Hello and welcome to the 538 Politics podcast. I'm Gaylan drink. The chaos surrounding the twenty twenty election meant that one story would often supplant another before we fully had time to process the first story.
To give you an example here at five thirty eight in early March of twenty twenty, we had plans for an audio documentary report detailing the seventy two hours between the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday, when then candidate Biden went from an underdog to practically the presumptive nominee. As you may know from listening to this podcast, that report never actually happened. The pandemic sent us into lockdown and totally upended our coverage plans. And that's not the only time we tore up our plans in twenty twenty.
So today, with the benefit of hindsight and some time to breathe, we're going to reflect on those kinds of key moments in the twenty 20 race.
And here with me to do that are the authors of the new book Lucky How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency. The book is the first big reported account of the twenty 20 campaign in its entirety. And the authors here with me are Jonathan Allen, senior political analyst with NBC News. Hello, Jonathan. Welcome.
Thank you, Joe. It's good to be with you. And also with us is Amy Parnes, senior correspondent for The Hill. Welcome, Amy. Good to have you. Thank you for having me.
I want to begin with the period in late February, early March that I just mentioned. So Biden had come in fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire, and then second in Nevada. Our forecast at five thirty eight said he had about a 15 percent chance of winning the nomination. What was happening inside of the Biden campaign just before the South Carolina primary, after those first three contests were over?
Well, for starters, there was a Nevada debate. Michael Bloomberg was gaining traction. If you'll remember, he was getting endorsements. He was garnering the financial backing. He needed to be that moderate candidate in the race. And the Biden folks were not liking it at the time. They were afraid of what would happen if Mike Bloomberg's chances were viable. And so enter Elizabeth Warren and you get into the Nevada debate. And what she does is she completely takes out Mike Bloomberg.
And it was critical to the Biden campaign. It was sort of a bookend, one bookend on one side. And then Jim Clyburn comes in and the Clyburn endorsement was obviously key going into South Carolina. And John can get into that.
What's going on behind the scenes with Joe Biden as he's desperately trying to get Jim Clyburn to endorse Jim Clyburn, of course, the Democratic whip in the House. He's been a member of Congress for, you know, basically since the early 1990s from South Carolina, the most powerful black Democrat in the country by terms of being the Democratic whip in the House, certainly the most powerful player in Democratic politics in South Carolina. And I think pretty broadly known among political observers and the set of folks who vote in primaries.
And Biden's trying to get his endorsement for months. And Clyburn is holding off and say, I'm going to wait till after the South Carolina debate. It's a big night for the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, which is one of the sponsors in February while this is going on. And Biden's had a tough run in Iowa and New Hampshire and the Nevada caucuses are starting to unfold. Cedric Richmond, the cochairman of Biden's campaign, goes to Clyburn and says, you got to get in now.
We need your help. There may not be a campaign if you don't get in and really push Biden forward in South Carolina. And then fast forward, Clyburn still demurs. It's not ready yet. Fast forward to the night before the South Carolina debate, which is a few days before the primary. Clyburn has just cut an ad for Biden, but has not released it yet, has not given his endorsement yet. And he meets with Biden in a couple of other members of the Congressional Black Caucus and some Biden staffers on a ship in Charleston Harbor.
I think it's the USS Yorktown and they're having this conversation about what Biden needs to do. And Clyburn has got all this advice for him. But Clyburn says, look, Joe, what I really want you to do is announce in the debate tomorrow that you will nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court. And this is not explicitly any sort of quid pro quo, but it is the political ask that Clyburn is making as he's kind of holding on to this endorsement.
And Biden knows it. And he puts Clyburn off and he says it's an interesting idea. And then Biden goes back to his staff and says, I should do this. And his staff says, no, no, no, no. Samon Sanders, one of the senior African-American staffers, says there's no way you should box yourself into doing that anyway. The next night, Biden gets on the debate stage in South Carolina. Cliburn's watching from the audience.
He watches Biden pass on several opportunities to say this. He gets agitated and he runs backstage during a commercial break, finds Biden and says, don't you dare leave the stage. Without saying that, without saying that you're going to nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court. And of course, Clybourn still hasn't actually given the endorsement or put the ads out, so Biden gets back on stage and awkwardly gets it out and says, I'm going to nominate a black woman for the Supreme Court.
The next day, Clyburn goes out, endorses Biden. And rather than a paper statement saying, Bardes, my guy, he gives this very impassioned endorsement where he talks about how his late wife love Joe Biden and the rest is kind of history. You see Biden win by this margin that I think nobody predicted in South Carolina. I think the polls showed him up about 12 or 15 points. Biden won with forty nine percent. I think the second place finisher was in the low 20s or high teens.
So I want to key in on that Clyburn endorsement, because I think at this point, the conventional wisdom is that it changed the course of the nomination process.
