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

“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.