was evident Donald Trump no longer had a path. Why was it taking so long to call the race?

“I was reading our analytics and seeing our comms shop express frustration that all of the data was on our side and all of the networks agreed, but they were too scared to call it,” said Biden campaign co-chair and Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La).

On Friday, when Biden took the lead in both Pennsylvania and Georgia, several aides said they had never felt such jubilation. Nevada was also clearly headed in Biden’s favor.

And yet again, all day, there would be no call.

The underlying concern, several people in and around the campaign said, was that each day that passed was another in which Trump would push misinformation in an attempt to discredit the results of the election.

Their anger and frustration grew. Senior aides were on the phone with CNN and other networks demanding to know what was preventing them from making a call. The campaign had been so certain early in the day, it scheduled a prime time speech expecting to announce victory. He wouldn’t take the stage until close to 11 p.m. Friday, giving generic remarks about respecting the count and hoping for more clarity soon.

Finally, late Saturday morning, aides erupted in joy when Pennsylvania was called for Biden, putting him over the 270 electoral votes needed to clinch the presidency.

Texts messages and calls poured in to top aides, who heard from long lost bosses, former colleagues on previous campaigns and scores of friends.

“Thank you so much, you saved the world,” said one message to a top Biden aide. “Amazing the relief and joy I feel!” Biden’s close friend and ally, Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, wrote in a text moments after the race was called.

All Saturday afternoon and into the evening, Joe Biden, his family and campaign staff marveled at the TV images across the country of supporters pouring into the streets in celebration. Thousands of people congregated around the White House, dancing and singing. And throngs of people gathered hours ahead of time at the site where Biden would deliver his victory speech Saturday night.

“Relief, pride and validation is what I feel,” said Greg Schultz, senior adviser on the Biden campaign.

Schultz was campaign manager before Jen O’Malley Dillon took over the role after the primary. He was among a small group of people, including longtime Biden adviser Mike Donilon, who helped coin Biden’s signature message: “Restoring the soul of the nation.” The same message would hold throughout the roller coaster campaign of 2020.

Before his speech on Saturday night, Biden convened a Zoom call with the entire campaign staff. He and his wife, Jill, as well as Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff, spoke.

“If you have any doubt about everything you put into this, just turn on the TV and see the people celebrating all around the nation,” Biden told the group.

Biden’s speech was essentially the same message he’s delivered since first announcing his candidacy on April 25, 2019.

“Let this grim era of demonization in America end here and now,” Biden said. “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. Lower the temperature. See each other again. Listen to each other again. To make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies. They are not our enemies. They’re Americans. They’re Americans.”

It was only four days since the election, but to many Biden aides, it felt like weeks since the first returns rolled in.

Tuesday night started ominously in Florida — specifically Miami-Dade, one of the state’s most Democrat-rich areas. Biden was expected to rack up huge margins there.

But around 7:15 p.m., Miami-Dade reported its early and absentee votes showing Biden was up only 9 points. The Biden campaign was rocked. He should’ve been up 20.

“It was a complete gut punch,” said a longtime Biden confidante who spoke to the former vice president. “We knew we might lose [Florida], but not like that. And then the feeling was, ‘Uh-oh. What else?’”

The campaign knew Florida would be the weakest of the battleground states. But they didn’t think it would be this bad.

Then ballots came in from Biden’s home away from home, Pennsylvania, where Trump also led.

The Biden campaign had expected a so-called “red mirage” across different battleground states because a huge number of Biden voters cast mail-in ballots, which would be counted after Election Day ballots in Pennsylvania as well as Wisconsin.

After absorbing the bad news from Florida, the mood inside the campaign improved as aides pored over the numbers and identified encouraging turnout patterns, especially in the suburbs.

“At first everyone was nervous. But then the numbers kept coming in from Philadelphia, and we all got better,” said Bob Brady, the Philadelphia Democratic Party chairman and a longtime friend of Biden’s. Brady spoke initially by phone Wednesday with Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, and his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, the candidate’s closest advisers and protectors.

A sense of momentum and hope became more palpable hours later after Arizona began reporting results that showed Biden winning. If he could carry the once-reliably red state and win Wisconsin and Michigan, where turnout looked strong, Biden could lose Pennsylvania as well as Florida.

But Pennsylvania was important to him personally as well, part of his boy-from-Scranton identity. The next morning, on Friday, Pennsylvania began to deliver.

“One day, you look like a loser and then all of a sudden you start winning. And then when you keep trending up and up and up with no downspin, you get to the point where Joe is,” Brady told POLITICO on Friday morning, just before Philadelphia’s ballots flipped the vote count in Biden’s favor.

“Joe knows he’s a winner,” Brady said.

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