Joe Biden and the art of resurrection

Joe Biden and the art of resurrection
© Greg Nash

The nearly miraculous political resurrection of the campaign of Joe BidenJoe BidenProsecutor investigating whether Tara Reade gave false testimony as expert witness Poll: Biden leads Trump by 11 points nationally George Floyd's sister says Minneapolis officers should be charged with murder MORE has launched him in the pole position on the path toward the Democratic nomination. The former vice president was considered dead in the water after poor performances in the early primary races. But he now has the endorsement of almost all of his former competitors and overwhelmed Bernie Sanders, his last remaining serious challenger, on Super Tuesday.

His return from the precipice during the primary process is starkly similar to two recent presidential campaigns, also by former notable senators in Congress. The good news for Biden and his team is that once the rebound started, victory occurred in short order. The challenge for him is avoiding the same fate as the other comeback champions in the general election.

The most recent comeback was in 2008. After starting out strong in his bid two years earlier, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe 10 Senate seats most likely to flip What does Joe Biden believe about NASA, space exploration and commercial space? The Memo: Activists press Biden on VP choice MORE had faltered, falling behind numerous contenders such as Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney in 2007. By summer, McCain was forced to cut staff and dump his campaign manager. He tied for fourth in Iowa, more than 20 points behind the winner Mike Huckabee. But McCain stormed back in New Hampshire and beat Romney. After a few back and forth weeks, McCain solidified his support, then defeated Romney on Super Tuesday, and clinched the Republican nomination.


A similar dynamic was at play in 2004. The Democratic nomination fight had a large group of candidates, with Howard Dean, another left winger from Vermont taking the political world by storm, and Wesley Clark, the famous late entry candidate grabbing a lot of attention and support. But the race took a surprising turn, as John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe continuous whipsawing of climate change policy Budowsky: United Democrats and Biden's New Deal Overnight Energy: 600K clean energy jobs lost during pandemic, report finds | Democrats target diseases spread by wildlife | Energy Dept. to buy 1M barrels of oil MORE, a strong performer early in the race who was flailing in the polls for months, gained momentum and came in first in both Iowa and New Hampshire. In a few weeks, Dean and Richard Gephardt, the major competitors early in the process, dropped out. The race quickly turned into a romp when Kerry won 46 states. After dominating Super Tuesday, he locked down the Democratic nomination.

Though he failed in Iowa and New Hampshire, Biden has been stunningly successful, powered by his victory in South Carolina, echoing these past triumphs. He too was counted out way too early, then managed to regain his stride and ride momentum to what seems like ultimate victory in the fight for the Democratic nomination this year. The problem for Biden and his campaign is simple. How does he avoid the last act of both McCain and Kerry ultimately failing to capture the White House in November?

This trick is a bit less clear. McCain and Kerry were criticized for running lackluster campaigns, but both faced significant challenges. McCain was running in an open seat race to succeed the two term president from his own party. Very often, voters tire of one party after eight years in charge. McCain was also facing a recession blamed on his party and an electorate weary of war. Whatever strategic blunders McCain may have made, those facts may have been enough to sink nearly any candidate. Kerry, who lost a clearly tight race, was facing an incumbent leading a war that had not yet gone sour with most of the country and heading a strong economy.

With the markets and business today facing significant problems due to the coronavirus, Biden may not have to face an incumbent running on a strong economy, though that could always change back in a hurry. But Biden has already set out a clear strategy, which draws upon successful campaigns from the past. One of the most overwhelming victories of all time, and the first candidate with more than 60 percent of the popular vote, was Warren Harding in 1920. He addressed falling excitement after World War Two, a disappointing peace plan, and fear over the communist takeover in Russia. By beating the drum of a return to normalcy and a less stressful time, the unexceptional Harding easily captured the presidency.

Biden is also using the roadmap laid out by George Herbert Walker Bush, the last vice president to ascend to the Oval Office. Bush was not a shoo in for the Republican nomination with eight other candidates running. Yet his run as another Ronald Reagan was enough to carry him convincingly over the threshold. For the nomination fight, this always makes sense. Any incumbent will be incredibly popular with his own party. Bush converted this to 53 percent of the vote, a total higher than any candidate since. The same strategy is taking place as Biden is clearly and wisely tying himself to Barack Obama, who remains overwhelmingly popular with Democrats.

Biden has pulled off an incredible achievement in going from discard to the cusp of the Democratic nomination. Biden can learn from two fellow former senators and see how they managed similar transformations and try to take the last step at the ballot box and surpass them in November.

Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow who focuses on politics and history with the Hugh Carey Institute for Government Reform with Wagner College.