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Opinion | How Joe Biden Beat Donald Trump

[MUSIC PLAYING] Joe Biden pulled off an upset for the ages. In politics, unseating an incumbent is a crazy, improbable endeavor. Incumbents have name recognition, fund-raising advantages. Voters are more comfortable with the devil they know. That’s why you have senators in office forever and only 10 presidents who’ve ever lost re-election. [LAUGHING] Now, sure, a lot of people really hated this particular incumbent, and the polls predicted he’d lose. But he actually got more votes than he did last time around, and he was definitely willing to undermine our democracy to win. So I bet you’re wondering how Joe Biden did it. An election is like a complex, precarious contraption made up of millions of… decisions. Some big, some tiny, and it could be hard to tell until the very end which ones made a difference. If we poke around in this machine, analyzing some of those overlooked, counterintuitive, and forgotten decisions, we can gain a bit of insight into how Democrats managed to get just enough of them right. I’m Michelle Cottle. I’ve been covering the insanity of Washington since 1996. To begin, let’s go all the way back to early 2019, with the start of the primaries. Early on, the Biden camp had a defining decision to make — who is the candidate Joe Biden? They had a spectrum of choices. He could go left and chase the political zeitgeist of the base. He could brand himself as a candidate for conservative Dems. Biden knew he didn’t have Obama’s magical charisma, so there was definitely never going to be an “inspire the nation” option. He could maybe try to be cool and woke or try for nerd chic, but Biden knew the political perils of inauthenticity. “So what’s something that you always carry with you?” “Hot sauce.” [CRICKETS CHIRPING] [CRUNCHING] So what did his team do? They kept it cheesy. Biden spoke in cliches. “If you’re just given half the chance, you can do it.” Progressives rolled their eyes. “We’re in the battle for the soul of America. — to restore the soul of the nation. I mean this sincerely — we have to restore the soul of America.” Even some of his own advisers thought his message was hokey. Many in his party wanted an in-your-face fighter who‘d go toe to toe with Trump, not a boring grandpa droning on about unity. “Unity.” “Unifier.” “Unifying.” “Unify.” “To unite this nation.” Biden decided to present himself as exactly who he is — a pragmatic, a centrist, an old guy. “My age has brought with it a significant amount of experience.” His big bet was that his steadiness is what voters wanted after Trump. But let’s not forget, the strategy looked like it was a flop. “Fourth place for Joe Biden is catastrophic.” “Even worse, coming in third was the write-in candidate ‘not Biden.’” “And I’m not going to sugarcoat it. We took a gut punch in Iowa.” So what changed? Ask Jim Clyburn. His world-famous fish fry is a must-attend for presidential hopefuls. “It’s great to be back. This is my third fish fry, Jim.” Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the House and the No. 1 power broker in South Carolina Democratic politics. “I know Joe. We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us.” Clyburn is influential among a key constituency that has a soft spot for Joe — moderate religious African-Americans. These voters wanted a steady, reliable candidate. Clyburn’s endorsement came just three days before the South Carolina primary. It helped turbocharge Black turnout for Biden — “My buddy Jim Clyburn, you brought me back!” [CHEERING] And revived his campaign heading into Super Tuesday. Joe’s boring, cheesy strategy was suddenly looking much shrewder. In another election, this might not have worked. But there’s a political lesson here. The party’s base looks more like Clyburn than it does like loud, woke lefties on Twitter. The result was astonishing. In the span of just one week, this happened. “I am ending my campaign and endorsing Joe Biden for president.” “I will be casting my ballot for Joe Biden.” “I introduce the next president of the United States, Joe Biden.” [CHEERING] This moment is key to understanding how the Democrats approached this election. Eventually, every struggling campaign must decide whether to pull the plug or prolong a primary that can leave the ultimate winner battered and weakened. But this time around, Democrats knew that the only thing that mattered was beating Trump. Even Bernie eventually accepted this. So they all rallied because of one sacred political strategy. “Unity.” But there was a new problem. The entire contraption flipped upside-down. [THUNDER] When taking on an incumbent, your worst nightmare is a national crisis. International conflict, terrorist attacks — tragedies bring the country together and often rally the public around the president. The pandemic was a shot at redemption for Trump. He’d just been impeached, for God’s sake. Now, with strong leadership, he could unite an anxious nation. Biden had another crucial decision to make — how to lead during a crisis without having any actual power. So what did he do? He retreated to his basement. While the president was holding rallies and daily press briefings, Biden was all but invisible. “You know where he is now? He’s in his damn basement again.” No rallies, no more knocking on doors. Instead, he held sad Zoom calls from his home in Delaware. Frustrated