2020 election

How Joe Biden Became President-Elect

A long and winding path to the White House ended with a tense election week.

Plenty of reasons to smile right now. Illustration: Tim O’Brien
Plenty of reasons to smile right now. Illustration: Tim O’Brien

Florida was looking Trumpier than ever, and there was little Joe Biden’s middle- and lower-level campaign staffers could do but sit and wait early on Tuesday night. Most of them had been isolated at home for months, and the waiting wasn’t getting easier. The former vice-president’s campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, had warned them this might happen — the campaign would love to get a kill shot early in the evening with the Sunbelt states, she’d said, but they weren’t necessary to get Biden to 270 electoral votes. Still, when a brief window of optimism about Ohio’s suburbs started closing — despite a last-second trip to Cleveland from Biden himself, at the personal urging of Senator Sherrod Brown — the early results were feeling like “real gut punches,” in the words of one top Biden ally who was in touch with the inner circle throughout the night.

Gathered inside their war room in Wilmington, most of Biden’s top advisers had spent a few days steeling themselves for this moment — a few hours into Election Night — when the map of Florida was shifting from pink to a progressively more aggressive shade of red. For months, they’d thought it might be close. It’s Florida! It’s always close! But the warning signs, especially in the state’s southern tip, had been unmissable recently, even while their internal data showed Biden earning 51 percent of Florida’s early vote. It’s why they’d dispatched their theoretical campaign closer Barack Obama to Miami the previous day. He’d won the state twice! And it’s part of the reason why, when O’Malley Dillon and senior adviser-slash-lawyer Bob Bauer briefed reporters on Tuesday morning, they went out of their way to remind the journalists that while it would be nice to have Florida in the ex-VP’s column, he didn’t really need it. If it came down to it, he could always rely on flipping the upper midwestern states Donald Trump had shockingly won in 2016, and they had reason for optimism there: Wisconsin and Michigan were looking solid, they’d heard reports of high turnout in Philadelphia, and they thought they’d won Pennsylvania’s early vote by a massive two-to-one margin — though they knew they wouldn’t get a final result there for a while. (And anyway, O’Malley Dillon said that morning, Biden didn’t need Pennsylvania either! Not with so many states in play.) They had even started the evening with cake, a continuation of a long-running campaign inside-joke turned superstition that had begun nine months earlier. Then, Biden had done better than expected in Nevada’s Democratic caucuses on Bauer’s birthday. Biden aides had ordered sheet cakes for the next few primary nights, which Biden won, and now staffers at watch parties up and down the coast were showing off their “Happy birthday Bob”–decorated sheet cakes.

But it was at this point — with Florida likely gone, and Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas looking tough — that Biden’s socially distanced brain trust dug in for a long count. “This was the hard part,” one senior Democrat remembered a few hours later. “We had been telling everyone the message was, ‘This would not get a decision for a few days.’ But we had never experienced it.”

No one had. At least not on this scale — not even Biden, who’s been in public life for nearly half a century, or the presidential campaign and White House veterans who were at this moment sitting at separate desks, divided by tall sheets of plexiglass, wearing N-95 masks.

Biden, still at home with his wife Jill, had been planning to get in his Secret Service–protected motorcade, ride over to a gathering of supporters, and address the nation around 11 p.m. But this tight group — led by O’Malley Dillon but also including Bauer and other senior Biden aides like Anita Dunn, Mike Donilon, Steve Ricchetti, Bruce Reed, and Ron Klain — decided to hold off on a speech. No real battlegrounds had yet fallen in their direction, and since it was clear the final results might now take a while, they figured Biden would need to settle the waters, considering Trump’s likely antics, maybe even a baseless declaration of victory. “It’s a matter of, when does the VP address the nation, and calm the nation, and do the opposite of what Trump was going to do?,” explained one senior Democrat. They decided to wait for some clarity. Their hourly video calls with the legal boiler room in D.C. and the analytics bunker in Philadelphia had been flying by.

Texas — always a long shot — was looking grimmer for Biden, and the combination of pending losses there and Florida had already gotten talking heads chattering about a possibly dramatic Democratic underperformance with much-needed Latino voters. But Biden’s data and Florida teams were convinced this was a mirage, and that Trump had simply overperformed both along the border in South Texas and in Miami-Dade County with Cuban Americans convinced Biden was a secret socialist. They didn’t represent a voting bloc at all in places like Arizona or Nevada. Meanwhile, promising votes were still coming in across the country — particularly in those blue wall states — giving the inner circle reason for optimism.