If you look at the polls before Clyburn ever endorsed. So on February twenty six, the day of Cliburn's endorsement, Biden was first in our South Carolina polling average and he was leading Sanders already by double digits. Now, of course, Biden did end up winning by 30 points in South Carolina, but it seemed like the tides had already turned before Clyburn actually made the endorsement because he had been and still was very popular among black voters in South Carolina, kind of regardless of Clyburn.
So does the Biden campaign after this happens actually see Clyburn as pivotal, or do they feel like they could have won South Carolina without that?
I think they definitely saw it as a pivotal moment. And people told us as much. I think they thought that they could barely maybe win South Carolina, they would win, but it wasn't going to be as big a win. And what the Clyburn endorsement effectively did was it helped knock all the dominoes down. It made the other folks who were in the campaign get out of the race quicker. I think that there was a little bit of worry of a Bernie Sanders candidacy in play.
And so you had a lot of people just coalesce around Biden quicker than anticipated, I think because of that endorsement and because it was so solid.
There is a difference between winning by 10 points and winning by 30 points in terms of the perception of people. And where does that bar sit between a kind of middling victory and a very decisive one? And the answer is, I don't know what the number is, but I know that the Biden people believe that Clyburn helped get them from. Yeah, he won South Carolina. He's still alive to. All right, this guy's on fire. And look what we saw from other campaigns when we talked to other campaigns and to the Biden campaign.
They couldn't place the change that was going on, the speed of the change into their models. Right. They're getting new information in and they use all kinds of data to try to project what's going to happen on Super Tuesday. Those 14 states and American Samoa, which only Mike Bloomberg, I guess, cared about because he want from American Samoa. But what they were seeing was something that I think none of us have ever really seen in politics was which was such a dramatic change essentially from 72 hours, but essentially from one day to the next.
What had the Biden campaign strategy been originally and did this play out as the campaign had kind of imagined? Had it accepted early on that Iowa and New Hampshire might not be good states for the campaign and that it would bank on having a lot of support among black voters in South Carolina and perhaps more support in a state like Nevada that has a more diverse population as well?
Yeah, I mean, South Carolina was always their firewall and you heard them say it time and again. But there's the caveat. I think they didn't expect to do so badly and poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire. And you could see that we detailed reporting about what was going on inside the campaign. They were running out of money. At one point, aides asked by they told him you might need to refinance one of his homes. He wasn't getting the endorsements he needed.
He was also in a bad place. I think mentally he was. For starters, there was a soft coup building around his campaign manager because they weren't executing properly. And I think that he personally was seeing that he wasn't drawing the crowds that he needed. There was one anecdote in the book where he comes off the stage at the Liberty and Justice dinner and he unleashes on his aides for basically not drawing the people. There was no one really in this crowd, and it was a lot smaller than the event his competitors.
So I feel like a lot of this wasn't going their way. And this is sort of what the people inside the campaign were telling us. They clearly expected to do better than fourth place in Iowa and fifth place in New Hampshire.
And in addition to that, their optimistic view of all of this was that eventually they would get to South Carolina and Super Tuesday and Biden's African-American support would catapult him. They certainly didn't see the degree to which they would hit that low, as Amy was saying, nor I think to. They really expect quite the high that they got, but one of the things we report in the book is that their data analytics director could signal very early on in the campaign, identified Alabama's 7th District is the perfect district for Biden.
Its majority African-American runs from Montgomery up toward Birmingham, represented by Terri Sewell in the House. And the idea of Alabama seven was if Biden can get that boost and get to a place where he's not just winning African-American voters, but really winning super majorities of African-American voters, that he can do what's called thresholding the other candidates and the way the Democratic delegate math works in a congressional district or in a state, as I'm sure you know, given any candidate doesn't get 15 percent of the vote in the district or statewide, they don't get any of the delegates.
And so if you're running in a multi candidate race, you don't even have to get to eighty five percent to win all of the delegates. You just need to make sure that you are above 15 percent and no one else is above 15 percent. And they saw districts like this all across the country, particularly Congressional Black Caucus districts. And so when you think about Jim Clyburn, he's a little bit of a bellwether of the black community. To your point earlier, he is somewhat following his own constituents, but he's also an influencer.
And it's not just the influence that he has himself. It's the influence of the Congressional Black Caucus, of which he is the most prominent member, former chairman of the caucus, the House Democratic whip. And one of my favorite scenes in the book is actually on Super Tuesday, when Clyburn invites members of the Congressional Black Caucus to keep score on Super Tuesday with him in the whip's office, in the Capitol, in there, in the Lincoln Room. And there's a wall between the Lincoln Room and Statuary Hall where you have all these statues to Confederate generals and to Jefferson Davis and the ascendant power of the Congressional Black Caucus and the people that the Congressional Black Caucus represents in that moment where they're essentially choosing the Democratic nominee and ultimately putting them on a path to the presidency is just a really stark contrast with those Confederate statues right outside in Statuary Hall.
