Longtime Biden allies were aghast at the rocky rollout and undisciplined performances. On the trail, Biden often adds caveats that his facts and figures might not be precise. (“Don’t hold me to that” is a favorite out.) During an event in a Concord, N.H., union hall on June 4, the same day it was revealed that his campaign had failed to credit think tanks for his energy policy, Biden took so many questions that his staff had to turn on the music to play him offstage, as if he were an Oscar winner whose speech was droning on too long. Two weeks later, Biden invoked former Senate colleague James Eastland, the embodiment of the Dixiecrat South, as an example of collaboration despite ideological differences. Rivals unloaded on Biden, who was exasperated that anyone would construe his invocation of Eastland as praise.

Some advisers urged Biden to confront his rivals more aggressively. Biden initially resisted. His approach, advisers say, is informed by the 2008 race, in which some Clinton supporters vowed to never support Obama for President after a bruising nomination fight. Biden saw the same dynamic again in 2016, when some of Bernie Sanders’ supporters either stayed on the sidelines in the general election or opted for a third-party candidate, costing Clinton crucial votes in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Biden didn’t want to contribute to a repeat. “His singular focus was to beat Donald Trump. Even if it wasn’t him that is going to beat Donald Trump, he didn’t want to jeopardize the Democrats’ chances of winning,” Richmond says.