And then there was Arizona, a traditionally red state that they had been hoping to capture in order to keep as many paths to 270 electoral votes open as possible, while shutting down Trump’s hopes of keeping his 2016 coalition together. For a few days, allies on the ground in the state had been sending Biden’s advisers news that sounded pretty good, especially when it came to Latino voters and pissed-off suburbanites who’d liked John McCain. The news got even better as the first results trickled in. “I felt confident, and they felt confident, that Arizona was going to deliver,” Phoenix-area congressman Ruben Gallego told me. “When the first big [data] drop went down, there was huge relief.”

The exhale came at 11:20, when Fox News called Arizona for Biden, a sign not only that he was holding his own with Latinos, but that Trump was in for more serious trouble than the TV networks were saying out loud — especially with the Midwest slipping out of his grasp. “It was not the complete and utter repudiation that we were looking for, but it’s a win,” one top Biden campaign ally remembered thinking at the time. It didn’t matter that no one aside from Fox was calling Arizona quite yet, or that Biden was still technically far from the 270 mark. “We fucking won.”

It had been, effectively, a five-year campaign, bracketing Donald Trump’s entire presidency and built on a theory of the Democratic electorate that hardly anyone in Biden’s party shared.

All through 2015, the vice-president had publicly vacillated about running for president, and when October came, he feared time had finally run out if he wanted to pull together a full-stage political operation in time to compete: Hillary Clinton’s campaign juggernaut was chugging along, Bernie Sanders was already causing her real trouble, and Donald Trump was three months into dominating the GOP field. The vice-president decided he would make an announcement on October 21. The night before, he did what Biden does: He called his family and friends for advice, he talked it all through, he searched for the feeling.

Biden had been considering the rationale for a run for a while, not letting his annoyance with Barack Obama’s decision to tacitly back Clinton disrupt his view that — as he put it to a financier in Manhattan that fall — he was probably the right guy for the moment: He was less polarizing than Clinton and better positioned to speak to both the Black voters at the heart of the Obama coalition and to other, mainly white, voters in the industrial upper Midwest who’d been souring on Democrats. But it still wasn’t clear whether the time was right for him as he recovered from the death of his son, Beau.

Nearing midnight, Biden had James Smith, a South Carolina legislator who’d been urging him to run, on the line. Biden often said Smith reminded him of Beau, a fellow mid-40s veteran who had died of brain cancer less than five months earlier, and as they talked, Biden read Smith the latest draft of the “Yes, I’m running” speech he was considering giving the next day. Biden spoke about his “Middle-Class Joe” reputation and reached for a populist note by touching on inequality in areas like Scranton. If he ran, he would be making a bet on the unsettled mood of the electorate that implied less confidence than Clinton had about Democrats’ standing in the Rust Belt. And Smith teared up as Biden went on about unifying a nation riven by partisanship, and devotion to country, and the importance of being an American president rather than a Democratic or Republican one. “Dammit, Joe, you have to run,” Smith said when Biden finished. Biden stayed silent for a beat, and Smith thought to himself, Oh no, I just said “dammit” to the vice-president. Then Biden promised, quietly, “Well James, I’m going to sleep on it.”

Biden’s arc since 2015 — from an overlooked antique to a stubbornly well-liked centrist who remained at arm’s length from his party’s activist wing even as he embraced pieces of its leftward shift on his way to victory — is not quite the story of the Democratic Party’s Trump-era reawakening. For over a year until he won the Democratic primary in a shocking four-day turnaround this spring, he looked out-of-touch: 32 years since his first presidential campaign, he disagreed with the popular belief that American politics had been reordered under Trump, even amid the president’s practice of scrambling expectations, confounding norms, and endangering citizens and the rule of law. He even persisted in believing his reputation would carry him to victory, and that he didn’t need a strong ground game or to sprint left. And voters, it eventually turned out, agreed with Biden’s bet: The issue that mattered to them most, they kept saying, was beating Trump, and they believed he could do it better than anyone else. The crowning achievement of a 77-year old man, five decades into his career in national politics, who ran an explicitly restorationist campaign until a global pandemic broadened his ambitions, Biden’s victory is not clearly a story with many lessons for his party’s future — especially considering Trump’s impending exit from the scene, and Democrats’ surprisingly weak showing down the ballot, from state legislatures to Senate races. But it may be a confirmation that one answer to their Trump-era woes was staring them in the face all along.