So it's actually the 72 hours between South Carolina and Super Tuesday that I'm most interested in. Right. Because, of course, Biden outperforms his polls in South Carolina. Now, Super Tuesday is, of course, three days later in those intervening 72 hours you have but a judge drop out of the race and endorsed by it. And you also have Klobuchar drop out of the race and endorse Biden and the results from Super Tuesday that really put Biden on the path to being the presumptive nominee.
Right. If he had faltered after South Carolina, if more people had stayed in the race, there could have been a contested convention. It may not have been that Biden basically, by the time the coronavirus spread across the country, was the presumptive nominee. So I want to know what happened in those 72 hours. How involved was the party in getting booted, Judge and Klobuchar, to drop out of the race, getting endorsements from others like Beddoe, who had been out of the race for a while?
What was happening within the party apparatus during those three days from South Carolina to Super Tuesday?
The first thing is yes, the party was very involved. The establishment of the Democratic Party for months was worried that Bernie Sanders was going to either win the nomination or force a contested convention. That would be very ugly to take the nomination away from him if he went into the convention with a plurality of delegates, but not a majority. The idea that somebody else would win the nomination could tear the party apart and guarantee Trump a reelection. So there was a lot of concern about that and we saw that going into that period of time.
But what you saw as soon as South Carolina was in was Barack Obama activate and he wasn't the only one people to judge decides basically overnight, the night following the South Carolina primary. That was a Saturday night. That night, he decides basically that he's going to get out. He's going to give himself to the morning. He's talked to his aides. He's given himself to the morning to decide. He decides that he's going to do it, but he doesn't announce it.
And he goes to have breakfast with Jimmy Carter. And Jimmy Carter is in his own guileless way, telling Pete that it's time to get out of the race. He's like, you've run a wonderful campaign. But and it's like, wait a second, Jimmy Carter's to get out. Obama ends up calling Budha Gedge after Budha judge announces he's getting out. But before he endorses Biden and Obama's messages, it's time to endorse. You're not going to have leverage after Super Tuesday.
Biden made the same call and Bridgegate ignored Biden. So then Obama came in as kind of the heavy. Obama had tried to get in touch with Amy Klobuchar. She declined his phone calls, but she knew what they were about. The other thing to keep in mind is all of these campaign operatives within a party on different campaigns, they all talk to each other and they talk to the same donors. And so once the idea that it's time to coalesce gets out there, there's a lot of contact going on among the campaigns about how to make that happen.
And that's basically what what you saw enacted over the course of three days. Now, the Sanders folks would look at it and say the establishment rigged the game. But I think the way that. We look at it as more. This was the moment where most of the establishment, including Barack Obama, who had stayed away from Biden for now two elections in a row, decided that it was time to put in some muscle. Obama's fundraiser director from 2012 sent out an email to all the Obama donors saying now's the time to get in behind Biden.
So that's basically what you saw over the course of this 72 hours.
How did Sanders react to that maneuvering? And Warren, for that matter, too, because both of them are still in the race at this point. Do they see this as sinister? How did they try to beat back this party decides moment within the Democratic Party?
No one wanted a repeat of 2016, obviously. And that was sort of at the back of the mind of all these candidates. And what I think happened was you had Obama coming in a little bit more talking to Bernie Sanders. He had four conversations, I think, at that time and talking to him about what it would take for him to get out of the race and what concessions needed to be made and what the former president kind of played on a sort of referee and a mediator.
And between the two parties, he didn't want to tip the scales, but he wanted to be helpful. And I think they all saw the writing on the wall at that point. I think that Bernie Sanders had run a really good campaign through Nevada, but there obviously wasn't a path for him going forward after that. And and no one wanted to see Donald Trump win again, as I mentioned.
So I think that was a huge part of it, least of all Sanders, who took a lot of blame from some of the establishment for twenty sixteen, fair or not, the last thing Sanders wanted to do was be in a position where he went down as having helped elect Donald Trump twice.
So this basically wraps up the competitive portion of the Democratic primary by the time of the next contest on March 10th, we've already been sent into lockdown and our 538 forecast of the primary shows Biden with essentially a one hundred percent chance of winning the nomination. So I do want to talk about the general election. But before we do that, I actually want to rewind to twenty nineteen because there was a whole year worth of the invisible primary, as political scientists like to call it, before any of this actually happened.
And for those who aren't familiar, the invisible primary is when candidates seek out donors and endorsements from party leaders, give speeches, hone their messages and so on.
So what was that period of time like for Joe Biden? Because we had trackers at five thirty eight tracking all of the endorsements and all of the fundraising throughout the invisible primary. He is not getting the kind of endorsements you would expect from somebody who the party has coalesced around. He's also being really brutally out, fundraised by a lot of different people.
So how is the campaign thinking about this period of time?
