Updated at 11:07 a.m. ET on November 8, 2020.
WILMINGTON, Del.—For half a century, across three presidential runs he made and three more he thought about making, Joe Biden had never won a single primary delegate before his South Carolina romp in February catapulted him to the Democratic nomination. But his strategy never changed. Biden won the White House the same way he won his first race, for New Castle County council in 1970: by being himself.
He won while giving the same speeches, and telling literally the same stories, that he had for years. This time, what he was offering fit the moment. He won because he was a reaction to Trump, but also because he was a white guy who could connect with white guys even as his association with Barack Obama helped legitimize him with Black voters. He updated some of his policy positions to fit where his party had moved—and to respond to the pandemic. But he didn’t swing hard left, or hard right. He was established enough to not seem a revolutionary in a year of politics stretched between poles, but still offered enough of a contrast to win progressives’ support—if only as a tool to remove Trump. Throughout, he was boosted by voters’ sense of his personality, from the people who cried in the arms of a man they felt could ease their pain to all the union guys who saw their stories in his Norman Rockwell tales of Scranton.
And he did it as COVID-19 kept him and other Democrats mostly away from the door-knocking, big volunteer gatherings, and major rallies that they usually need to win elections. Biden’s brand proved better than Trump’s. And it proved better than many other Democrats’ on Tuesday too.
“What a lot of pundits and a lot of Democratic activists didn’t understand is that people were exhausted by the drama of Trump. They were exhausted by the partisanship,” Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist who had tried to help Pete Buttigieg stake out the same space in the primaries, told me. “What Biden offered was being a calming voice. People wanted a Mister Rogers and not a Hulk Hogan as the nominee.”
Last week, when Democrats were so confident that a blue wave would pound Trump and sweep them into a Senate majority, conventional wisdom held that Trump was going to lose so badly that any Democrat would have gotten elected. A top adviser to one of Biden’s primary opponents even said to me months ago that this sense was a main reason that candidate ran—a Democrat was going to beat Trump, so might as well try to be that Democrat.
Now that Biden has pulled off his win, some Democrats are trying out a different argument: Maybe Biden was weak, and another candidate might have done better.
That misses what happened, and also glides past an uncomfortable fact for many Democrats: Beating Trump, often written off by political professionals in 2016 as the weakest major-party candidate in modern presidential history, was not as easy as they would like to believe. For some, he is the center of a personality cult, but for many more, he is selling a compelling, reactionary vision of an America they wish existed, or being a blunt battering ram through establishment politics. Some voters drawn to his assertiveness and glad to see taxes down and their own finances doing well dismissed his racism and red-baiting. Some voters weary of the pandemic ignored his sophomoric mismanagement of it.
“There was an assumption that because Trump was so unconventional, his victory was a fluke, and any other Democrat would be in a position to beat him,” says Jennifer Palmieri, who worked alongside Biden in the Obama White House and was then the communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “I did not experience the last four years thinking that the problem was the Democratic campaign—it was that there are a lot of people in America who are drawn to this man.” (Palmieri is an adviser to Emerson Collective, the majority owner of The Atlantic.)
Just look at Florida, where Trump won with 51 percent of the vote, but 61 percent of voters supported a ballot question to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, a policy that Trump does not support. Voters were drawn to him.
Biden is only the fourth candidate to beat an incumbent in the past 100 years, and he did it against a president directing the force of his entire administration into a taxpayer-funded reelection effort. Biden won the most votes in American history, and with votes still being counted that are leaning his way, his share of the electorate is already on par with the percentage of the vote Ronald Reagan won in 1980; it’s looking like the second-biggest popular-vote margin in the past 20 years, after Obama’s in 2008. He had strong support from moderates and progressives, won more votes from Black voters and women than either Obama or Clinton did, and ran stronger in many white areas than Democrats have recently.
The argument that any Democrat could have pulled this off infuriates Biden and his aides and allies.
“The overall premise really underestimates Joe Biden’s strengths, which I think happened the whole campaign,” says Brendan Boyle, a congressman from what turned out to be the crucial voting base of Philadelphia who urged Biden to run, went to his very first fundraiser in 2019, and campaigned for him in Iowa.
“Joe Biden is the person who won Michigan in the primary for a reason. He’s the one who could, and did, win Michigan in the general,” Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan told me on Wednesday, as she watched the tight race tilt Democratic as the counting went on. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar “would have had a more challenging time,” Stabenow argued. Among the evidence of this: Biden won an electoral vote out of a congressional district in Nebraska where a Sanders-aligned House candidate lost. (Nebraska is one of two states without winner-take-all electoral votes.)
Often, though, Biden just leaned into Trump’s weaknesses. Once, in the first debate, Trump had interrupted Biden so many times that the Democrat just gave up and let Trump talk. Joe Biden: Just look at the other guy. Trump wasn’t really wrong when he spent the summer complaining that Biden was hiding out in his basement. Biden was hiding out—concerned about his health and about the health of everyone who might come to his events, but mostly just content to let Trump make the case against himself on his own.
For seven months, Trump failed to update any of the talking points he’d been preparing for a race against Sanders or Warren—“frightening,” “socialist.” Biden’s team thought his response, “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?,” would neuter their effectiveness. In the final days, the Biden campaign sensed that the “socialism” rhetoric had caught on more than they’d realized. But by then, the best aides could come up with was to have Harris start off each speech she gave in Florida by taking a moment to note, “Let me just be clear: Joe Biden and I are proud, patriotic Americans.” Imagine the effect of this attack against a candidate without the strength of Biden’s name recognition to fight back against it.