Biden, after all, led Trump long before the present pandemic and racial reckoning. It’s why Bernie Sanders was singularly wary of Biden when he considered running in 2020, and why Trump went to desperate, impeachment-inducing lengths to try painting him as a corrupt Washington insider. “In some ways, with the benefit of hindsight we can see how what he was saying a year and a half ago, or even two years ago, tracks with what the country really needed,” said Pete Buttigieg. “His idea about coming together — the ‘soul of the nation’ — speaks to an awareness that there’s more at stake than any one policy issue.” Buttigieg, who may now join Biden’s Cabinet, ran for president against him largely on a platform of generational change. Still, he said, “Policy matters: giving people health care. Management matters. But more than anything, we need someone who is attuned to the spirit of the country.”

Just a few days after the 2016 election, Biden started whispering to other depressed senior Democrats that Clinton had been the wrong candidate for the moment, and that he would have won — that his candidacy wouldn’t have been as historic, but that he wouldn’t have had the same issues with Black voters, or white working-class men, or even some young people. Still, as the Trump era began, the ex-VP stayed away from the civil war his party was starting to wage over its direction. Out of office and the spotlight, he never offered an opinion as Democrat officials and talkers sparred over whether to shift left or further to the center, or how to reach voters who’d backed Obama then Trump, or how to reengage Black voters who’d been uninspired by Clinton, or how to harness the energy suburban women were bringing to the early Trump years. No one in his inner circle played any role in the internal Capitol Hill or Democratic National Committee debates, or weighed in when Democratic chairman Tom Perez instituted structural reforms to re-instill trust in the party while working behind the scenes with Sanders’s team. What other Democrats read as disengagement was in fact a decision by Biden to stay above the fray.

Though he wasn’t sure about 2020 when he first left the vice-presidency, Biden grew all but convinced he had to run in 2017, after the deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — a fact he’s essentially acknowledged publicly on multiple occasions since he started running. The next year he started giving copies of books about democratic institutions like historian Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die to friends and supporters. Last January, when he was regularly meeting with other Democrats who were considering campaigns, he spent hours discussing the lessons and aftermath of Charlottesville with former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, who then decided not to run and to back Biden. Before long, the former VP wasn’t just handing out books, but binders including copies of speeches he’d been giving and articles he’d written and admired since 2017 — all on the theme of restoring the national spirit. You might differ with me on policies, he figured, but who could disagree with that pitch?

Over time, he had developed a particular — and at the time, idiosyncratic — view of the Democratic electorate, and how he fit within it. When Youngstown-area congressman Tim Ryan visited him in Washington in January of 2019 to tell the ex-VP he, too, was considering a presidential bid, Biden seemed to have the next two years mapped out. “He felt like his brand of politics was the antidote to Trump: lunch-bucket Joe. He connected to the workers who didn’t all vote for Trump, a lot of them voted against Hillary. And he had a sense that he could win those voters back,” said Ryan. “He felt like he was the person who could beat Donald Trump.”

Yet he had also been watching as his party debated its best way forward, especially once he began traveling on behalf of Democratic candidates in 2018’s midterms. Widely viewed as enduringly popular, slightly nostalgic, and instantly recognizable, Biden was by far the most requested surrogate on the trail outside Obama, pitched by aides as the one Democrat who could win Obama–Trump voters without alienating liberals. The lessons he — and the rest of the Democratic Party — gathered from those victories came to inform the construction of his 2020 campaign. Winning Democrats didn’t uniformly swing hard to the left and fully embrace a Sanders-style platform, for example, but they widely adopted popular left-wing ideas like a $15 federal minimum wage and massive green investments. By the time he was Democrats’ nominee, Biden was doing the same — and expanding his sights even further once the coronavirus pandemic set in — while dodging flash-point issues like defunding the police. “Joe Biden is someone who has shown a willingness, when history compels it, to change,” Delaware senator Chris Coons told me this summer. And before launching his campaign, Biden maneuvered to catch up to the times on a few policy points, like denouncing the Hyde Amendment that prohibited federal funding for most abortions. He recognized the consistent success of diverse slates of candidates, too, and during his campaign pledged to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court, and made Kamala Harris the first Black woman and first person of South Asian descent on a presidential ticket.

