The menu was champagne, sliders and tuna tartare. The guests were polite, and the candidate upbeat. But whether Joe Biden left his Manhattan fundraising events with more Wall Street support than when he entered was anybody’s guess.
“We lost the first two primaries, but they make up 2 per cent of the delegates needed to get elected,” the Democratic presidential candidate explained to about 75 donors early on Thursday evening at Sarabeth’s restaurant on Central Park South.
A couple of hours later, he was making the pitch again, this time to a different well-heeled crowd of Wall Street dealmakers and lawyers, at The Wayfarer, one block south of Sarabeth’s.
“I feel really, really good,” Mr Biden said. “You’re putting me in a position to be able to be very competitive in the next two primaries [in Nevada and South Carolina]. And then it goes from there.”
After blistering losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mr Biden’s campaign is scrambling to reassure donors that the former US vice-president — and one-time Democratic frontrunner — can win the race to take on Donald Trump in November.
In public, Mr Biden’s biggest backers are responding — giving $800,000 at the two Manhattan events, according to his campaign. However, in private, several donors expressed concern about his prospects — particularly with Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor, using his wealth to target the Super Tuesday primaries on March 3.
One donor who attended the Sarabeth’s event said that while there are still optimists in the Biden camp, he and many others believed the former vice-president needed wins in the Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primary to be still viable.
“I think on paper he’s the best candidate. [But] there is not a tonne of excitement for him,” the donor said after giving the maximum $2,800 primary donation.
A senior banker at a boutique investment bank who has also backed Mr Biden, said the former vice-president’s days were numbered. “It’s hard to see him perform so badly but we need to get real about supporting somebody who can first beat the crazy socialist (Bernie Sanders) and then Trump.”
Last year, Mr Biden’s campaign raised $59.5m, but spent $50.6m of that by year’s end, much of it on boosting Mr Biden in Iowa in the hope that a strong performance in the first caucus state would aid his online fundraising.
By contrast, Mr Sanders, the winner in New Hampshire, raised about $96m in 2019 — much of it from small donors — and ended the year with $18.2m on hand. Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor who finished first in Iowa, raised $76m in 2019, and ended the year with $14.5m.
Mr Biden is also more reliant on high net-worth donors than his rivals. Roughly a third of his funding last year came from donors who had given $2,800 or more to him or his super PAC, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
By contrast, donors giving $2,800 or more accounted for 21 per cent of the money going to Mr Buttigieg, 18 per cent to Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar and just 4 per cent to Ms Sanders and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren — meaning they can all tap more of their backers for donations throughout the year.
Not all of Mr Biden’s donors were downbeat. Jim Chanos, the hedge fund manager who helped to raise $500,000 for Mr Biden last year at his Upper East Side home, said he was remaining loyal despite the former vice-president’s fifth-place finish in New Hampshire.
“A candidate is not a momentum stock, despite what Wall Street might think,” Mr Chanos told the FT. “You support them because you believe in them.”
Others said they were re-evaluating the field, taking calls from Mr Bloomberg and considering Ms Klobuchar and Mr Buttigieg, moderates who performed better than Mr Biden in New Hampshire.
Ms Klobuchar attended a Manhattan fundraiser on Wednesday with 150 donors. The previous week, she raised $3m in the 48 hours following her strong performance in a New Hampshire debate.
One major Biden donor outside of New York said he had already given money to Ms Klobuchar. The donor said he had been disappointed by Mr Biden’s fundraising operation, especially compared with Barack Obama’s.
“When [Obama] was running, he was burning up the phone,” he said. Mr Biden, by contrast, “never calls”.
“I was not impressed,” he said.
A top New York corporate lawyer and big donor for Mr Biden said he was preparing to divert funds to other moderate candidates, even though Mr Biden remained his favourite.
“The goal is to get rid of Trump and for the longest time Biden appeared to be best placed to do that because he was considered to be the most electable. The problem is that he isn’t winning elections at the moment as we’ve seen in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries,” said the lawyer. “If he doesn’t win in Nevada I and many others on Wall Street will start backing Pete [Buttigieg] or Amy [Klobuchar].”
Despite the bleak outlook for Mr Biden, many of the donors said they saw two silver linings to the New Hampshire results: the underwhelming performance of Ms Warren, the Massachusetts senator seen as a Wall Street nemesis, and the fact that centrists candidates in race received more votes than Mr Sanders, a democratic socialist.
As one banker put it: “Everyone expected Warren’s supporters to back Bernie at some point. But instead they are going for Klobuchar and partly Buttigieg.”