As you mentioned, he was failing to get endorsements. We talk about how he went to leaders like Al Sharpton, Stacey Abrams trying to get their endorsements early on and couldn't quite do it. Even his former partner, former President Obama, he kept saying, I asked Obama not to support me, endorse me. We found out in the book that that conversation never happened, according to someone very close to Obama. But he's trying to line up the financial backing.
He finds out he's not quite prepared. Even his launch is a little bit lackluster. There isn't the weight that is needed to go forward, but his message is resonating with some voters. And that message is essentially that he is the only candidate who can win and can beat Donald Trump. And so that is his backbone and what he's leaning on. But everything else really wasn't lining up for him in the way that a winning campaign would would have.
Who were party leaders pulling for back then? They were split.
We used in the book. Obama is sort of a device like a Greek chorus. He's on this. But much like the rest of the Democratic Party, he is wrong about his ambitions. His political calculation here is a little bit wrong. He thinks that Biden is potentially going to embarrass himself on the campaign trail, tarnish both of their legacies. So he's he's one person. Hillary Clinton didn't think that Biden was going to be able to get it done.
Twenty four other Democrats didn't think Biden was going to be able to get it done. You know, the people who also ran against him, Donald Trump, didn't think you'd be able to get it done. And we detail all this in the book. And part of the story of Joe Biden winning the Democratic nomination, winning the presidency, our republic holding, you know, in those interregnum months between the election and the inauguration. Part of that story of lucky is this kind of incredible comeback that is hard to describe without a lot of different things aligning.
And I sort of think of it like if you've got baseball fans out there on the sort of negative side of failure, why does Clayton Kershaw seem to fail in the postseason? Till this last postseason, why is the greatest pitcher in Major League Baseball feel like? Is there an empirical way to describe that? And I think the answer is that there's some or in addition to the science that is important in politics and the people who make judgments about whether Biden was going to have that vote, the science of campaigning down and the ability to be a campaigner to get people behind him, they all thought that he was going to have trouble with it.
That's not to say he didn't have any support, but he certainly didn't have, as you suggested, the support of somebody that had the establishment behind them fully. And he didn't have the support that a two term former vice president would expect.
The way that you're telling Obama is concerned with electability when he's thinking about who should be the nominee and having discussions with donors and things like that. And at first, he's sort of a booster for better or work. And then he's explaining why Warren could have a good shot. And one quote that he says about people to judge is that he doesn't think he has good chances. He says, quote, He's the mayor of a small town. He's gay and he's short.
So work never even makes it to the primaries. Warren never won a single primary. And but a judge actually went on to win Iowa, although that wasn't really clear at the moment that it happened. And maybe he would have done even better in New Hampshire had it been clear.
So where is Obama getting his sense of what electability looks like within his own party? Because it seems like his senses were wrong?
Yeah, I think he was drawing on his own campaign as sort of a guide. I think he related to Elizabeth Warren in the campaign. She was running she was running a good campaign. I just don't know if it was executed well. But I think that's sort of what he was leaning on. And he also just at the same time, thought that his old vice president wasn't going to get the job done and could not only embarrass himself, but ruin the Obama Biden legacy.
And so I think that that was in the back of his mind, too. And, you know, we have one anecdote in the book you just referred to it where he is thinking Warren's praises. He is kind of bashing and jabbing Pete a little bit and he forgets his own vice president when he's talking to a room of black donors. And that was sort of a good window, a good look into what he was thinking at the time. And, yes, he was wrong.
I mean, he he didn't expect Biden to go as far as he did. A number of sources said that. So I'm sure he's going back and rethinking what he was thinking about at that time.
Obama is a better candidate than he is a clairvoyant, which is probably true with most of us in our jobs that were better than our jobs than we are at predicting the future. And oh, God, for those of us for whom our jobs are protected in the future, heaven help us. Well, you guys you guys do a very good job, as good as can be done. Thank you.
Thank you. I'll pass that on tonight. I'm not the clairvoyant one here. So the question here is Biden didn't have the money and he didn't have the overwhelming support of the party. But if you look back at the primary race polling in twenty eighteen, he's leading nationally almost the entire time. So on one hand, what happens in February seems like pure proof that the party does decide. Right. They all got behind Biden and they made sure he was the last one standing.
But throughout all of 2013, none of the party leaders were behind him. It was the voters that were it was national polling that showed regardless of what happened, he kept leading. So how should we think about this primary system and how and what matters and what doesn't?
Well, I think it's important to remember that the lead that he had was always a plurality and it fluctuated a little bit. Right. It got up as high as 40 percent that he fell down into the low 20s at one point when one popped up for like a day or two and led him. But you're right, it was consistent that more of the party wanted him than anybody else. And it sort of had to go through this process of elimination to get to the place where he really had a majority of the party behind him.