No midterm lesson was more central to his ultimate pitch, however, than the party’s focus on health care. In tightly contested midterms races, Democrats found success when they talked about how “health care really is an economic issue, and it’s all about people’s personal economy,” said New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Trump recognized this — “health care was on the ballot in 2018. He talked about [migrant] caravans to deflect from the issue of health care,” said Perez — and Biden did, too. To the ex-VP, this was evidence the country had not fundamentally changed, spurring him to centralize health care in his general-election push. The first polling analysis done by Priorities USA, the main Democratic super-PAC, after 2016 had found that Trump’s lack of a plan for Obamacare was a major concern even for his newest voters and the ones Democrats would need to turn out in the future; last month the group reported Trump-curious voters were especially susceptible to messages pointing out “Trump’s continued efforts to gut health-care coverage.” Biden’s focus only intensified in the closing months of the campaign, as behind the scenes Obama quietly urged Biden to make the matter central to the referendum on Trump: He wants to take your health care away. No issue was mentioned more in Biden’s closing ads, according to an October study from the Wesleyan Media Project.

Of course, talking about well-liked policies like defending voters’ health care is no secret weapon. Then again, why do you need a secret weapon? As Democrats have often whispered, Why should we be surprised that the consistently liked vice-president, who worked for a wildly missed former president, led, and then beat, a historically disliked president — especially amid a pandemic that’s plunged millions into dire economic straits and killed nearly 250,000 others?

What’s next? Mixed results farther down the Democratic ticket have already tempered any Democratic optimism about Biden leading the party triumphantly into a dominant future, but there are lessons in his campaign (which, after all, did perform better than the rest of the party). Throughout the year, when the Democratic super-PAC American Bridge tested ads aimed at Obama–Trump voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the group found that by far their most effective spots were simple, low-quality, direct-to-camera and script-less testimonials from ex-Trump backers. These voters, the group found, had soured on Trump and were often buoyed when they saw they weren’t alone. Biden made the pursuit of such voters, who were often seniors, a fairly central piece of his pitch by the late summer, elevating Trump-opposing Republicans John Kasich, Jeff Flake, and Cindy McCain as validators. “A big part of my project, going back to the DNC race, was, ‘How do you welcome Republicans into the coalition without watering down our values?,’” said Buttigieg, who ran unsuccessfully for the party’s chairmanship in 2017 and often talked about “future former Republicans” when he was running for president. “That has become a big part of what our party is doing.” And now, said American Bridge president Bradley Beychok, Democrats thinking about their party’s future “have an opportunity with these voters — the Republican Party brand is going to be Trump for a long time, and they know it.”

Still, Trump appeared to win an even larger portion of Republican voters than he had four years earlier, perhaps meaning Biden’s claim on the conservatives who did vote for him is tenuous. Meanwhile, Biden had earned near-uniform support from his own party’s left, in part by empowering Sanders’s allies and embracing their policy recommendations. What’s not yet obvious is how this coalition — the broadest ideologically in recent memory, brought together by Trump’s general unacceptability — can stick together once the common enemy is gone, and once it becomes Biden’s job to govern, likely without even a thin margin in the Senate.

Some Democrats think this is less of a problem than it might seem: “When progressives win, we do really durable things that last for generations,” said Ohio senator Sherrod Brown. To Brown, that means it’s important that Biden moves swiftly to either implement a public option for health insurance or to lower the Medicare eligibility age to 55. Some of the more outspoken lefties in the House are eager for even more: Seattle congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Biden would have little choice but to swiftly push not just an expansive COVID-19 relief package but a host of democracy reforms. And, she told me last week, “If Joe Biden wins, and within two years, does not really help health care for people — for example, allows the public option to be privatized and another way for big companies to make money — we will lose in the midterms and in four years another Trump will be elected.” But none of these goals seem anywhere near as attainable now as they did even a few days ago, with Republicans now favored to keep the Senate.

