By Annie Linskey
Wilmington, Delaware - On Day 4 of election night, outside the Chase Center here, a gathering place emerged from a state of suspended animation.
Cranes lifted massive lights into the sky. Forklifts moved concrete barriers. Workers yanked protective plastic off scaffolding. Balloons were tied to a metal fence, marking a perimeter.
It was Friday evening, and Joe Biden's campaign was getting ready for a socially distanced celebration party.
But it was all for naught.
Rather than declare victory on a commanding and brilliantly lit stage, shortly before 11 p.m. Biden stood behind a plain lectern on a smaller space set up in an atrium of the Chase Center to urge patience.
"My fellow Americans, we don't have a final declaration of victory yet," Biden said, with his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., standing nearby. "But the numbers tell us it's clear - tell us a clear and convincing story. We're going to win this race."
Biden said he'd work for all Americans, regardless of party. "We may be opponents but we're not enemies. We're Americans," he said, with his senior staff watching from the back of the room. "I'll work as hard for those who voted against me as I will for those who voted for me."
For Biden's staff, after 18 months of campaigning, being snubbed by party donors, enduring a fourth-place finish in Iowa, then sinking to fifth in New Hampshire, and after ultimately clinching the nomination and listening to Democrats complain about how they were running an overly cosseted campaign for months, they believed they had proved critics wrong.
Now all they needed was one or two networks to call the race and declare Biden president-elect. They needed a larger lead in Pennsylvania or bigger margins in Georgia or some more votes in Arizona and a call in Nevada.
As member of Biden's team allowed themselves to absorb the news that they had nearly won, the landscape around them was changing. The next president might be in their midst. The Federal Aviation Administration posted temporary flight restrictions over Wilmington airspace starting 2 p.m. Friday through the following Wednesday.
The Secret Service sent reinforcements to Delaware to provide security fitting for a team that would soon lead the country. Officers already in Wilmington extended their occupation of coveted rooms in the Westin adjacent to the Chase Center, where Biden's team set up its election-night headquarters.
Now they just needed a few more votes to make it official.
Local supporters began arriving at the Wilmington riverfront area by early afternoon, taking advantage of the unseasonably warm, 70-degree weather to get a glimpse of history.
Ron Ozer, a chemical engineering professor at Villanova University, set up a picnic with his wife just outside a black fence blocking off a secure area. They had an iPad to listen to MSNBC. They had crackers. They had folding chairs. They were ready to wait.
They didn't come down Tuesday night, and they said as the evening wore on they became "disappointed" to see so much support for President Trump.
"We kind of knew, logically, that there were a lot of ballots to count," Ozer said. "But it didn't really sink in."
Justin Smith, 16, drove from New Jersey to Wilmington with his family to see Biden on Friday. "He has the positive demeanor to make America whole again," Smith said. "Not so much great, because I feel like America can never be great again because of the racial [tension] and the bad politics in the justice system," added Smith, who is African American.
Nathan Jenkins sold blue T-shirts and sweatshirts that read "I survived Covid-19" and "virus 45," a reference to Trump. Jenkins said the extended election aftermath was "a little nerve-wrecking."
"Sometimes you think it is going to be 2016 all over again," he said. "But as things started to progress, I was feeling better. Election night I was a little nervous, to be honest."
As the day wore on, Biden allies shifted their tone about the potential for festivities - with networks not calling results, the Biden campaign contemplated the possibility that it could wait one more day before sending Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., out to declare victory.
There were mixed signals about what the evening would hold.
By around 4 p.m., some top Biden staffers were spotted walking out of the Chase Center, back to their hotel rooms. It was the wrong direction for a celebration.
Then around 5:20 p.m., a van used to transport the press that follow Biden's every move pulled up to the Westin. Was this a sign that Biden would soon be collected from his nearby home?
As longtime Biden watchers chatted, many agreed that the tardy results seemed to be a fitting coda for a campaign operation that itself was chronically (and often inexplicably) late.
Election night had unofficially started around 3 p.m. Tuesday, when Biden aides recommended reporters show up at the Westin hotel and set up in a second-floor conference room to wait for results. Somebody delivered dozens of white roses to the Biden staff, to honor the work they had done.
It was a skeleton crew, with just a few staff members, a small handful of journalists and production-crew staffers prepared to see Biden and Harris deliver a victory speech.
Instead Biden and his wife emerged briefly, promising an update the following day.
In the harshly lit Westin hotel lobby around 1 a.m. Wednesday, Biden strategist Mike Donilon waited for a van to shuttle him elsewhere. He fended off reporters eager for some snippet.
About eight hours later, in the same lobby, top strategist Anita Dunn briefly chatted with reporters after taking her daily coronavirus test. She'd had just one hour of sleep. "You guys cannot stand this close to me," she told journalists as she outlined why the team was confident.
"We always said the goal was to get 270 electoral votes," Dunn said. "We feel very confident that after the votes have been counted that's where we're going to be."
Biden came to the Chase Center on Wednesday, too, speaking briefly to reporters, with Harris at his side, to urge patience. "Power can't be taken or asserted," Biden said. "It flows from the people."
By Thursday, as results kept dripping in, the resources on the Wilmington riverfront were showing strain. A Starbucks ran out of most pastries. A nearby restaurant at the Hotel Du Pont ran out of butternut squash soup. Hotel rooms disappeared. Biden and Harris received briefings on the pandemic and the economy. Secret Service agents began knowing the regulars going in and out of the secure area by face.
Dunn and her husband, Bob Bauer, a top election lawyer for the campaign, were spotted walking along the Christina River, a tributary to the Delaware River.
Friday began with a sense of new excitement among top Biden campaign staffers as they began gathering at the Westin midmorning for their daily coronavirus tests. Overnight the campaign had taken a slight lead in Georgia. And by 8:45 a.m. counts also showed Biden ahead in his native Pennsylvania.
"When we took the lead in Pennsylvania, it felt more real than it has," said one aide who sipped an iced coffee near a security checkpoint. "Twitter lit up. Signal lit up," the aide said, referring to the secure texting platform many in politics use.
The aide was coy about exactly when a Biden victory speech might happen, but many had expected it to be Friday evening.
The aide, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity, previewed Biden's message. "Joe Biden from the day he announced his candidacy has been about bringing people together and about ending that sort of toxic, chaotic divisive mood of the country," the aide said, adding that Biden "would want to go out and continue to deliver that message."
But as the sun set in Wilmington on Friday, the likelihood of a victory speech from Biden faded.
And as for those white roses that had arrived on Election Day, they had wilted.