Democrats scolded him. Why wasn’t he making impassioned public appeals like — “We’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable. FEMA is sending us 400 ventilators. You want a pat on the back? We need 30,000 ventilators!” Some even suggested Governor Cuomo should be the nominee. But from the safety of his bunker, Biden was actually making a savvy move — let the president have the spotlight. “The C.D.C. is advising the use of non-medical cloth face covering. But this is voluntary. I don’t think I’m going to be doing it. When we have a lot of cases, I don’t look at that as a bad thing. I look at that as, in a certain respect, as being a good thing. And then I see the disinfectant, what knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection?” It’s a political rule of thumb that when your opponent is digging his own grave, you don’t fight him for the shovel. As the race ground on, the selection of a running mate prompted more speculation and passion than I have ever covered before, in part because of Biden’s age. It was an incredibly delicate decision for Team Biden. Amy Klobuchar was a good bet to help rebuild the “Blue Wall” that gave Trump the 2016 win. But she was white and a former prosecutor — not ideal, considering the national moment. This gave a boost to Black candidates in swing states, but they were largely untested in the national spotlight. “Hmm.” Elizabeth Warren would do what Joe couldn’t: energize progressives. But she’d also energize Republicans. [GROAN] Kamala Harris came with risks of her own. After all, she’s a former prosecutor. And remember this? “You also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.” Awkward. Then again, picking her would show Joe didn’t hold a grudge. If there’s one thing to know about picking a V.P., it’s that when things are going well, you don’t want to change the narrative. Kamala Harris was historic and added pizazz without being too scary to moderates. That made her a smart pick. Though Trump has had more controversies than I can count, Biden had one, too — a booby trap that could have brought down his entire campaign — his son, Hunter. For sure, there are some awkward truths about Hunter, from his drug problems to his business dealings around the world. Team Trump then wrapped these with layers of conspiracy theories and lies. “This is Hunter Biden’s laptop. And when you look at the photograph section, it’s disgusting and it includes a large number of underage girls.” “Money tied to human trafficking and prostitution rings. And the other one — that’s another big one — the Chinese money. Joe Biden is compromised 100 percent.” In politics, a conspiracy theory doesn’t have to be true to have legs. Think birtherism or pizzagate. As the attacks from Trump intensified, Biden was again faced with a hard choice. He could fight back. Trump’s nepotism and corruption were fat targets. And sometimes in politics, you have to get down in the mud with your opponent. But Trump is an Olympic-level street fighter. So what did Biden do? He hugged Hunter. “Hunter got thrown out of the military. He was thrown out, dishonorably discharged — ” ”That’s not true. He wasn’t dishonorably — ” ”— for cocaine use. And he didn’t have a job until you became vice president. And he didn’t have a job.” “My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people we know at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I‘m proud of him.” Biden leaned into his fatherly image, which played to his strengths — a smart political move. But Biden also got lucky, because Trump had overplayed his hand. The conspiracy theories were just too crazy, and he even got impeached for his sketchy efforts. Biden won this battle precisely by not engaging with the nuttiness. “Will you shut up, man?” Now, sure, Team Biden made plenty of mistakes, like underestimating Trump’s appeal with Hispanic voters. But far beyond Joe and his inner circle, rank-and-file Democrats across the country worked to keep the ball rolling. Last summer, before the first vote was ever cast, a group of operatives that became known as the Democracy Defense Nerve Center met to wargame every possible scenario for how to respond if Trump tried to inappropriately cling to power. Democrats pre-emptively deployed their secret weapon, attorney Marc Elias. He’s the guy you call when you need to make sure every vote gets counted. He won more than 50 lawsuits, shooting down Republican efforts to suppress the vote. And let’s not forget Stacey Abrams and legions of Democrats who worked literally for years to register voters and organize turnout operations. Without Abrams, Georgia likely would not have gone blue. These operatives and activists and lawyers, and countless others whose names we’ll never know, are the unsung heroes of the Biden victory. But don’t get too excited. Going forward, the bad news for Democrats is that Joe Biden’s winning playbook for navigating this electoral machine likely won’t be much help. The pandemic, this president — it was 2020. The whole situation was truly exceptional. Rather than offering up one overarching lesson, this race offered scores of reminders of how complicated and fragile any winning campaign really is. Joe and his team found that magic blend of strategy, ideology, message, authenticity, flexibility, preparedness, and a big dollop of luck to win the ultimate prize.

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