On the other hand, a large part of Biden’s appeal has always been the implied promise that voters could forget about politics for a while, with the existential threat of Trump out of the way. Biden himself has never posed this as a trade-off, though Jayapal warned that “the challenge we have is that people are exhausted from four years of fighting Donald Trump, and there will be a temptation for people to say — as happened after President Obama was elected — ‘Okay, good, we did our job, we can go back to our lives.” This apparent contradiction has been knocking around in some of Biden’s circles for a few months now, as his chances of winning looked better and some allies tried mapping out a blueprint for his first two years in office. But the Democrats closest to Biden himself have never seemed all that worried about the prospect of his backers abandoning him, or wavering in interest once Trump was out of the picture. To them, his support has always seemed shockingly stable, and it did not go unnoticed in Wilmington when Fox News released its final national head-to-head poll at the end of October. The top-line result was unsurprising: Biden was comfortably ahead of Trump. But deep in the network’s write-up of the survey’s findings, the analyst pointed out that the same pollster had tested a Biden versus Trump matchup that October five years earlier. “The number of registered voters backing Biden is nearly identical to his support going all the way back to a hypothetical matchup in 2015,” she wrote.

On Election Night, of course, things didn’t seem quite so secure. By 11:30, when Biden dialed into his top aides’ video call to plan his late-night remarks, it felt a lot later than it was. The campaign had, in fact, been planning for a few weeks for Trump to go crazy right around now. They’d long been confident of winning the race, but O’Malley Dillon had been insisting for a while that it would be closer than public polling was suggesting, and that the campaign had to work until the final vote was counted. Still, as the weekly all-staff calls became daily in the final stretch to allow for regular strategy and metrics updates, aides couldn’t help but start to feel cautiously optimistic, especially after Sunday’s call, when they were invited to patch in a family member or loved one to hear the Bidens, Kamala Harris, and her husband Doug Emhoff thank the staffers.

Meanwhile, veteran operative Stephanie Cutter had quietly been leading a team that laid legal and political groundwork so Biden’s forces wouldn’t be taken by surprise if Trump falsely claimed victory. The group began prepping a legal fund to combat the expected court challenges Republicans would throw up in desperation, and working out the politics of how to publicly discuss what Trump was doing. Biden’s lawyers, led by general counsel Dana Remus, Bauer, and others like election-law guru Marc Elias, prepped for suits in each of the battlegrounds. Some Biden aides put together a preliminary website for his presidential transition, which they could activate whenever they felt like projecting to the world that they were moving forward no matter what Trump did. And O’Malley Dillon and Bauer — internally considered straight shooters who wouldn’t be dismissed as partisan talking heads — would take the lead on continuing to brief the media on the state of play as the counts continued.

The first step, though, was Biden’s speech, delivered to a lot full of fans’ honking cars, around 12:45 on Wednesday morning. “We believe we’re on track to win this election,” he said. But “we’re going to have to be patient.”

By the morning, it was the lawyers’ game.

With Wisconsin, Michigan, and Nevada also looking like they’d rejected the president, and Georgia appearing back within reach, the Trump team’s desperation had burst into public view. Senior Democrats began hearing that his aides were trying to lean on the TV networks to stop them from calling any more states for Biden, and were furious that Fox had called Arizona so early. Biden’s camp formally launched its legal fund, and O’Malley Dillon and Bauer felt comfortable going even further than they had before, arranging another media briefing to keep up the momentum — and to make clear that the die was cast. “Joe Biden is on track to win this election, and he will be the next President of the United States,” the campaign manager said a little after 1 a.m. “We’re winning the election, we’ve won the election, and we’re going to defend the election,” added the former Obama White House counsel. If Trump does try to go to the Supreme Court, he continued, “he will be in for one of the most embarrassing defeats a president ever suffered before the highest court of the land.”

On Thursday afternoon, as Pennsylvania and Georgia narrowed, Biden and Harris made a show of attending long briefings on the coronavirus and the economy, while Trump was nowhere to be seen. That night, after Trump baselessly cried fraud from the White House’s briefing room, the Secret Service beefed up its protection of Biden, as it would for a president-elect, even though the race had not yet been formally called. Democrats close to the campaign openly spoke of celebrating as soon as Philadelphia’s outstanding votes pushed Biden ahead in the deciding state — the one where he had based his campaign headquarters, and where he had grown up.

When that happened, finally, early on Friday, Trump’s campaign quickly issued a statement insisting the race wasn’t over, hinting at more legal challenges. But Biden’s team had been expecting this for months, ever since Trump first started casting doubt on the vote’s legitimacy. “As we said on July 19th, the American people will decide this election,” said Andrew Bates, Biden’s rapid-response director. “And the United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House.”

How Joe Biden Became President-Elect