Biden’s current struggles were foreshadowed in his 2020 win
On the eve of the 2020 South Carolina primary, Joe Biden was nearing the end of his third and presumably final presidential run. Earlier that month, he had finished fourth the Iowa caucus and fifth in the New Hampshire primary. In three days, 14 more states would vote, including California and Texas. If something dramatic didn’t happen in the Palmetto State, then Biden’s political career assuredly would end.
South Carolina was long viewed as his last stand. His firewall. To establish any kind of momentum heading into Super Tuesday, Biden needed to blow expectations out of the water — to win big.
And he did win big — by nearly 29 percent over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The national narrative that followed justifiably highlighted the Biden campaign’s impressive get-out-the-vote strategy, combined with a pivotal endorsement from iconic Congressman James Clyburn (D-S.C.). Black voters comprised more than 60 percent of the state’s Democratic electorate, and their support for Biden when it mattered most was a precursor, of sorts, to Black Democratic voters’ outsized influence on their party winning control of the U.S. Senate the following January.
Yet there were three other largely underappreciated narratives at play — each of which portended Biden’s almost inevitable diminished support during his presidency. If we want to understand why Biden is polling in the 30s and why most Democratic voters reportedly want a new face atop the ticket in 2024, we must understand what should have been understood more than two years ago.
The South Carolina primary took place on Feb. 29, one day after the first reported COVID death in the United States. Only two days before that, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, Incident Manager for the COVID-19 Response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), announced that the “disruption to everyday life may be severe.”
Democratic voters were increasingly awakening to the possibility of the biggest public health crisis of the last three decades, if not the last six. The CDC news, increasingly alarming local and national headlines, and reports of infections and initial casualties demanded more than a charismatic, progressive senator who could rally the party’s base. The coming COVID calamity demanded an experienced leader who’d spent more time in the White House than perhaps every current senator combined.
As I wrote in The Hill three years ago, an abundance of experience is a double-edged sword for presidential candidates: They are already known commodities, and usually, the only surprises are the ones that disappoint voters, rather than motivate them.
But COVID changed the calculus. Biden’s half century of public service was suddenly a unique asset rather than a tired deficiency.
And that brings us to the second long-buried narrative: While a half century of experience might play well amidst a national emergency, eventually the allure wains.
Yes, Biden’s advancing age matters to some Democratic voters, as does his haphazard handling of slam-dunk progressive issues like female bodily autonomy. But more than that, Biden is who he is at this stage of his career. Whereas former President Bill Clinton triangulated with Democrats and Republicans after the GOP’s 1994 landslide election, transforming himself from a Democratic pariah to a necessary guard rail against conservative overreach, Biden doesn’t have those tools in his toolbox. If he did, he would have used them in the first 18 months of a struggling presidency.
The third narrative is based on personal experience.
I quit my job in the summer of 2020 to help elect Democrats in North Carolina up and down the ballot. The state’s coordinated campaign put me in charge of a geographic “turf” that Donald Trump had won by five points over Hillary Clinton in 2016. It was one of roughly 200 turfs across the state.
I made over 10,000 cold calls to Democratic and independent voters and recruited more than 100 volunteers, culminating in more volunteer calls in my turf than in any other turf in the state. This was a motivated group, largely comprised of non-white and female North Carolina voters. Before they began, I’d ask each one why they were volunteering. If I hadn’t been there to hear their answers, I wouldn’t have believed them.
Every single volunteer said they were doing it to defeat Trump. Not one volunteer mentioned Biden’s name.
For those who oppose Trumpism, Biden deservedly should be viewed as a hero. He helped the nation stop the Constitutional bleeding long enough to try to heal itself.
But 2020 had more to do with Trump than with Biden. A lot more. In my turf — which swung 10 points in Biden’s direction — the driving force behind every phone call, every text message, and every placed sign was to defeat Trump.
Biden’s primary victory in South Carolina was a political turnaround for the ages. And in hindsight, it’s been commonly misinterpreted as a symbol of Biden’s national appeal. While this long-time public servant deserves everything he’s achieved, his presidency arguably is more a product of the Republican he defeated, rather than a product of his own sustainable support among the electorate.
That’s not a recipe for success in 2024.
B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.