To grasp the difference between the two parties, compare Biden with the 2016 Republican contender whom, on paper, he most resembles: Jeb Bush. Like Biden, Bush was closely associated with his party’s last president. Like Biden, Bush led in early polls. Like Biden, Bush struggled in debates. Like Biden, Bush performed horribly in Iowa, where he came in sixth, and New Hampshire, where he came in fourth. And, like Biden, Bush staked his candidacy on a comeback in South Carolina.
Bush’s strategy in the Palmetto State was similar to the one Biden employed last month: He made himself the defender of his party’s old guard. At a debate in South Carolina one week before voters there went to the polls, Bush drew a contrast between the insurgent Donald Trump’s nativism and former President George W. Bush’s more welcoming message. The “great majority” of immigrants, Jeb declared, “are coming to provide for their families. And we should show a little more respect for the fact that they’re struggling.”
Jeb also went out of his way to defend his brother’s response to 9/11. At the debate, when Trump accused George W. Bush and his advisers of having “lied” when “they said there were weapons of destruction” in Iraq, Jeb struck back. “While Donald Trump was building a reality-TV show,” he replied, “my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe. And I’m proud of what he did.”
The younger Bush, The New York Times noted, “seems to be embracing his inner dynast, joking about his family in speeches, pointing out relatives in his crowds and going out of his way to speak with pride about his father’s and brother’s achievements.” Two days after the debate, he brought his brother to South Carolina to campaign. Standing with Lindsey Graham—the state’s Republican senior senator—George W. told a North Charleston crowd that, “If serving as president of the United States makes me part of the so-called establishment, I proudly wear that label.”
Biden did something similar this year. Although he failed to secure Barack Obama’s endorsement, Biden made his relationship with the former president the centerpiece of his South Carolina campaign. His surrogates reprised Obama’s campaign chant, “Fired up, ready to go.” The former vice president referred endlessly to the “Obama-Biden” administration in speeches and used Obama as a battering ram against his opponents. One Biden ad accused Bernie Sanders of trying to “destroy Obama’s legacy” by replacing the Affordable Care Act with Medicare for All. Another slammed Sanders for having considered “challenging our first African American president in a primary” in 2012. And just as Jeb Bush leaned on an endorsement from Graham, Biden touted his support from Jim Clyburn, the long-serving Democratic representative from South Carolina.
The results could not have been more different. Bush lost to Trump in South Carolina by 25 points, and quickly dropped out of the race. Biden beat Sanders by 29 points and, buoyed by a new series of high-profile endorsements, went on to beat him in a slew of other states last night.