Biden’s campaign won’t go down as the revolutionary masterpiece of operations that Obama’s was in 2008. There was no brilliant manipulation of Facebook like Trump’s in 2016. The closest the Biden campaign came to innovations like the online fundraising begun by Howard Dean in 2004, and perfected by Sanders in 2016, was having the former vice president appear at drive-in rallies to bring people together, almost, while keeping them safe from the coronavirus. Half of the people who tuned in for an online Hamilton cast reunion and mini-concert in October were new donors. But that’s what counted as a revolution for the Biden campaign, while it blew some of the basics, such as outreach in Miami-Dade County, where Biden underperformed Clinton.
COVID-19 seems to have crucially hindered the campaign’s outreach efforts, even as Biden’s aides convinced themselves that voters wouldn’t want potentially infected strangers bothering them at home. “People are cautious at the doors,” Stabenow told me. “They appreciate being able to talk to somebody, but people are cautious.”
Yet the pandemic also reduced the impact of Biden’s weaknesses. It allowed him to skip big rallies that almost certainly would have been smaller than Trump’s. He was better rested, hosting fewer events, so he made fewer errors, and even fewer of them on camera.
In the spring, Ben Wessel doubted that Biden could pull this off: A generic “Democrat” was leading Trump among young voters, whom Wessel focuses on as the executive director of the political group NextGen America. Those voters, mostly diehards for Sanders or Warren, at first couldn’t figure out why the 2020 campaign even included a guy who seemed like their grandpa’s friend. When pollsters subbed in the actual candidates’ names, voters’ support would decline—Biden’s more than most.
The George Floyd protests over the summer didn’t seem like the moment for the old white guy who’d helped write the 1994 crime bill. But maybe they were. “Others might have thought, I have to be at the vanguard, the one to be out front,” Wessel told me. “I actually think that Joe Biden’s penchant for listening has helped him be viewed positively by the largest possible coalition.”
Wessel figures more young voters might have turned out for Sanders or Warren than they did for Biden, but he’s not convinced that, in the end, that difference would have been enough to offset what either could have lost among other voters.
“We would have had this narrative that it was an über-progressive-versus-über-nationalist fight for the soul of our country, rather than normal people versus racist and sexist people,” Wessel said. Maybe one of those candidates would have ushered in a grand new era of governing from the left. Maybe Trump would have been able to contrast and scaremonger enough to shift attention away from the pandemic and its impact on the economy.
The day before the election, outside a community college in Beaver County, Pennsylvania—one of those spots that Democrats needed to win back, or at least lose by a whole lot less than Clinton did—Representative Conor Lamb told me to look at all the guys in union T-shirts who had shown up to cheer for Biden in the cold parking lot. “He was the one guy they were really willing to support and get behind. We would have worked hard for anybody, but he had the best chance,” Lamb said. “Not to say other people can’t get there, but time and your history means something to these people.”
Lamb barely won his own reelection race this week. He’d won a special election in the spring of 2018 and then a regular election in November that year, but with Trump on the top of the ticket, he struggled.
That night, a few miles away in Pittsburgh, as the crowd was waiting for Lady Gaga to perform at a drive-in rally in the Heinz Field parking lot, I noticed the locked-in, hopeful look on the face of Morgan Overton, a 26-year-old Black social worker from the city. She had volunteered for Obama’s campaigns, and supported Bernie Sanders in the past two primaries. “It is absolutely weird,” she told me, to put her hopes in an older white man, but she had. “I’m sure most of us would rather see Kamala Harris or someone closer to our lived experience” as president, she said. “But it takes an interesting person like Joe Biden to pull us to the other side.”
Can a future Republican presidential candidate inspire as many white, Republican-leaning voters to turn out as Trump did? Can a future Democratic candidate expect the kind of turnout Biden got without Trump on the other ticket? It’s hard to say.
Waiting for Biden to claim victory tonight, I was reminded of a cold afternoon in Manchester, New Hampshire, in early February, on the Saturday between his humiliating loss in Iowa and his even more humiliating loss in the Granite State. Biden showed up late as always. He jogged into a room to address reporters and aides, trying to seem like he was still in the race, and into the race. The wireless mic wasn’t working. “Our best days still lie ahead” was drawn in big letters on sheets of paper taped to the wall behind him.
Biden knew he was in trouble, and his staff had quickly gathered reporters for a press conference. At the time, it felt like a cluelessly flat singer’s “You haven’t heard the last of me!” testimonial after losing American Idol. But the core of the message that would power Biden to the presidency—my life, my struggles and sorrows, are a mirror of yours—was already there.
“I’ve been down before,” Biden said. “I’ve been down politically, personally. And I’ve gotten back up. I’ll be damned if I’m going to go down when the whole country’s at stake here. The country is at stake if Donald Trump gets reelected. It’s as simple and basic as that.”
Nine months later, he mapped his victory speech over the course of his life, the journey that took him to a blue-lit stage in a parking lot in his hometown. America can move forward together and work together, Biden said—that’s what his win, his presidency, will be about. “Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end here and now,” Biden said. “Refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another, it’s not some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a decision.”
He made that point more forcefully after he finished speaking by giving a huge hug to his son Hunter, whom Trump attacked viciously during the campaign. It seemed like a visual statement that Biden wouldn’t let Trump tear his family apart, just as he said he wouldn’t let Trump tear the country apart.
Even before he hugged Hunter, though, he gave a kiss on the head to Beau, Hunter’s baby son. He’s named after Biden’s eldest boy, in whose honor the president-elect ran his campaign. Biden held the baby close throughout the night’s fireworks finale, pointing up at them in the sky.