After Joe Biden finished an astonishing fourth in Iowa and then in fifth place in New Hampshire, I wrote a postmortem for his campaign. It now looks like one of the most wrong things I have ever written. It was pointed out to me after I published that I described Biden’s campaign in the past tense, something I did not plan or realize beforehand. It simply seemed obvious nobody could come back from such a catastrophe — least of all Joe Biden.
After Biden’s South Carolina victory, the first primary he has ever won in his three presidential campaigns, things look quite different. The status of Biden’s campaign has not only been upgraded to “alive” — at this point he is the primary, and probably the sole, alternative to Bernie Sanders. At the risk of overreacting in the opposite direction, Biden appears to have taken control of the Democratic Party’s center-left voters so decisively none of his mainstream rivals will be able to sustain a rationale for their candidacy. Michael Bloomberg, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg — all of whom have made Biden-esque pitches to the electorate — will face enormous pressure to leave the race after Super Tuesday, and possibly even before.
The mistake many of us made with regard to Biden was viewing his campaign through the prism of age. Biden looks and acts much older than Bloomberg, Sanders (who has looked exactly 85 years old since the 1980s), and even Trump, who also appears to be experiencing rapid cognitive decline. Biden campaigned unevenly and delivered uncomfortably meandering performances at the debates that often worsened as each debate dragged on. It seemed intuitive that the pattern of decline would also apply to Biden’s campaign. His best day would be his first, and he would slowly exhaust the supply of pent-up goodwill that was his primary asset.
But whatever his limitations, Biden has not gotten worse. His last debate performance was his best. It was almost good.
The heart of Biden’s claim to the mainstream Democratic mantle is his impressive performance with African-Americans, who had little representation in the previous three contests. They are not attracted to Biden out of mere nostalgia, gratitude, or familiarity. Black voters in the state — especially older ones, who have the closest personal experience with overt white supremacy — have thought carefully about the primacy of ousting Trump over every other goal, as well as their role in that process.
This conclusion is not me reading my views onto them. Pay attention to what voters there have told reporters like Astead Herndon, Eugene Robinson, and others. Robinson described the mood of voters he met as “urgent pragmatism” to end a presidency that is reversing decades of racial progress. “Black voters know white voters better than white voters know themselves,” one voter told Herndon. “So yeah, we’ll back Biden, because we know who white America will vote for in the general election in a way they may not tell a pollster or the media.”
This outcome is in keeping with the dominant tradition of pragmatism in African-American voting. Black voters have rarely had the luxury of voting for national leaders who can offer them everything they want. Marginalized communities have to leverage their vote. “Black voters are especially inclined to choose established candidates and efficiently assess contenders based on their perceived ability to preserve hard-won civil rights and racial equality gains,” pointed out Theodore Johnson last year.
It may also be true that the role of black voters in the Democratic Party goes beyond their size as a voting block. The recent growth of white racial liberalism may give the black electorate outsize legitimacy in the eyes of white voters. Candidates like Warren, Klobuchar, and (especially) Buttigieg have faced questions from white voters about their inability to attract black support — almost certainly a novel phenomenon. The loud, clear voice of black voters is likely to persuade some white voters that Biden is the choice for Democrats who don’t want to gamble the election on persuading America to stop hating socialism.
Meanwhile, the candidate whose rationale has been almost totally destroyed is Bloomberg. The former New York mayor initially stayed out of the race because of Biden’s early strength. He jumped in late because Biden’s support was disintegrating. In a world in which Biden disappeared, Bloomberg might have a path. But Biden’s comeback eliminates the contingency upon which a Bloomberg nomination was all but explicitly premised.
If it was going to happen for Bloomberg, it would be happening now. Because he entered the race so late, he has gone through the scrutiny phase every rising candidate has to endure at the worst possible time. That, in combination with disastrous debate performances, has made his unfavorable ratings among Democratic voters disastrously high.
The sorts of people who would be expected to support Bloomberg have abandoned him. Tim Miller, a Republican driven out of the party by Trump who wrote a plea for Democrats to plow millions into attacks against Sanders before it is too late, is denouncing him as a spoiler. So are disaffected Republicans Jennifer Rubin and Joe Scarborough.
Biden was not my first, or second, or third choice. He is endlessly exasperating. But he has a quality many of the media elites have failed to see. His meandering delivery — marred with a stutter that seems to have returned in his old age after he mastered it as a young man — nonetheless manages to convey a sincerity and a decency.
I remain as convinced as ever a Sanders nomination is an enormous risk, at a time when the Democratic Party can least afford to take one. Democrats can defeat Trump by running on the programs they agree on — the only ones that stand even a remote chance of enactment anyway — and focusing the contest on favorable terrain. The party’s mainstream wing has been unable to get out of its own way, as an oversize field has split the center left and allowed Sanders to coast on the strength of consolidating its smaller left wing. That problem now has only one plausible resolution: Joe Biden.