US Elections: Joe Biden's Irish trump card

Dense populations of Irish-Americans in three swing states has seen the Democratic nominee’s campaign focus heavily on galvanising their votes, writes Joyce Fegan
US Elections: Joe Biden's Irish trump card

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa. Picture: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

During Lockdown, when most of the world was bingeing Tiger King on Netflix, Joe Biden was, by his own admission, reading Irish poetry. He revealed this in conversation with his granddaughter Finnegan who also happened to be reading Irish literature – but in the form of Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Conversations with Friends.

Biden’s Irish links run deep, with one great-great grandfather, Edward Blewitt emigrating from Ballina, Co Mayo during the Famine and his other great-great grandfather, Owen Finnegan emigrating from Co Louth at the same time. By way of his own mathematical calculation Biden considers himself a“5/8ths Irish in all”.

It is this “5/8ths” that may prove crucial on November 3, when Americans go to the polls to vote in one of their most divisive Presidential election campaigns of all time.

Why?

The US election will be won and lost in the eight swing states of America, but more specifically, the swing states with the highest number of Electoral College votes: Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. A candidate needs to win 270 Electoral College votes to become President – and the swing states of Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio have 67 Electoral College votes between them.

There happens to be dense populations of Irish Americans in each of these three states. As a result, the Biden campaign has focused heavily on galvanising the Irish American vote and leveraging “local Joe’s” Irish roots.

“There are 35m Americans who consider themselves Irish – and a lot of the Irish are concentrated in swing states, which makes their votes and voice very prominent in this election. There is a big concentration of Irish in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, three very important swing states, it's where they are, it's the concentration of them,” explains Brian O’Dwyer, coordinator of the Irish Americans for Biden committee.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in rally at Broward College. Picture: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in rally at Broward College. Picture: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

While there are several Irish groups campaigning for Biden, this committee is an official subset of the Biden campaign. And O’Dwyer, a lawyer, is as high-profile an Irish American as you can get – founder of the Emerald Isle Immigration Centre, the largest Irish immigrant centre in the United States and grand marshal of New York City’s St Patrick's Day Parade in 2019.

“I've been involved in eight to 10 presidential campaigns and this is the first time we've really drilled down into the Irish community,” says Mr O’Dwyer.

The Irish vote has always been “at the back of the mind” of the Biden campaign.

“There's a national affinity for Joe with his family having emigrated from Ireland. This is not rocket science,” he adds.

Thanks to the Irish vote and its prominence in the three key swing states, says Mr O’Dwyer, in this election, “the trump card is with Biden”.

Did Hillary, considering her husband’s role in the Northern Ireland peace process, not court the Irish American vote in 2016?

“There's no question - it's like night and day. Hillary was and is a very, very close friend and someone I have great affection for, but her campaign was abysmal in that there was no understanding of the Irish vote. There wasn’t an Irish committee in the Hillary campaign, and here the first thing they did was set up an Irish committee, as well as other ethnic committees,” explains Mr O’Dwyer.

What exactly does this committee do?

There are virtual rallies for activists over Zoom, where well-known Irish people like diplomat and former Obama aide, Samantha Power rally the troops. These troops then close the lids of their laptops and start phoning voters with Irish names in those three key swing states, via phone banks, of which there are “hundreds”.

“The Zoom rallies are for activists, there could be 2,500 people on there and we get them to get on the phone, in these huge phone banks calling into the three states.

“We are targeting people with Irish names, we got a list of the 100 most Irish names and we cross reference them against the phone book. If I phone an O'Grady in Ohio and I'm O'Dwyer there's an immediate reaction,” explains Mr O’Dwyer.

It is specifically Democratic and Independent voters that are phoned. They do not phone Republican-voting Irish Americans, of which there are many.

“The Irish are not necessarily Democrats any more, they can be Republicans, but the Independents can go back and forth, these people are the real swing voters,” says the lawyer.

Joe Biden. Picture: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Joe Biden. Picture: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Making a rough head count, 75% of all calls result in Irish Americans stating emphatically that they will vote for Biden, and 10% will say “they’re thinking about it”.

The other 15%?

