Joe Biden’s campaign was on the verge of imploding.
In early February, the Democratic frontrunner placed fourth in the Iowa caucuses. It was looking just as grim heading into New Hampshire the next week— a one-two punch that could bring a swift end to Biden’s bid.
In the hours before the primary, Biden’s top advisers huddled. Senior adviser Anita Dunn and Deputy Campaign Manager Kate Bedingfield presented the team with a plan: Biden should skip primary night in New Hampshire and instead fly to South Carolina to announce a “launch party.” The campaign would dismiss the first two contests as insignificant statements from predominantly white states and turn the optics back to the state they bet on all along: South Carolina, where African Americans made up the majority of the Democratic primary electorate.
The team of advisers was unanimous that he should go. But Biden resisted: It would be a snub of the highest order to his New Hampshire volunteers and surrogates, he said.
“They’ll understand,” former New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, one of Biden’s most enthusiastic supporters in the state, told him, according to a source with knowledge of the conversation. “Do what you need to do to win this race.”
Biden acceded, boarding a private jet from Manchester to Columbia that night. When the results trickled in from New Hampshire, the news was worse than his team imagined: The former vice president of the United States placed fifth in the first-in-the-nation primary.
The media initially scoffed at the South Carolina gambit. The move had a distinct whiff of desperation by a losing candidate.
Nonetheless, the scramble was unusual enough that cable news channels aired parts of Biden’s rally in Columbia, S.C., with scenes of him speaking before a standing-room-only crowd of mostly African Americans.
“We went to a place that would signal a great American comeback and his relationships there,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, a campaign co-chair who was in the room with Biden when he addressed the South Carolina crowd. “It was awesome. The energy, the speech — he did [interviews with] South Carolina media the whole time he was there. It was a brilliant move.”
The early state debacle and recovery was just one in a series of near-death experiences for the Biden campaign before he finally took command of the race this spring. He was the porcelain frontrunner, certain to shatter any day, as his rivals bet their campaigns on. A sampling of headlines from 2019: “Biden campaign on verge of imminent collapse.” “Can Joe Biden recover after that debate night thrashing?” “Why Joe Biden will never recover from his record player line.” “Is Biden doomed?”
Finally, when it appeared Biden solidified a delegate lead in the spring, a former staffer leveled sexual assault allegations against him. The speculation returned: “Can Democrats force Joe Biden off the ticket?”
Taken individually, any one of the events could have sunk a politician’s candidacy. There was the touching controversy that exploded before Biden entered the race, leading to widespread speculation he would end up not running. There was a Ukraine controversy fueled by President Donald Trump, which trained the spotlight on Biden’s son Hunter and his overseas business dealings. There were attempts by Republicans to knock Biden out of the primary with ad spending against him in early states. There was the infamous debate clash with Kamala Harris. There were fundraising woes, lagging enthusiasm and verbal gaffes — many of them.
In the end, Biden, backed by a campaign team that shape-shifted again and again to endure pummeling from opponents, proved his naysayers wrong. Tonight, he’ll accept the Democratic nomination for president more than 30 years after trying the first time. But before we get to that crowning moment of Biden’s political career, here’s a look at some of the lowlights of his campaign that nearly sunk him.
In September 2019, the Biden campaign was getting ready for Iowa’s Polk County Steak Fry, one of the largest gatherings of Democrats before the Iowa caucuses. That’s when news broke that a whistleblower accused Trump of holding a call with the president of Ukraine, asking him to investigate Biden and his son’s dealings in Ukraine.
As the news came out, Trump pointed to the Bidens. Trump claimed that as vice president Biden demanded Ukraine fire a state prosecutor who was investigating a gas company on which Biden’s son Hunter held a board position. The media pounced: What was the then-vice president’s role in Ukraine? What kind of contracts was Hunter Biden awarded in Ukraine and elsewhere?
On the right, criticisms of nepotism quickly snowballed against the Bidens. The campaign knew from 2016 how these kinds of allegations could hover over and damage a candidacy.
Advisers saw it as a defining moment not only for their own campaign but any Democratic candidate: If the media settled into a “both sides did it” reporting frame, even though Trump’s accusations were speculative, they were doomed. Biden’s aides furiously pushed back, singling out individual reporters for Ukraine stories they viewed as overly credulous.
“Any article, segment, analysis and commentary that does not demonstrably state at the outset that there is no factual basis for Trump’s claims, and in fact that they are wholly discredited, is misleading readers and viewers,” one letter from the campaign to news organizations stated.
The campaign sent scathing letters to TV and print outlets, including The New York Times. “Are you truly blind to what you got wrong in 2016, or are you deliberately continuing policies that distort reality for the sake of controversy and the clicks?” Bedingfield wrote to Dean Baquet, the Times’ top editor.
The Biden campaign redirected the controversy back to Trump, casting him as so fearful of facing the vice president that he’d commit an impeachable offense. When the impeachment hearings came, though, the campaign learned the media and public would again struggle to untangle a complex subject as the White House leveled a steady round of accusations.