And short of a contested convention, you really need that. And there are countless factors that go into who's going to succeed and who's going to fail. But I think Biden had two things that I think are really important. One of them is very measurable and the other is a little less measurable. The measurable pieces. His coalition was moderate whites and African-Americans, and that is a coalition that a Democrat needs to win the presidency. And part of it was self reinforcing in that I think a lot of African-American voters, in talking to a lot of African-American voters, felt like one of the reasons to nominate Joe Biden and to vote for Joe Biden was that he seemed to be pretty popular with moderate whites, which made him more likely to beat Trump, which was, after all, the number one goal of all of the Democrats.
And I think he was able to sustain those two pillars of his coalition kind of throughout the whole process. I mean, like I said, there was a little fluctuation. Another piece that's perhaps a little less empirical is his messaging was so consistent from the start for a guy who is known for lacking discipline, for a guy who Barack Obama looked at and thought, this guy's a gaffe machine, how can he get through this? Obama, the great orator, looking at Biden going like, how could this guy do what I did?
Well, Biden did something different and did it well. He carved out a message that was somewhat anodyne. But also I think about what he could do for other people, which was to kind of restore some comedy and some calm to the country. And he stuck with it and he was able to take all the different policies and put them into that bucket. And I think it's a construct that's very important for a candidate to be able to explain to people what is it that you're going to do for them that is about them and what they want.
And it's what we think that Hillary Clinton failed to do effectively. In twenty sixteen, we read the previous book Shattered. And our main conclusion is there are a lot of things that went into her losing. But we think the biggest factor was actually that her slogan and a lot of her talk outside the slogan was I'm with her, which was about her, not about what she was going to do for other people. And I think Biden really hit that not only hard, but well and consistently throughout the primary and through the general election.
It's interesting that you say that because early on in the book, you describe some criticisms that Biden had of Clinton's campaign in particular, that she didn't seem to have a strong message. But when I look back and I think Hillary Clinton's message was stronger together and Joe Biden's message was restoring the soul of the nation, there's both a really amorphous things that seem to have something to do with, like all of us together, something something something like it seemed like they actually had really similar messages that were largely were not Trump were some kind of feel good collection of things that just isn't Donald Trump.
It seems like you see it differently. Amy, do you think that they ran similar campaigns? Because the messaging to me didn't seem all that different.
It did, but it didn't.
I take their point, but I think that he was also able to break it down and say, look, I'm not Donald Trump and I'm the only one who can beat Donald Trump and I'm the only one who can break the fever and help unite the country. And that was particularly effective, I think, during the pandemic when people needed to see a healer in chief. They weren't really getting that from Donald Trump at the time. He was telling people to inject bleach and people just wanted some sense of normalcy.
So I think a lot of that was at play, but I think he was true to himself is the key here, whereas Hillary was sort of all over the place and no one really knew what she stood for. I remember at the time someone was saying there was a wall in her campaign office that had Post-it notes everywhere. And it said, I'm for this and I'm for that. But no one really knew what essentially she was for with Biden, you kind of could break it down and it became a little more tangible.
And he became known as this empathetic.
The man for the moment who can help bring the country back from this rough economic time and from the pandemic, which of course has become his priority and it's important to remember getting stronger together, was her second or third try at that message was really her general election message and the fact that she went through a couple of constructs, first versus Biden, who had that consistent soul of the nation message all along, I think it lends to the it can anyway, depending on who's talking about it.
But it can lend the authenticity that Amy was talking about to you. If your message in the primary at the very beginning of the primary is the same as what it is at the end. But I think the Clinton folks were trying to figure out how do we win people in Iowa now? How do we win people in New Hampshire now? How do we win African-American voters now? How do we put together a general election coalition? And you saw her slogans and her messages change throughout kind of evolve, whereas Biden's was the same on the very worst day of his campaign.
I think it was probably the day after he landed in New Hampshire. His campaign's down to a million and a half bucks in the bank. He might have to refinance his house, as it was on Super Tuesday, as it was during the debates with Donald Trump, as it was ultimately on Election Day. Interesting.
I want to ask you a little bit about how much all of this kind of stuff matters. The campaign slogan, even decisions that seem important at the time on the campaign as we move on to talk about the general election. But first, as I mentioned earlier, the competitive part of the Democratic primary ends just as the coronavirus pandemic is spreading across the country and causing businesses and schools and life in general to shut down. And that is essentially when the general election begins.
I want to start with a broader question here, which is when you look at the polling throughout the general election year, from March to November, the thing that is so striking is just how stable the race is, despite everything that happens, right. We're in a pandemic. Police killed George Floyd. There's protests. There's a racial reckoning in the country all the way to Justice Ginsburg dies in the fall. Trump gets covid. I can't even remember everything that happened.
The polling is so steady.
So in your reporting, were there moments that the campaigns saw as actual game changers, despite all this steadiness in the polls?
No, I think that's the whole thing, that everything happened and yet nothing happened. There was nothing that moves the needle either way. John, if you want to add something.