“There's always a few that are going to be pro Trump, but on the whole we've gotten a wonderful reaction. We either get positive or neutral feedback,” says Mr O’Dwyer.

The Biden campaign team itself is staffed with many Irish-sounding names. Biden’s campaign manager is Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, who the Washington Post has described as transforming his campaign. She is a former Obama strategist and refers to herself as a “proud” Irish American. If elected she could act as the President’s Chief of Staff.

Pete Kavanaugh is Biden’s deputy campaign manager and John W McCarthy is his deputy political advisor. Laura O’Neill is Biden’s mid-Atlantic political director and Will McIntee is his mid-west political advisor. The campaign’s digital director is also an Irish American – Rob Flaherty.

This level of Irish American links to an election campaign is different to any campaign before.

“It’s a new type of campaign. You can see how much the Biden campaign is spending attention on the Irish community, and not only is Joe Biden Irish, a large part of the people who are running the campaign are Irish Americans,” says Mr O’Dwyer.

The immigration lawyer states that Biden is the only candidate “that gets Irish issues”, be that the undocumented Irish in America or the preservation of peace in Northern Ireland.

And while polls are showing a Biden lead, as they did for Hillary in 2016, O’Dwyer is not optimistic of a guaranteed victory.

“A poll is no good unless people don't show up to vote. Polling shows that 93 to 94% of Democrats will vote for Biden, and a little less Republicans will vote for Trump, so our job is to get the vote out, these last two weeks is what we've been building up for the last few months,” says the lawyer.

I serve on the board at Knock airport - we are looking forward to Air Force One putting down there in the near future.

But who the American electorate and more specifically, the electorate in those three key swing states, put in the White House is still all to play for. And not every Irish American vote is a guaranteed vote for Biden.

Irishman abroad and New York hotelier John Fitzpatrick knows of Irish Americans who vote for Trump.

“I'd know one or two Irish that will vote for Trump, they'd be mainly in the financial world,” states Mr Fitzpatrick, who is also involved in Irish Americans for Biden.

He previously supported the Hillary Clinton campaign and as a result is not buoyed by what the polls are saying.

“I would be very worried, I know a few Republican voters and they are going to stay Republican, the polls aren’t going to be as accurate. Everyone thought Hillary had won it…,” says the hotelier.

“You talk to people outside the country and they think Trump won’t win, but here, people care about the economy and jobs,” says Mr Fitzpatrick.

A supporter stands in the rain as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds, Thursday. Picture: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
A supporter stands in the rain as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds, Thursday. Picture: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

There are also the silent voters to worry about.

“People outside the country think Biden is way ahead, but I don’t think so. There are a lot of people who do not want to say they are going to vote for Trump. I was out for dinner with people the other night and they were Republicans, and I know they're voting for Trump, but they don’t want to say it,” explains the hotelier.

Over the years, he has met Trump in-person. The first time that the hotelier met Trump, there was a strange, and still unexplained exchange, over a business card.

“I met him through my business, long before he was President. It was when we were just starting off. I handed him my business card, it was a time when we all looked at him differently. Anyway, the next day he sent my card back to me with his signature on it,” explains Mr Fitzpatrick.

Fundraising for Biden has not been as issue, says the hotelier, but getting the word out to vote, because of the pandemic, has been.

He is, however, marginally optimistic that his candidate might just beat Trump at the polls in 2020, going by the emotional barometer of America.

“People have got sick of the last four years, because of the divide. Before you were either a Democrat or a Republican and you fought for who you wanted in and then you supported whoever got in.

“But people are tired of it, there's such a divide in the country, it's sad to see the way the country has gone and I'm here 30 years,” says Mr Fitzpatrick.

But this time around, Biden has an advantage that Hillary did not.

“Biden is in a much better position, no one knew what Trump was going to be like, now we do,” he says.

And while previous Democratic Presidents, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, had Mr Fitzpatrick’s organising support, when it comes to Irish issues, Biden trumps all.

“He's a genuine love for Ireland, Obama was very good, but we've lost that Irish connection in the White House. Biden has a genuine feel for Ireland”.

