The crowd politely applauded.
The former vice president kept going: “She can be arrested for indecent exposure!”
No applause followed. Some in the crowd wore puzzled expressions when Biden then mentioned how police or even parents of rape victims face questions about their clothing.
“Did you have underwear on? Were you wearing a bra? How short was your skirt? What did you say?” Biden said in a mock colloquy of a rape victim being questioned. He also mentioned a case of a woman who refused to date a man, resulting in an attack from “two goons [who] slashed her face with razors.”
This is Joe Biden, unplugged on the campaign trail: edgy, meandering, graphic, oddball — all attributes that are features, not bugs, of his presidential campaign.
His undisciplined and unorthodox speaking style failed to serve him well in the first three early voting states where he struggled to catch fire. He frequently left audiences bored or confused, or committed gaffes that sandbagged his campaign for days.
But here in South Carolina, Biden has had more success as voters have focused on other aspects of his candidacy — like his loyalty to former President Barack Obama or his empathy.
Despite the desultory speeches — the rabbit holes he goes down, the errors he makes, the funny or sad stories he tells, the large volume of information he crams into answers — Biden continues to hold a solid lead in the polls.
In Sumter, South Carolina on Friday, voter and university drama professor Marybeth Berry confronted Biden about his meandering style, telling him his speech fell a little too flat.
“What is your fire? ‘Cause you see Bernie. You see Elizabeth Warren. You see that fire,” she said.
“The fact that I’m not screaming like Bernie and waving my arms like Elizabeth is not a lack of fire,” Biden told her.
Asked after the event about the speech and exchange with Biden, Berry said “I want to see some spark ... It would be more helpful if he was more concise at times. But what attracts me to Biden is that compassion, that empathy he has. He was willing to stand eye to eye with me and take my question. And that matters.”
Most candidates have a set speech they adhere to closely, sometimes relying on a teleprompter or notes to get by. Biden often wings it, preferring to walk around with the mic and say what comes to mind, a farrago of stats, history, personal musings and historical insights that keep audiences, staff and reporters guessing as they drink through the firehose of his speeches.
The digressions have run the gamut this primary season: musing about President Obama being assassinated, bizarrely calling a young woman at a town hall a “lying dog-faced pony soldier,” talking about how he spent time “in the hood.”
Sometimes Biden flat out gets his facts wrong. Last year, he mangled the story of recognizing the heroism of Navy captain. Earlier this year, he misleadingly suggested that he opposed the Iraq War from the beginning in 2003. And earlier this month, he falsely said he had been arrested in South African while accompanying a Congressional Black Caucus delegation en route to meet with Nelson Mandela.
The falsehood haunted Biden for a week until he finally came clean Friday.
"I wasn't arrested, I was stopped," Biden said on CNN’s “New Day." “When I said arrested, I was not able to — I was not able to move. Cops would not let me go with them [the Congressional Black Caucus]."
Biden’s campaign advisers dismiss the focus on his speeches, pointing out that President Trump rambles for far longer and has a long record of telling multiple and clear lies each day.
Mark Longabaugh, who was an adviser to one of Biden’s opponents in 1988 as well as his former 2020 rival Andrew Yang, said he has seen a big difference between Biden now and when he first ran for president.“I remember a time when Joe Biden was a dynamic public speaker and a very talented campaigner. He got knocked out of the race because he ripped off the speech [a reference to the plagiarism controversy that helped sink his 1988 bid], but he delivered it really well,” Longabaugh said.
Where the former vice president excels now is in his individual interactions. The Biden who gets onstage and tends to lose his crowd is nothing like the off-mic Biden after the speech who spends as much, or even more, time meeting briefly one-on-one with voters in a rope line where people make deep, personal connections with the candidate.
Biden’s long-winded style has been a deep source of frustration for his staff, who have tried but failed to get him to stay on message or at least keep his speeches short. There’s no staffer assigned to give him a signal to wrap up a speech or keep his answer short in response to a voter question at a town hall. And if anyone has spoken to Biden about his edgier and more awkward comments, such as the ones concerning rape that he tried out in Iowa Falls on Dec. 4, it hasn’t stuck.
“There was a case in Florida where a woman was sitting at a bar and having a drink and turns out she had a short skirt and she didn’t have underwear on and a man took her outside and brutally raped her and the judge dismissed it saying that she asked for it because she had on, she wasn’t wearing underwear,” Biden said at the time as the crowd gasped. (The anecdote was inaccurate; a jury found the suspect not guilty).
Accuracy issues aside, what made Biden’s spiel stand out was its unexpectedly graphic nature — details few politicians would have ever offered. The question he was answering concerned a woman’s right to an abortion, not rape.
“There’s nothing we can do,” an adviser explained at the time in Iowa. “If we try to stop him or cut him short or hustle him along, he’ll just ignore us anyway. This is Joe’s campaign. And this is Joe.”
Even Biden realizes it can be a problem for him.
“I’ll finish in a moment,” he’ll stop and say randomly in the middle of a thought.
“I know, I’ve gone on for a long time,” he self-interrupts.
“Anyone have a yes or no question?” he’ll self-mock. But when he gets one of them, he often doesn’t give a yes or no answer.
“I’m going on in too much detail. If my wife were here, she would give me the hook,” he said Friday night at Wofford College, where he gave a generally sharp speech that nevertheless stretched on for an hour and a half.
“There’s a lot to talk about but I’ve talked too much,” Biden said during the same speech.
Once in a while, Biden listens to direction. In Iowa in December, former Secretary of State John Kerry stood on stage with him at some events after endorsing Biden and helped move him along. On Thursday, actress Vivica Fox occupied the same role onstage with Biden went overtime onstage in Coastal Carolina University.
Sitting next to Biden, Fox helped him prioritize and field questions from voters, which doubled the length of his on-mic events before he worked the rope line with voters.
“Is he smart or what?” Fox said to loud cheers. “I asked him some of these questions a little bit earlier today and he was just breaking it down and drawing maps and I was so proud. This is experience.”
A former senior staffer offered this explanation of the former vice president’s style.
“Biden thinks with his mouth open,” the former staffer said. “Remember: he’s a senator. They like to hear themselves talk.”