Well, I would just say the one exception to that is covered in the president's handling of it. It's hard to measure that in polling about the horse race effectively because it unfolds over such a long period of time. And one of the things that you aren't able to measure in the horse race is the solidifying effect of events, somebody who might lean Biden. That becomes hard Biden or somebody who might have been hard Trump that suddenly becomes potentially persuadable. And the people inside the campaigns that we talked to, including pollsters, data analytics, folks, top campaign operative types, all of them believe Donald Trump hurt himself with his response to covid, whether that's the Biden team, the Trump team, other political analysts we talked to, and that it's just it's hard to pinpoint like this is the week where that changed in the polling.
But you did see Biden's national leaders move from like nine points to six points. And in an election that turns on forty three thousand votes over three states in the Electoral College, a three point national polling percentage change is actually huge.
Yeah, and it's funny because I don't even think then President Trump realizes the effect of the pandemic on his reelection prospects. But we have a scene in the book where he's talking to his campaign manager at the time, Brad Maskell. And Brad is essentially telling him this is going to be your undoing, this is going to ruin you. And he doesn't quite understand the gravity. He says something to the effect of what does this have to do with politics anyway?
Which is sort of a telling moment, I thought, in the book. Yeah.
So obviously, covid is the backdrop to the entire general election. And you have a quote from Biden adviser Anita Dunn in the book where she says, quote, covid is the best thing that ever happened to him, meaning Biden, the candidate. This helps support the thesis or the title of your book, which is lucky, this idea that Biden got lucky in winning the nomination and then ultimately the general election.
What struck me in reading about the period of the general election where covid is spreading across the country, is that really it seems like it had a lot to do with Trump's governing style and not just luck, because if you look at foreign leaders, their approval rating skyrocketed because they were seen as competent on this. It also happens on the state level with Governor Cuomo, for example, and other governors like Gretchen Whitmer, who are seen as handling the coronavirus competently.
So you would think that it's not just the pandemic. That creates this dynamic, it specifically trumps governing style, which has more to do with one of the candidates in the race than actual lock thinking about it that way. Was this really lucky or was Trump just not good at handling the biggest crisis of the campaign?
Well, but in order for people to see that stark contrast in the concept of competent governance versus what Trump was doing in the aftermath of covid, it had to be something huge on the average day. The average American is not spending a lot of time thinking about how their government operates. We've seen a lot of different models and certainly in recent years for how a president runs his or her. Well, I guess his administration. And what you see with Trump is this extreme evidence of the gross incompetence and of the lack of compassion that Biden was talking about.
But, you know, Democrats have been talking about Donald Trump for a long, long time and not getting a ton of visible traction on it. Right. I mean, Trump's numbers didn't like plummet over various things like Ukraine, the impeachment and stuff like that. So gross incompetence in governance really needed a crisis in order to show those contrasts that Biden had been talking about in a level of relief. I think that really drove it home for the average voter.
I mean, one hundred fifty eight million people voted. One hundred fifty eight million people are not paying attention to every twist and turn of government action.
So the way you see it, do you think Biden would have lost were it not for the pandemic? A couple of our sources, even people in the Biden campaign, acknowledged as much. One source told us the stars kind of aligned everything from the pandemic on the way. Trump mishandled that. It was a referendum against Donald Trump and he, I think, blew it. You know, everyone was talking about his base and how only the base would come out.
He was able to galvanize other folks to come in and vote for him in minority communities. So I think that was key, too. And I think that was something that caught the Biden camp off guard as well.
And it's callous and uncomfortable to think about the pandemic as being lucky for a political candidate. And to your point, Galen, there was an opportunity for Donald Trump here to really increase his electability by handling it well, by showing compassion. One of Biden's closest confidants, somebody talks to him all the time, said to us, if Trump had just shown a little more compassion as late as September or October, just a little bit. He would have won reelection, and so it's not just sort of our take on it, the people inside the campaigns believe this.
The people on Trump's side believe that many of them tried to tell him that he needed to just show a little more compassion. You saw him a couple of times, kind of zigzag on that, but he always went back to where he was that he had he had already defeated the virus, essentially, and that fifty thousand one hundred thousand two hundred thousand deaths was not that many because it could have been much more, which just sounds awful, I think, to most people.
But look, we can't prove it. We can't prove the counterfactual. I don't know how many runs my shortstop saves versus, you know, shortstop. Exactly, or precisely. But I think our judgment, based on our interviews with people in both campaigns, is that without covid, Trump probably wins reelection.
So apart from the pandemic, the other major reorienting events of twenty twenty were the protests after police killed George Floyd and the ensuing conversations about systemic racism across the United States. How did Biden navigate the divide between the activist left and his more moderate instincts during that period of time? Because it seemed like he was getting a lot of different advice from a lot of different people about how to navigate this period.