Over beers one night in January, the campaign’s new digital director, Rob Flaherty, asked rapid response director Andrew Bates to break it down for him. From their talk emerged a 4-minute campaign video of Bates, drinking a beer at a bar, and explaining why Trump’s Ukraine allegations should not be believed.
When GOP groups cut ads with allegations involving Biden and Ukraine, then-campaign manager Greg Schultz sent another letter demanding that news networks and Facebook pull the spots, calling them false. Networks decided against running the ads, while Facebook allowed them.
“You saw what happened to Hillary in 2016 with all of the ridiculous coverage about her emails,” a Biden adviser told POLITICO at the time. “That’s not going to happen with us. We learned.”
Remember Mike Bloomberg? The former New York Mayor and billionaire businessman entered the race as Biden looked increasingly vulnerable — positioning himself as a savior for Democrats who couldn’t take the thought of Bernie Sanders as the nominee.
Bloomberg’s plan was to run the table on Super Tuesday by spending $1 billion and skipping the early states. He built a nationwide staff of thousands within weeks. By February, Bloomberg had dumped $500 million on television ads. His name ID soared, his poll numbers quickly moved up. Bloomberg even threatened to push for a brokered convention to keep Sanders from winning.
In this case, Biden was both good and lucky. His luck was that Elizabeth Warren was still in the race: The Massachusetts senator skewered Bloomberg so thoroughly at a pre-South Carolina debate that she just about single-handedly took him out of contention.
Donors who had held back on Biden, waiting to see how viable Bloomberg was, had seen enough.
Just as Bloomberg’s star was falling, South Carolina’s primary arrived in late February. Biden had come in a distant second place in Nevada, but it was something. He also delivered a string of solid debate and town hall performances in the run-up to South Carolina.
Biden’s team had plenty of reason to feel confident going into South Carolina, where the campaign had spent considerable resources from the outset. Their bet from the beginning was that if Biden could just get to that primary — it was far from clear he could survive multiple losses early on — the rest of the map would fall into place for him.
Biden had leveraged his longtime relationship with Rep. Jim Clyburn, the most powerful politician in South Carolina. For months the two had discussed an endorsement, agreeing it would pack the most punch just before the primary. Clyburn announced his support three days before the primary, garnering a wave of positive news coverage for Biden heading into the election.
“While everyone was telling Bidenworld that their path to primary victory was doomed to fail, the campaign deserves a lot of credit for sticking with their original vision,” said Steve Schale, who heads the pro-Biden Unite the Country PAC. “It’s why Joe Biden is the nominee.”
The touching controversy
Biden had a woman problem before he even entered the race.
With the #metoo movement drawing nationwide attention, a cascade of women came forward and accused him of unwanted touching — describing encounters that weren’t necessarily explicitly sexual, but decidedly uncomfortable.
Former Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores was first, recounting a time when Biden placed his hands on her shoulders and planted “a big slow kiss on the back of my head.” Others accused Biden of similar touching or of invading their space.
Eventually, eight women came forward, including a former staffer of his named Tara Reade.
The stories led to rampant speculation that Biden would back away from running. Instead, Biden cut a video in early April addressing the controversy.
“Social norms have begun to change. They’ve shifted. And the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset. And I get it. I get it. I hear what they’re saying. I understand it. And I’ll be much more mindful. That’s my responsibility,” he said.
Biden went ahead with his campaign. The controversy subsided until a year later, when Biden had all but buttoned up the nomination. Reade resurfaced, only this time, she launched far more severe allegations of sexual assault. Numerous media organizations were unable to validate her allegations, however.
In another campaign, where Covid-19 hadn’t shut down campaign events, Biden might have paid a bigger political price. Protesters would have shown up at his events, or he would have faced more questions from the media. Instead, the Reade allegations faded.
The debate disaster
Harris’ clash with Biden at the first Democratic debate is mostly remembered now for having backfired on the California senator.
At the time, though, it looked more like the beginning of the end for Biden.
Voters got their first glimpse of how bad the former vice president could be at mixing it up in a debate, particularly when the primary was still crowded and he was facing multiple opponents.
“Anyway, my time is up,” Biden said at one point in that first debate, leading to a flurry of hashtags poking fun at his age and how out of step he was with the times.
As time wore on, though, Biden somehow managed to benefit from his own shortcomings. He had set the bar so low for himself that even a middling debate performance was viewed as a success.
As more Democrats dropped out of the race, Biden found his footing. Advisers said he struggled most with answering questions in a 30-second format; with fewer rivals, that became mostly unnecessary.
He also caught a break when Bloomberg belatedly joined the debates. Other candidates ganged up on the billionaire, calling him a heartless plutocrat while Biden avoided the crossfire.
When Biden met Sanders for a one-on-one debate in March, the new frontrunner was self-assured and in command of his arguments.
Sanders, considered a superior debater, was expected to trounce Biden; the Vermont senator’s supporters thought he might even claw his way back into the race.
Instead, the former vice president battled him to a draw at worst, and the nomination was unofficially his.
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