Biden’s Irish roots – families flee the Famine 

Joe Biden's family left Ireland during the Famine. His great-great grandfather Patrick Blewitt left Ballina, Co Mayo in 1851, and settled in Scranton, Pennsylvania. On the other side of his family, his great-great grandfather Owen Finnegan emigrated from Co Louth in 1849, to Seneca County in New York.

US Vice President Joe Biden (L) receives a hurley as welcome gift from then Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2016. Picture: PAULO NUNES DOS SANTOS/AFP via Getty Images
US Vice President Joe Biden (L) receives a hurley as welcome gift from then Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2016. Picture: PAULO NUNES DOS SANTOS/AFP via Getty Images

Owen Finnegan’s son, James, and Biden’s great grandfather then settled in Scranton, Pennsylvania. This is where Biden’s grandfather, Ambrose Finnegan met his grandmother, Geraldine Blewitt. Finnegan and Blewitt married in 1909. Scranton is where his mother Catherine Eugenia Finnegan was born, and where she herself would meet and marry Biden’s father, Joe Senior in 1941.

The presidential candidate has tracked his family’s genealogy for many years and on one trip to Ireland, he discovered a significant social role played by his great-great-great grandfather, Edward Blewitt, during the famine.

“My great-great-great grandfather, Edward Blewitt, who hailed from Garden St, in Ballina, in Co Mayo was said to have helped a lot of people during the famine. He was trained as a surveyor, and later worked as a supervisor at the Ballina union workhouse to care for victims of the famine. He gave jobs to hundreds of people, and likely helped save many lives during that devastating moment in Ireland's history,” said Mr Biden.

On the other side of his family, and on the other coast of Ireland, Biden’s Irish roots connect him with the Cooley Peninsula in Co Louth.

The Finnegans fished and farmed for their livelihood. When his great-great grandfather, Owen, emigrated to America he worked as a shoemaker.

This shoemaker connection also connects Biden’s family with his former boss’s Irish family.

“President Obama's great-great grandfather, Joseph Kearny, was also a shoemaker. He sailed over from Moneygall aboard the Caroline Reade in May of 1844, arriving in America just five weeks before my great-great grandfather Owen. Now, it's almost certain they didn't know one another. But could those two shoemakers from Ireland ever have imagined that, 160 years later, their two great-great-grandsons would be President and Vice President of the United States of America?” said Biden.

Irish cash rolls in for Biden 

Stella O’Leary emigrated from Dublin 50 years ago to work as a university librarian in America. In 1996, when the peace process was in a “very delicate place” she set up the first and only Irish American PAC (political action committee). Since then she has worked on Bill Clinton’s, Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.

But it’s never been easier to raise cash for a candidate as it has for Biden. Nor has she ever seen a campaign better organised for the Irish vote.

“I’ve got an extensive list of Irish American donors, I contact them to collect money for the candidates, they like the PAC (her Irish American political action committee). They just want to give money desperately to alleviate this scourge, well several scourges, the pandemic and Trump. They’re giving much, much more than we’ve ever received before. They’ll just say: ‘I’ll give it to you and the campaign’,” says Ms O’Leary.

Her committee is a separate entity to the official Biden campaign machine, and they cannot take orders from it. However, she sees firsthand just how organised the campaign is.

An Irish For Biden Campaign is launched in Carlingford.
An Irish For Biden Campaign is launched in Carlingford.

“In camp Biden, they’re very, very appreciative of what we do. They’re better organised for the Irish vote than I’ve ever seen before. It’s because of his connection. He’d be the second Irishman, well the second Irish Catholic, to be elected to the White House,” explains Ms O’Leary.

As well as raising cash, her PAC runs phone banks for Biden.

“We have a list of Irish names and we have a phone bank. We have the 100 top Irish names. The Democratic committee took those names out and our committee would make the calls,” she explains.

What’s the reception like to a political cold call?

“You get a very warm reception, they like to be identified as Irish. They’re not 100% Irish any more, but you get O’Leary, O’Neill, McCarthy, Donovan, and it works. If you call someone and say: 'I’m from Irish Americans', they like that, the Irish are very popular,” says Stella.

And what issues come up for Irish Americans?

“We don’t go into Brexit or anything like that. It’s social security, Medicare, the pandemic, the economy, and how horrified they all are of what’s happening. They’re worried about threats to losing their health care, losing their social security and losing their jobs. We have the advantage on all of these issues, unless we call a billionaire - they want a tax break,” says Ms O’Leary.

