Biden’s Journey Back to Frontrunner Saw Him Hit Bottom First

Joe Biden is now on a clear path to the Democratic presidential nomination, and if Tuesday’s four primaries go as planned, that means he’ll lock it up by late April. Just three weeks ago, it looked like his campaign would end painfully, just like the two times he’d run before.

A news conference on the Monday before the South Carolina primary told the story. Biden was talking housing policy in a rundown community center in North Charleston, and not particularly well. He held up a printout of the plan. the dozen or so reporters didn’t ask a single question. The whole thing was over in nine minutes.

After that, he retreated for two days to prepare for a debate in the state where he always promised the race would turn the corner for him, after devastating losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. Biden allies spent the days offering the same advice: Be less cautious, be more direct on the debate stage.

It seemed to work. A pugnacious Biden emerged on the stage that Wednesday against six opponents. Rather than standing back while the others brawled, as he had before, he waded right in. The press corps widely deemed it his best outing.

The next morning, Jim Clyburn, the most influential man in state politics and the highest-ranking African-American in the U.S. Congress, publicly offered his endorsement in a nationally televised speech. That night, Biden had an emotional exchange over loss with a pastor whose wife was shot to death by a white supremacist as she prayed in their church in 2015. By Saturday, some 400 reporters planned to attend his primary-night speech.

He beat Bernie Sanders by nearly 30 points, the turnaround complete in the space of six days.

“South Carolina was a signal to voters that Joe Biden was still here,” said senior adviser Symone Sanders, who all but moved to the state in the weeks before the primary. Endorsements from rivals Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke made the message even clearer. “It was a signal that said, ‘OK, Joe Biden really is bringing people together,’” she said.

Tuesday’s votes in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio have 600 delegates to offer. The former vice president is likely to expand his lead over Sanders so much that Sanders would have to pull off just as stunning an upset in all the remaining contests. And the political map and the delegate math argue against that happening.

Biden remains an imperfect candidate. And with the coronavirus forcing states to push back their primaries, dragging out the nominating season, there’s more time for the earlier Biden to appear — wandering, uncertain and looking all of his 77 years. There was a flash of that last week at his town hall, the first virtual event since the coronavirus lockdown.

Last week, Biden brought in Jen O’Malley Dillon, an Obama veteran who had previously managed O’Rourke’s presidential campaign, as campaign manager, as the first step in remaking the top of his team. The campaign also needs to quickly scale up from a cash-strapped primary operation to a general-election behemoth that can at least hold its own against the operation President Donald Trump has kept alive since his 2016 win.

But hiring new staff and raising new money is made easier by the swift turnaround.

Sanders has characterized the rallying around Biden that occurred between South Carolina and Super Tuesday three days later as the Democratic establishment ganging up on him. But less than an organized “Stop Bernie” movement, it was an acknowledgment of the reality that there were fewer choices for anyone turned off by Sanders’s brand of democratic socialism.

Biden or Michael Bloomberg were the only viable options remaining in the centrist lane. Buttigieg and Klobuchar could have picked up a few votes on Super Tuesday to breathe life into their campaigns but it wouldn’t have been enough to sustain them.

A wave of endorsers, including Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and a flood of former Obama administration officials did the same calculus. Former President Barack Obama abided by his pledge not to endorse in the primary but let his preferences be known, too, as news of one of his usually private calls leaked: He’d called Biden to congratulate him after his South Carolina victory.

Super Sunday

Bloomberg’s campaign had always been predicated on Biden’s implosion, assuming that moderate voters would flock to the former New York City mayor beginning on Super Tuesday. In polls, Bloomberg was also cutting into Biden’s strength with the core demographic credited with keeping Biden’s campaign alive — black voters.

But in Selma, Alabama, the morning after South Carolina, the cards Biden held that were easy to overlook in Iowa and New Hampshire were on the table.

At a service inside the historic Brown Chapel AME Church, commemorating the 55th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday civil rights clash, Pastor Leodis Strong pointedly remarked that Bloomberg — who sat in the front row of pews while Biden took an honored seat by the pulpit — had initially refused an invitation to attend. Strong also alluded to New York’s stop-and-frisk policing policy, forcing the former mayor into another apology. During Bloomberg’s speech, some parishioners joined activists from New Jersey in standing with their backs to Bloomberg as he spoke.

“He has earned the right to be in this pulpit and to address you now,” U.S. Representative Terri Sewell told the church in introducing Biden, who drew a standing ovation. And as the Super Tuesday results showed, Biden had won goodwill across races and much of the Democratic electorate to draw record turnouts in North Carolina, Virginia and Texas.

In three states that voted last week — Michigan, Mississippi and Missouri — Biden won college-educated and white voters by double-digit margins. Although Sanders attacked Biden’s votes for Nafta and other trade agreements in hopes of winning over union members, Biden won them by 15 points in Michigan and by 30 points in Missouri.

“He’s a warm blanket. He’s Uncle Joe. He’s someone everybody knows even if they don’t agree with him on every issue or even if he wasn’t their first choice. He’s always been someone Democratic voters like and are comfortable with,” said Addisu Demissie, who managed Cory Booker’s presidential campaign. “It’s pretty easy to come back to someone you like and with whom you’re comfortable.”

Biden won 10 of 14 states on Super Tuesday. Sanders expected big win in California was supposed to give the Vermont senator a three-digit delegate advantage and a clear path to the nomination. But Biden’s support took a huge bite out of Sanders’s big lead, netting him fewer than a 50-delegate lead in the biggest prize of the night.

Last week, Sanders had set up Michigan as his next stand, recalling his narrow come-from-behind win in 2016. Biden ended up winning by 16.5 percentage points.

Biden now holds a nearly two-to-one lead over Sanders in national polling. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday, Biden had 61% to 32% among Democratic primary voters nationwide in a survey conducted March 11-13. In the the same poll conducted in mid-February, Sanders led at 27%, followed by Biden at 15%, with Bloomberg, Elizabeth Warren and Buttigieg all clustered closely behind him. Nearly all of the support for the candidates who’ve dropped out has gone to Biden.

Now he has to campaign as the country turns its focus on the virus consuming the attention of voters and the media. The candidates themselves have hunkered down, ending rallies and ropelines and trying out virtual campaigning.

Biden isn’t off to a great start in that department. A virtual town hall with Illinois voters ran into technical problems with Biden’s video feed. They eventually gave him a smartphone to talk into, but as he paced in front of a camera, he seemed to briefly forget that he was being filmed, looking down at the phone in his hand as he spoke and, at one point, walking out of the frame.

Even Democrats who have reluctantly accepted him says it’s time to stop sweating the small stuff.

“He was like my seventh choice,” said Tom Watson, a New York Democratic strategist whose favored candidates were Warren and Kamala Harris before he decided to support Biden. “Get over it. Fight Trump.”

(Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, also sought the Democratic presidential nomination. He endorsed Joe Biden on March 4.)

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