Yeah, and we reported on this in the book, one of the biggest conversations happening inside the campaign, the primary and the general begins. He has a whole slew of people come in to his campaign that aren't his people. A lot of them are Obama people, but they are essentially trying to push him to the left a little bit on these issues, on social justice issues. And he's not really moving. When I was saying he was true to himself and his message before people pushed back at the time, his staff around him had been with him for a while, said this isn't Joe Biden.
This isn't what he's going to do. And of course, he did it. But he had a couple of folks inside his campaign saying that he needed to talk more about and apologize for the crime bill and his role in it. And he needed to go a little bit more left to talk more about to fund the police. He didn't go for that. He explained it a little bit more, but didn't really quite move. So he was really consistent in his views and his positions.
And it'll be interesting to see if he continues to be that way in the White House with his administration.
And this is really crucial, Galen, because if you look at where Democrats want to be and where they think the country should be on issues of justice, Joe Biden's perception was that the country wasn't quite there. It wasn't there for to fund the police. Not only that, he didn't just say I won't say to fund the police. He said I'm putting more money into putting police on the street. And he understood that this was a powerful political issue with important parts of his potential coalition.
Certainly many of the Republicans that had come into the Democratic fold because they were against Trump. But if you look at where Biden won in Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin, where the majority of his change from twenty sixteen comes, you're talking about educated suburban whites and they are much more likely to hear somebody say defund the police and have a negative reaction to that, then a lot of other segments of the Democratic coalition. And so I look at Pennsylvania, where the lion's share of his votes come from in Pennsylvania in twenty twenty.
In terms of the change from 2016, it's Chester, Delaware and Montgomery County's, which are largely educated white suburban counties between Philadelphia and Delaware. In Philadelphia, the city itself, Trump actually did better in twenty twenty than he did in twenty sixteen. It's sort of the majority black part of Pennsylvania. So, you know, you look at that, you look at Milwaukee, where Biden was getting fewer votes in African-American communities than Clinton did in twenty sixteen, but much more vote in Dane County, Wisconsin, which is around Madison, where you have a lot of educated white suburbanites like Michigan, Detroit.
But Biden got fewer votes than Clinton did in twenty sixteen, just flat fewer votes even as he got twenty one twenty two twenty three percent more votes across the country. He got fewer votes in Detroit. And so what you see in this is Biden had an understanding that he couldn't alienate the suburban white population that was with him and that he thought that to fund the police and apologizing for the crime bill would be a step too far. And we actually have seen in the book this real quick, where Jim Clyburn talks to John Lewis on the House floor and Clyburn says to Lewis, what do you think about this?
Defund the police thing? And Lewis says, Burn, baby, burn killed us, meaning the nonviolent civil rights movement that sort of evolved into the more aggressive civil rights movement by the late 60s. You know, Lewis was supplanted at Snick by Stokely Carmichael and this is burn, baby, burn killed us. Defund the police is going to kill Black Lives Matter because he thought the slogan was so damaging to the goals of Black Lives Matter. And what you see from the Biden campaign is them and.
Racing some of the goals of police reform without getting to that point where they're like touching the electrical wire.
So we've gotten now to the actual results of the 20 20 election. And looking at one of the most notable changes between twenty, sixteen and twenty 20 was the swing among Hispanic voters. So Biden did somewhere in the range of nine points, worse with Hispanic voters than Clinton did. What is the campaign's understanding of why that happened and at what point did they realize that this could be a problem?
I don't think they ever really realized, as I mentioned earlier, they thought that Trump wouldn't really go into that territory. It kind of took them by surprise a little bit. And I think that's one thing that Democrats will need to look at this going forward. I think this election was a bit of an anomaly. I mean, for starters, they had to write the playbook of how to win during a pandemic, but they were also opposed to someone who was so controversial and so contentious.
And that was definitely an area that caught them by surprise.
And Trump really did well with economic messaging, with obviously their various Latino populations. Right. I mean, there are some Latinos who have been in the states that they live in since before they were states. And there are some people who have come more recently and naturalized citizens. And so you're talking about a real spectrum of people. But Trump seems to do pretty well, particularly in south Florida, in south Texas and in some other places with economic messaging.
And so much of the Democratic messaging to Latino voters is about immigration issues. And people who are not citizens don't vote. So there's an asymmetry in the messaging. Right. Like there's a compassionate message coming from the Democrats that I think a lot of Latino voters care about. But every voter, whether they're a citizen or not, no matter how long they've been here, they care about the economy. And I think Trump's messaging on the economy and particularly his message that Democrats would create a socialist country again, whatever that nightmare scenario is, was effective with a lot of Hispanic voters, particularly those that came from Latin American countries, where you have extreme swings sometimes in the politics and populist extreme swings from right to left, and they become very destabilizing.
And so I think Trump's message really resonated well. Also, Biden spent all that time with that original coalition. We talked about moderate whites and African-Americans. And at some level in the primary, Bernie Sanders was so targeted toward younger voters, but particularly Hispanic voters, to add to his coalition. From the last time, the Biden wasn't talking about issues of importance to particularly young Latino voters during the primary. And when you aren't talked to by a candidate, you often are alienated from that candidate.