Aside from discussing key social issues with voters, broader matters arise with Irish Americans.

“They’re disappointed it’s not someone more progressive, like Elizabeth Warren, they’re disappointed it’s not a more left-wing candidate. Young people feel boomers have run the world and are disappointed he’s old and that he won’t have the energy of a younger person. Young people would like more comments on the environment too,” she adds.

In key swing states, such as Pennsylvania, Ms O’Leary says her PAC “can be very helpful” to get the vote out by making those phone calls.

Ms O’Leary, a longtime political mover, has had the chance to observe Biden up close and personal. She describes him as “very sociable” and “friendly” and “not at all self-promoting”.

After 50 years in the States and with 24 years of campaigns under her belt, she says Biden is best described as “an old school retail politician”.

“The last time I saw him, he was having a long conversation with a guy from a union about their love of Corvettes,” says Ms O’Leary.

On a more serious note and from being up close and personal with the Biden campaign, she says her Irish American PAC is “cautiously optimistic” about a victory on November 3.

“Biden is being schooled all the time by a full staff of people for debates, Trump is going in unprepared, and I really do think people are on the issues this time, it’s a jobs and healthcare election.

“With Trump - the joke is over, and Biden is ticking all the issues boxes. And he knows there’s no point in attacking Trump, because he can go back at you if you make a slip”.

An American campaigns in Cork 

Cristina O’Connor married a Cork man and has lived here for nearly a decade. Throughout that time, she saw Barack Obama win a second term in the White House, Hillary Clinton lose her presidential bid and Donald Trump take power in her country’s highest office.

She felt “destroyed” when Hillary lost in 2016, and cried for an entire day. Now, after four years of Trump as her President, she decided to channel her energy into getting Americans in Ireland to vote, while not being a member of any political party herself.

American voters in Cork, Susan Stephens-Barimo (left) and Brenna Louis (right). 
American voters in Cork, Susan Stephens-Barimo (left) and Brenna Louis (right). 

“I have lived here for about eight-and-a-half years. I married a Cork man, who I met when I was at UCC for a year. He came to the States when we got married and then we moved back here together five years later.

“I definitely wouldn't call myself an activist. This is only the first year I have done anything to get the vote out. I have never been an official member of any political organisation, but I've always voted and followed the news,” says Cristina.

Just like the global women’s march of January 2017, her call to activism was triggered by a post on Facebook.

“There's an ex-pat group on Facebook for Americans who live in Cork, and the lady who runs Democrats Abroad in Ireland posted a request for volunteers to help Americans living here to register to vote. I said: 'Well, this seems like a good opportunity to do something'.

“I couldn't think of a reason not to do it, but it definitely involved stepping outside my comfort zone, because it meant standing out on Patrick St with a big American flag. I generally try to keep the fact I am American on the down low with everything that's going on.

“People have always been very nice, nothing bad has ever happened because I'm American, it's just I'm not so keen to advertise it so blatantly on Patrick St with a big flag,” explains Cristina.

And what has it been like – standing on Patrick St under a giant star-spangled banner?

“On the street the reaction was interesting - when we had the American flag up we got a lot of funny looks, and people were initially stand-offish and asked who we were supporting. When we said Biden they warmed up, but we also made sure to say that we would help any American to register, regardless of who they were voting for. Our aim was not to go out and be partisan, just to help people register to vote,” clarifies Cristina.

There wasn’t a definitive standout moment that made Cristina stand out on a street in her adopted home, more a “piling on” of issues, over the last four years.

“I feel like everything that happens with the Trump administration just gets worse and worse. It never ends. It's exhausting,” she says.

While she has never been officially involved in a political organisation, she has always been keenly aware of the bubble she exists in, and therefore, knew there was a possibility of Trump winning in 2016.

“I did think there was a possibility that Trump would get elected in 2016, because I remember vividly what it was like when Bush won his second term. At the time I remember thinking everyone in my social circle and where I lived was really unhappy with the way things were going and that nobody I knew of supported him, and then he won the election anyway.

