Through conversations on Capitol Hill, engagement with local activists and policy nods toward Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign and its allies are ramping up overtures to progressives, aiming to improve Mr. Biden’s standing with a key part of the Democratic coalition in an effort to unite the party around his potential nomination.
Mr. Biden has assembled a broad base of support from black and suburban white voters as he has racked up a string of victories over the last month. But many younger and left-wing Democrats remain deeply skeptical of Mr. Biden, who continues to battle Mr. Sanders for the nomination, and some are strenuously resistant to his candidacy.
Aware of the importance of Democratic unity after Hillary Clinton suffered from a divisive primary contest in 2016, and hopeful of extending his delegate lead after primary elections in three states on Tuesday, the Biden campaign and a long list of surrogates are striving to engage some of those Democrats who have so far rejected Mr. Biden’s presidential bid.
“We’re going to go talk to them and we’re going to reach out to them,” said Representative Cedric L. Richmond, Democrat of Louisiana and one of the Biden campaign’s national co-chairs. “They can help chart their future. They don’t have to be bystanders as other people do. It means going and talking to them, inviting them to the table. I will absolutely be involved. It’s already started.”
Mr. Richmond has spoken on a regular basis, including recently, with Representative Ro Khanna of California, a national co-chair of Mr. Sanders’s campaign. Mr. Richmond has made it clear that “he would make every effort to make sure that Biden’s campaign was very inclusive” if Mr. Biden becomes the Democratic nominee, Mr. Khanna said in an interview.
Both Mr. Biden, 77, the former vice president, and Mr. Sanders, 78, the Vermont senator, have pledged to actively support whoever becomes the Democratic nominee, and they have a better personal relationship than Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders had during their contentious 2016 primary matchup. There is also little appetite among many voters for the kind of infighting that characterized earlier chapters of this cycle’s primary contest, as the nation grapples with the coronavirus crisis.
Against that backdrop, Mr. Biden’s allies argue — even as they have been careful not to pressure Mr. Sanders to drop out — that it is time to unify more quickly around Mr. Biden’s candidacy in order to focus fully on defeating President Trump, a view many Sanders supporters strongly reject. To that end, Mr. Biden has made overt public gestures to the left in recent days.
On the debate stage on Sunday night, where he promised to select a female running mate if nominated, Mr. Biden also said that he had recently spoken to Ms. Warren, the Massachusetts senator. He has endorsed a proposal she offered during her campaign to overhaul the consumer bankruptcy system — a striking policy shift because Mr. Biden and Ms. Warren had clashed over bankruptcy legislation more than a decade ago when he was a senator from Delaware and she was a Harvard law professor.
Hours before the debate, his campaign also announced that he had decided to support making public colleges and universities tuition-free for many students, adopting a proposal that Mr. Sanders put forward a few years ago. While a nod to the left, Mr. Biden’s move was hardly a display of progressive boldness: Mrs. Clinton offered a similar proposal in 2016 after her primary fight with Mr. Sanders, and the proposal Mr. Biden endorsed is more limited than what Mr. Sanders is advocating in the 2020 campaign.
“For Vice President Biden it’s about a lack of consistency,” Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan and a Sanders supporter, said in a recent interview. Personal engagement has to be coupled with the embrace of bold policy, she said.
Some activists say the personal outreach could be improved, too.
“We’ve heard from them some but not nearly as much as we’d like to,” said María Urbina, the national political director at Indivisible, a major grass-roots progressive organization. “I think they’ve done a handful of outreach but there are some pretty substantive conversations we’d love to have.”
Still, if he is the nominee, she said, “We will do everything we can to get him elected.”
Mr. Biden is undeniably more moderate than Mr. Sanders, who is a democratic socialist. But Mr. Biden’s allies argue that the former vice president does embrace relatively bold policy — if at a more incremental pace, and on a less sweeping scale, than Mr. Sanders does. Their focus now is on promoting some of those proposals, from gun control to combating climate change, and on learning more about what supporters of other current and former candidates need to hear from Mr. Biden.
“No. 1 is making it clear that we have great respect for Senator Sanders and Senator Warren,” said Mayor Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, a Biden endorser. “It is important we recognize and understand why young people, many young people, have been driven to that message.”
Internally, the Biden campaign has staff working on outreach to students, young professionals and young elected officials. Many of those officials are then engaging in their own progressive outreach in their cities and states, sounding out local liberal activists, for example, or talking with their fellow elected leaders.
Behind the scenes, a number of Mr. Biden’s congressional allies have also been contacting officials who supported Ms. Warren in particular, both in Congress and around the country.
“I’ve certainly been reaching out to a lot of the progressives” who supported Ms. Warren, said Representative Ruben Gallego, Democrat of Arizona, “asking them to keep their minds and hearts open, and also just to see if they have any suggestions about policies or topics they want to see in the campaign.”
Mr. Gallego has made overtures both to congressional colleagues and to progressive leaders in Arizona with an additional focus on Latino leaders. Mr. Sanders has shown strength with Latino voters in the primary, though he faced challenges with Cuban-Americans in particular in Florida.
The goal, Mr. Gallego said, is “having a more welcoming approach to, definitely, the Bernie camp.”
Yet seeking to build relationships with elected officials is not the same thing as generating the kind of organic grass-roots support Mr. Sanders enjoys. And the limits of more explicit outreach to the Sanders campaign were on vivid display at the debate on Sunday night, as Mr. Sanders continued to wage his own vigorous primary battle.
Some Biden officials and allies suggested that they were surprised when Mr. Sanders repeatedly ripped Mr. Biden’s Senate record, even as both men avoided the kind of personal attacks that had defined matchups with other candidates. Allies of Mr. Sanders, however, said it was legitimate for Mr. Sanders to sharply contrast Mr. Biden’s views with his own, while continuing to pitch liberal policies that he believes are vital to the nation’s interests.
Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, which endorsed Ms. Warren and is now supporting Mr. Sanders, said Mr. Biden’s embrace of the bankruptcy overhaul and tuition-free college were steps in the right direction. But he suggested that Mr. Biden should more robustly address a number of other policy issues that are important to progressives, such as climate change and a wealth tax.
“I think him signaling the fact that he is open to taking good ideas from progressives is a start,” Mr. Mitchell said. “But unless, for example, he adopts a real climate plan that actually is at the scale of the problem, I don’t think he’ll ever attract the young people who are fired up.”
And there are many progressives who say that while they will support the eventual nominee, they do not feel the need to pick a side right now, even as the Biden campaign rushes to consolidate support.
Representative Andy Levin, Democrat of Michigan, who supported Ms. Warren in the primary, said he was “still in mourning” over her exit from the race, though he praised Mr. Biden’s embrace of her bankruptcy plan. He said that former Gov. James J. Blanchard of Michigan has been in touch, urging him to support Mr. Biden, but he is in no hurry.
“I’m not sitting around waiting for Joe or somebody to call me,” Mr. Levin said. “If Joe Biden is the nominee, my job becomes to unify him and progressives, and at the same time try to pin him down to govern as progressively as possible because that’s the way that progressives are going to authentically get excited about him.”
Some of Mr. Biden’s supporters are aware of the delicacy required in engaging Democrats who backed other candidates, and say that outreach to Sanders supporters in particular can only accelerate in earnest once the primary is effectively concluded.
“The way to do it is to go right to the organizations that have supported the other candidates and to show them the respect that they deserve,” Mr. Steinberg, the Sacramento mayor, said. “Understand the underlying motivations and issues that drove the candidacies of their candidates, and connect and meet with them, and listen.”
Astead W. Herndon contributed reporting.