Why Joe Biden won the presidency, receiving the most votes in our country’s history – over 81 million – beating Trump by over 7 million votes.
Outrage is exhausting and corrosive; it catalyzes the desire for its opposite.
So instead of a clash of thundering titans touting big opposing ideas like a main event, socialism vs. capitalism of a Bernie Sanders vs Donald Trump cage match, Biden vs Trump was more a clash of demeanors.
Biden and his people correctly bet that Trump’s “show your ass” go-to strategy of singular, one-note rancor would help Biden win the election. He never entered any argument Trump started during the campaign under the rubric that winning required refusing to take any bait: Biden didn’t need to argue against Trump: He embodied it; he was the argument against Trump. He offered very little else, depriving ammunition to Team Trump.
That simple fact (versus tact) helped inspire massive Democratic turnout in traditionally blue America by uniting the party from progressives to centrists on the singular goal of defeating Trump.
Votes for Biden flooded into cities, suburbs and the exurbs surrounding them.
Black voter turnout was a huge factor in electing Biden president, just as it was in securing his nomination as the Democratic contender. Youth and seniors turned out for Biden too.
He also won independents and moderates; Biden won independents massively by 14-points nationally and in all battleground states, even those Trump won, often by double-digit margins.
Biden’s broad, almost throwback-seeming appeal amid the Barthes-ian professional wrestling spectacle our American politics has become, resonated even with conservatives, albeit those of the more traditional stripes and centrists who showed up as part of a wide and deep river of general voter dissatisfaction w/ a caustic, erratic and, many of these voters asserted, downright dangerous president in Donald Trump.
So personality more than any policy determined the winner: Half of Biden voters considered their individual votes a vote against Trump vs. 21 percent of Trump voters who deemed their vote a vote against Biden.
Biden engendered a return-to-normalcy, anti-Trump coalition that stretched across demographics from progressives to conservatives.
Trump’s problem, nationally, is he has always been deeply unpopular. So it perhaps shouldn’t have been surprising who would prevail in a contest between a likable traditionalist insider running against a deeply unpopular outsider who never won the popular vote and never edged over 50 percent approval in opinion polls during his presidency. But the spiking distrust in both polling and traditional party political thinking and strategies stemming from Trump’s win in 2016, deemed by nearly everyone surprising and unlikely, had everyone in the anti-Trump camp second-guessing their picks, first for best candidate, and then once Biden was the nominee, strategy to win.
The confidence in what I’ll call the “higher road” strategy evinced by establishment players provided salve for the anxieties of almost no one, as establishment thought had been blown to smithereens by Trumpian shock waves so much so recently. Was quietly running an old-line also-ran enough to inspire winning turnout? Or do we need a Sanders-ian establishment smasher w/ appealing ideas who can go toe to toe as polar opposite w/ a Richie Rich son of Daddy Warbucks, China shop bull, to inspire turnout? Turns out the former was enough.
Still, yeesh. While I got on board w/ the nominee as soon as he gained the nomination, I remained unconvinced the choice would work until Nov. 6 when it became clear Biden would win.
In any other contest, without the sideshow carny that Trump is, a real fulcrum of appealing policy ideas are needed to run a winner. For instance, Biden can’t lead the way he campaigned; specific policy priorities don’t naturally flow from simply being anti-Trumpian, aside from reversing a slew of executive orders. Which is why future races could still perhaps favor a Sanders moment, which although may have passed him by due to age, progressive torchbearers could bring via his would-be groundbreaking Medicare for All to new campaigns now and to come.
Sanders also had a harder road to hoe. Biden united the party at its traditional base, whereas Sanders appeared to fracture it into progressive and moderate wings, with traditional Democrats leery of any campaign of “new ideas” amid Trumpism, where the overarching goal was to leave “Crazy Town” by drop kicking Trump out of office.
Regardless, at a certain point, the Democratic Party will have to decide to stop being pushed to the right by the right. If you choose to take a principled stand at the line in the sand, haven’t you already conceded the fight? You’ve nothing left but survival to fight for. Any of your policy ideas are meaningless in such a narrow vacuum of existence and will have to wait at least for a confirmation of vital signs re: real policies vs. centralized diluted platitudes.
In the primary, late deciders, lack of young voters showing up at polls and a too-crowded progressive field vs. strategic dropouts and endorsements by the moderate wing swung support to Biden and away from Sanders. What seemed clear was a significant portion of the Democratic electorate was in a look-back, safety mode vs. a look-forward progressive mode. While Sanders policy proposals are cogent and have the sense of inevitability about them, middle-of-the-road voters remained hand-wringers and thus not ready for what seems inevitable to progressives. Whether that – you could call it “nostalgic” – attitude among moderates would be enough to enable victory over Trump was the big question, now answered: It was.