And I think it was something was very difficult for Biden to make up for in the general.
So we've covered a lot of ground here. But perhaps the most memorable part of the twenty twenty election will be what happened after the polls closed, which is that it took four days before the networks called it. Trump refused to concede and then launched a campaign on many fronts to overturn the results of the election. This climaxed, of course, in an attack on the US capital by Trump supporters in an attempt to stop counting the Electoral College votes.
So a lot happened, and that is when we think of the twenty twenty election, when our minds go back to how prepared was Biden's campaign for all of that? That happened between early November and early January?
The short answer is very prepared. You know, we made an editorial decision in this book that we weren't going to buy into the bullshit of this election, had fraud or, you know, after November 7th when it was called by the networks, we knew that Trump was going to do everything that he could to upset the transfer of power and to take sovereignty away from the American public. And we just decided we're not going to elevate that bullshit by writing about it because we thought it was disgusting, frankly.
All that said to your original question, Biden's team was very, very prepared for this. They went out to the networks before the election and said, don't call it early. It's going to look like Trump's ahead, know the Red Mirage, as it's called. And then eventually Democrats, more Democratic votes will get counted, particularly in Pennsylvania. And so they were able to hold off the networks for a while. As it turned out, that may have been a bad thing for them in the public perception because they might have been declared earlier if the networks were primed to hold off for a while.
But also they had an extensive network of lawyers and unions and Democratic activists that were there to challenge whatever Trump was doing, wherever he was doing it across the country. And I think one of the less told stories of the post-election process is just how organized that effort was on the part of not just the Biden campaign, but the Democratic Party and its allies overall.
I don't think any of them thought that it would be as close as it was. And that was a big take away from this whole thing. I mean, we have people inside the campaign very high up saying I knew it was going to be close. I didn't know it would be this close. And it shows you what they were thinking in that moment. They all were portraying confidence going. Forward and you know that they had it, but I think that going into that night and even into that night, going into the next day, they were kind of unsure.
So just wrapping up here, we're now in the Biden presidency. This is all behind us. What lessons about electoral politics did the Biden team learn from 20, 20? And how do you expect that to shape their governance?
That's a really good question. I think that it's going to be interesting to see how this sort of plays out. I think this election was a bit of an anomaly. As I mentioned before. I don't think that it can it can serve as a guide, but I think it was a bit of a one off. But I do think that there are lessons to be learned. I think the party is going to have to it's almost stitched together in a way, and there will be lessons about how far left or how far off center it goes.
And that's going to be the history of this election, like how this catapults into what the Democratic Party will be. I think that they got together for the good of the party, obviously, and took over and beat Donald Trump. But I still think that a lot of the work is yet to be done. And I think that's the bigger story coming out of this election.
And on a micro level, you know, when we talk to campaign operatives for all of the information that they have at their fingertips, all the data that they have coming in, they still feel like they're not. We have some thought of gentlemanly during the campaign manager who, you know, obviously talks to a lot of people that they really don't have it down to an exact science, their ability to predict the outcome. We know that the data analytics team for the Biden campaign predicted going into Election Day that he was going to win not only the states that he won, but also North Carolina, which he lost by a point and a half.
And knowing the correlation between states for them to be a couple of points off on North Carolina just shows you how close they were in some of the other states that correlate with it. And so I think there's a real desire on the part of the Democratic Party, particularly those who do campaigns a lot to figure out how to readjust for their inability to kind of nail these things precisely. They do feel like there was some deja vu from 2016 where they believed they were in better position going into Election Day than they were in the final outcome.
And they tried to do it in this campaign. You know, in the summer, they basically tried to readjust their models so that they were adjusting it so that their performance and their models was worse among less educated whites and better among educated whites than public polling was. And they still didn't nail it.
Yeah, well, we will see if that is an anomaly that's related to Trump or not perhaps in the next election. It depends on whether or not Trump runs, but the story continues, as it always does with these election cycles. But let's leave it there. Thank you, Amy and Jonathan. Thank you. Thank you. In their new book is called Lucky How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency. My name is Galen. Tony Chow is in the virtual control room.
Claire Videgaray Curtis is on audio editing. You can get in touch by e-mailing us at Podcast's at five thirty eight dotcom. You can also, of course, tweet us with any questions or comments. If you're a fan of the show, leave us a reading or review in the Apple podcast store or tell someone about us. Thanks for listening and we will see you soon. There was much talk of a big question. He want to get out, there is no way out from best case studios and ABC audio, listen to In Plain Sight Lady Bird Johnson, a new podcast about the power of a political partnership, one that somehow doesn't show up in the many, many accounts of Lyndon Johnson's presidency, told through ladybirds own audio diaries and available now wherever you listen to podcasts.