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How Biden got across the finish line

There were many moments in Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden eyes bigger US role in global vaccination efforts Trump says GOP will take White House in 2024 in prepared speech Kemp: Pulling All-Star game out of Atlanta will hurt business owners of color MORE’s campaign when his aides thought they would never reach the finish line. 

After the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, where Biden finished a dismal fifth with just 8.4 percent of the vote.

During difficult debate nights with rival Democrats who mocked the former vice president and challenged him. And in between when they couldn’t get donors to return their calls.

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After Biden emerged from the drawn-out primary battle, there were more challenges during a general election contested during a historic pandemic that led to one of the most unusual presidential campaigns and election weeks in American history.

Throughout, Biden and his campaign were repeatedly second-guessed and doubted by a party torn between progressives and centrists and haunted by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClose the avenues of foreign meddling Pelosi planned on retiring until Trump won election: report Pence autobiography coming from Simon & Schuster MORE’s loss four years ago.

“Too many moments to count,” one longtime Biden ally said on Friday after Biden took the lead from President TrumpDonald TrumpHarry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' Man arrested for allegedly threatening to stab undercover Asian officer in NYC Trump says GOP will take White House in 2024 in prepared speech MORE in the remaining battleground states. “There were days when I never thought he would get here. We all felt that way at some point.” 

In more than a dozen interviews with aides, allies and Democrats close to the Biden campaign, a portrait emerges of how Biden managed to win a presidential race he’s failed twice before. They paint a picture of a 77-year-old candidate known for going off-script who won by consistently sticking to his message and successfully articulating his rationale for running. 

“His message on day one was his message on the last day,” said one longtime aide. “His strategy on day one was his strategy on the last.” 

“He never deviated from the core message of why he was running, not once,” the aide said. “Even in the primary when the party left him and when he was being nudged to the left, he stayed true to himself the entire campaign.” 

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In the dark days following the brutal losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, Biden got a boost from House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who endorsed him ahead of his state’s primary. It was a stunning turning point in the primary and in Biden’s trajectory to the White House.

“The Clyburn endorsement, we wouldn’t be here without it,” the longtime ally said. “It gave us life.”  

Biden won the South Carolina primary by nearly 30 points over Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHillicon Valley: Amazon wins union election — says 'our employees made the choice' On The Money: Biden .5T budget proposes major hike in social programs | GOP bashes border, policing provisions Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists MORE (I-Vt.), who at that point had been positioned as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. 

Just a few days later, ex-rivals such as Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharLobbying world New small business coalition to urge action on antitrust policy Bottom line MORE (D-Minn.), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegSunday shows preview: Democrats eye two-part infrastructure push; Michigan coronavirus cases surge Buttigieg hopes cruises will return by mid-summer Biden to host bipartisan talks on infrastructure next week MORE endorsed Biden, throwing their support to the centrist candidate they saw as being best positioned to beat Trump in the general election. 

What followed was a surge of victories by Biden over Sanders on Super Tuesday — a night so surprising it shocked even the staunchest supporters to the former vice president — and later in the crucial Michigan primary, which Sanders had won four years earlier. 

Sanders was soon out of the race and endorsed Biden, with Democrats swiftly uniting behind a candidate whose former rivals hailed as a decent and caring man who would shift the country from Trump. The relationship between Sanders and Biden was key. Even as they battled for the Democratic nomination, it was clear they respected each other, and the bitter feelings after the 2016 Democratic primary simply weren’t a huge theme in 2020.

The unity lifted Biden in the polls, where he held a consistent lead over the president in the months leading up to the conventions as the coronavirus gripped the country and questions were raised about the president’s handling of the crisis. 

Biden sought to draw a stark contrast with Trump on these issues, urging social distancing and wearing a mask in public. Trump mocked masks and eventually contracted the COVID-19 disease.

The former vice president and Democrats in general also urged their voters to come up with a plan for voting and to vote by mail, while Trump tarred mail-in ballots with false accusations they led to more fraud. 

These differences had real results on the election and a lengthy vote count that is a direct result of people voting by mail in greater numbers because of the coronavirus. In the key state of Pennsylvania, state law requires mail-in ballots to be counted after those made in person. As a result, Trump ran out to a huge lead and watched Biden slowly but surely overtake him.

Biden this week urged voters to stay calm and underscored the need to count the vote on the basis of democracy. Trump, on the other hand, demanded the vote counting stop while repeatedly saying there had been fraud and cheating without providing evidence. 

The coronavirus also continued to take a toll, with the nation recording a record number of cases and Trump’s chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsStephen Miller launching group to challenge Democrats' policies through lawsuits A year with the coronavirus: How we got here Trump attacks Karl Rove: 'A pompous fool with bad advice' MORE contracting COVID-19 late this week. 

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Throughout the general election — and even as early as the Democratic primary — Trump tried to sink Biden’s chances by coming at him with a whatever-sticks strategy, labeling Biden “Sleepy Joe” and “Hidin’ Biden” while accusing him of not having a “full deck.” 

The president mocked Biden for allegations of inappropriate touching, even as more than a dozen women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct. Trump and his allies also spent months trying to call attention to Biden’s work in Ukraine while making attacks on his son Hunter Biden. 

The attacks never took off because there was no evidence that the former vice president had done anything wrong, and they didn’t throw Biden off his game plan.

“He didn’t get distracted by Trump’s antics, and he stayed optimistic and unifying, which isn’t easy to do in the face of Trump,” said David Litt, who served as a speechwriter to former President Obama and is the author of "Democracy in One Book." 

Supporters of both candidates came out in force to back their candidates during the election cycle — Republicans are quick to point out that nearly 70 million voters backed Trump. And while Biden will win by a convincing margin in the popular vote, he seems likely to end up with the same number — 306 — of electoral votes that Trump won in 2016 should his current lead stand. The margin in many of those states will be close, underscoring the division around the country.

But Democrats also highlight what Biden was able to do: He won because he was able to rebuild the “blue wall” of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin his party lost four years ago while turning Southern states blue in Georgia and Arizona and creating multiple paths to 270.

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His message helped in all of those areas.

“Biden won by threading together enough of the Obama coalition of African Americans, suburban voters and enough working-class voters,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne.

But those who know him best say he won because he was the best man for this moment, a time when the nation finds itself dealing with its greatest crisis in years: a pandemic that has wreaked havoc, killing more than 237,000 people in the U.S. while paralyzing the economy. 

“When it came to the pandemic, it elevated the distinction between himself and Trump,” the Biden ally said. “I think people could tell he has a big heart, and he's the candidate and the president for these times.”

Even at the low points in the campaign, the longtime Biden aide recalls the former vice president giving his campaign pep talks. 

“There were times when people wanted to jump ship, and he was always the one who calmed people down,” the aide recalled. “He always said, ‘We're going to keep going what we're doing, and it's going to be fine.’”