But oh, the future, near and far. The increasingly reactionary GOP has been waging a scorched earth war pushing the Democratic Party to the right for decades. So my questions for Biden’s longtime supporters are: Can nostalgia versus new ideas win long-term? And more pointedly: Explain to me how you plan to win a game of tug of war by walking up to the center line?
What’s still very unclear is how big a role any purported strategy actually played in the election in moving voters. I mean, a crash test dummy w/ a placard reading “Not Trump” may have beat Trump. He is that polarizing.
Trump helped, of course, in not an insignificant way, by beating himself. The list of self-inflicted wounds is so large that even the most seemingly Teflon of politicians faced an uphill battle escaping failure. But that doesn’t address his appeal problem head-on. The real problem with Trump’s unchanging strategy from 2016 of winning by sowing division is he forgot about the diminishing returns principle. He built himself out on the edge of a cliff in the American electorate that he worked so hard to make so deeply divided from its geological other half that before long, the other half was an entire canyon away. He lost the vast middle. Where getting up the opposing side was a gentle hike for centrists, Trump’s was an unclimbable cliff.
Enter Biden. The middle.
Biden has perfected an old school backslap, smiling handshake, homespun on-the-ground politics that essentially works from a desire for people to like him, while Trump’s default anger circumscribed his appeal mostly to those in and on the periphery of his base, who have yet to tire of his war-all-the-time caustic nihilism and yells for respect, which failed to move the needle of the electorate while pushing those American cliff-sides even further apart. Trump stumbled in that chasm of his own creation while Biden found firm footing on the ground he merged.
Sanders progressive supporters should also apply a stark postmortem lens to the campaign’s failure to unite the party and attract black voters in traditional Democratic strongholds across the country. Biden’s Georgia win was a fantastic and welcome surprise for the whole party that showcases the emergence of a black-empowered New South. The results of today’s Senate runoffs will show how far that momentum has reached down ticket. [Update: It totally reached! Warnock and Ossoff both won giving Democrats control of the U.S. Senate.] But regardless of those outcomes, Georgia turning blue is historic and certainly a harbinger of a new electoral map energized by black voters. It’s unclear, to say the least, if Sanders, who doesn’t have the ground game Biden’s spent a lifetime perfecting, could have engendered similar support as the nominee.
Uniter not a divider.
Turns out, the majority of the country wanted everything Trump was not and Biden gave them that by running a quiet campaign w/ a focus on civility and tradition and let Trump keep ranting.
“Looking presidential,” showing consistency during crisis amid the pandemic, and readiness to lead, prioritizing health over all else, seemed to appeal to voters: Six in 10 women voters disapproved of Trump’s handling of the Covid crisis (5 – 5 split for men) while overall, 6 in 10 voters’ concerns over the pandemic ranked higher than worries about the economy.
The “Corn Pop” Effect
Biden also seemed to achieve something unique in a presidential campaign: He got voters to view him more favorably as November got closer.
I laughed for a long time at the beloved, million dollar smile, hair-sniffing gaffe machine that is Uncle Joe.
Then on March 5, as primary season began to reveal Biden as the likely nominee, I clicked up the full clip of what’s become known as the “Corn Pop” story, which was actually only a part of a tapestry of tales Biden told about some of his formative experiences as a young man on a June day in the summer of 2017 at the pool where he was a lifeguard as a kid in Wilmington, Del. Black community leaders were dedicating the pool in Biden’s name. I was actually emotionally moved by parts of it. And it made me a bit more sanguine about the circumstances and the direction the primary was taking. Yes there are some laughable, goofy and cringeworthy asides, and the optics in parts of the segment speak to the continuing awkwardness and general clunkiness of the ongoing discussion of the black and white American experiences and racial and power divides. But Biden seemed to embody a message of ‘get over any of your embarrassment or fear because the discussion is required even though it is not easy.’ And he had clearly done the work. Meaning, it showed that he’s clearly been engaged with the black community in his constituent stomping grounds for decades. Now, has Biden really walked the talk? His own vice presidential pick, Kamala Harris, called him out on his decades earlier stance on busing, which impacted her as a child, during the Democratic debates when they were opponents vying for the nomination. And his style is definitely old school and homespun complete w/ gleaming toothy smile (champagne “clink” sound effect) and shoulder grabs from behind. But it is not without its appeal. I now at least understand it better. And as can often be the case, the message can be bigger than the man. He ended up offering that little girl on the bus, a woman of color who became California’s attorney general, the vice presidency, and she accepted. Whether forging such unity can result in a great presidency remains to be seen. But I applaud the effort, and I’ll be rooting for similar and real results.