“That was the first time I realised that even when everyone I knew and everyone in my locality didn’t want him to win, that there were lots of other people who did want him to win and who did vote for him. Since then, I've never assumed any one side is going to win because the polls say so or popular opinion says so,” says Cristina.

Fast forward to 2016, hope was held out for a Hillary win, but admittedly Cristina says she felt “destroyed” when the female candidate lost to Trump.

“I don’t think I could put into words how I felt four years ago. The Trump campaign was so awful, and then after the Access Hollywood tapes and the utter disrespect towards women, to find out how many women voted for him, it's hard for me to describe. I basically just cried the whole next day,” she says.

Those tears and that disgust is what mobilised her to help Americans in Ireland to vote in the election.

“There were a lot of people who didn't know they could vote from abroad or thought it was difficult, so the more people who have information at hand, the better.

“I've always said democracy has to start with voting. People say it doesn’t matter, but it absolutely does matter, and I want all Americans to know that no matter where they are they can vote and they should vote,” says Cristina.

Admittedly, being American for the last four years has been hard, mentally, but she still firmly believes in her country’s potential and the inherent goodness of the majority of her fellow citizens. However, she still sees that America “doesn’t come across very well anymore”.

“I used to meet a lot of people who would say: 'I would love to live in America' and they don't say that anymore.

“I have a really good life in Ireland. I don't worry about healthcare or my friends’ kids getting shot at school, but I worry about everybody back home. It's hard in a sense to watch it all happening from here and know there are better ways to do things,” says Cristina.

The only way forward that she can see, no matter who wins on November 3, is a return to the bipartisan politics of the 1960s, where both parties worked together on issues such as civil liberties.

“I hope that people on both sides can figure out how to work together again because just working in opposition to each other is not helping the American people at all. I'm not sure if it's possible for the people currently in power, but I hope that new people coming up the political ladder might make it a goal”.

How the Irish here are canvassing their cousins in America 

Public relations guru Paul Allen has a longstanding relationship with the Democratic Party. He’s been involved in trips to the White House and assisting with official US visits to Ireland. 

He also helped to organise Joe Biden’s visit to Louth in 2016, and ran the Hillary for Ireland campaign in 2016. This year he’s running the Irish for Biden campaign, and leveraging the former Vice President’s Irish roots.

Paul Allen is the organiser of the ‘Irish for Biden’ campaign that encourages Irish people to talk to relatives in the US about voting Democrat.
Paul Allen is the organiser of the ‘Irish for Biden’ campaign that encourages Irish people to talk to relatives in the US about voting Democrat.

“For Joe Biden’s visit here on June, 25, 2016 - Louth Co Council contacted me to ask would we help with his visit, he was Vice President at the time. We were hired to work for Louth Co Council, and we ended up building up a relationship with the guy (Biden) and his family. When he won the nomination we decided to do something and so we set up Irish for Biden,” explains Mr Allen.

The exact work of the campaign, like those in America, involve Irish people picking up the phone to voters in the States. But they’re not cold calls.

“You call a cousin, you phone a friend, or you ring a relative,” says Mr Allen.

The Irish for Biden campaign receives about 30 contacts a day from Irish people living here and in the UK, who have relatives in America.

The Irish person then receives a set of briefing notes about how to structure the call to their relative.

“The call should last no more than 20 to 30 seconds. It starts with a bit about Biden then back to family business and then before you hang up refer to ‘local Joe’,” explains Mr Allen.

Things that can be “impressed upon” the American relative include the impact of Brexit on Ireland, a return to lasting peace in the North and the importance of having another Irishman in the White House.

The response to these calls from Ireland and the UK has been “phenomenal” with Republican voters now willing to vote blue.

“A lot of Irish people who have done well in the States move from Democratic to Republican, and now they are willing to vote Democrat,” says Mr Allen.

The heavy hope is that Biden’s Irish roots and genuine affinity for Ireland will help to mobilise the Irish American vote in his favour in those key swing states of Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio.

And just how close does Joe Biden hold Ireland to his heart?

“One story is that he was travelling in the US motorcade in Carlingford and a secret service agent asked: ‘Where the hell are we?’ And Biden said: ‘We are in heaven’.”

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