Joe Biden was standing on a stage above a blacktop basketball court just off Obama Boulevard as he watched his path to the Democratic nomination, dismissed just days ago, open up.
The former vice president was racking up Super Tuesday victories over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in states where he’d never even campaigned. Black voters carried him in the South. Suburbanites had fallen in line behind him. Turnout was soaring past 2008 primary levels in some states — and Biden was winning.
“People are talking about a revolution,” Biden shouted in a thinly veiled jab at Sanders during a celebratory speech in the historically black Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw neighborhood. “We started a movement. We’ve increased turnout. They turned out for us!”
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Biden’s comeback was inconceivable just a week ago. In interviews, Biden’s aides and allies all point to his win in Saturday’s primary in South Carolina as the tipping point that resuscitated Biden and remade the Democratic race.
But, they say, it couldn’t have proven so pivotal for Biden without a confluence of events — each one unrelated and some entirely out of his control — that had started 10 days earlier in Las Vegas. A rival’s implosion in a debate in Las Vegas, an endorsement and some tough talk from an old friend in Charleston, a viral town hall moment and a message that had sharpened at exactly the right time solidified Biden’s big win in South Carolina. And a raft of departures and endorsements afterward turned that win into rocket fuel.
Bloomberg and Nevada
In mid-February, Michael Bloomberg posed an existential threat to Biden’s campaign. He had risen in national polls, eaten into the former vice president’s lead with black voters and frozen donors who were reluctant to rescue a faltering campaign. He was skipping the first four states to vote, so the Democratic electorate hadn’t yet weighed in on Bloomberg’s candidacy. But on the last day possible, a poll was released that pushed Bloomberg past the Democratic National Committee’s qualification thresholds for a debate in Nevada.
Minutes into Bloomberg’s first appearance on the debate stage, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren launched the attack that was the beginning of the end of the former New York mayor’s hopes of winning the Democratic nomination.
“People who thought that Mayor Bloomberg potentially was the candidate the party could coalesce behind and were attracted by the idea of a candidate who had unlimited personal financial resources, unfortunately had to come face to face with the fact that like all the other candidates, he has his strengths and he has his weaknesses,” said Anita Dunn, the top official on Biden’s campaign.
Days later, Biden would finish a distant second to Sanders in the Nevada caucuses. The results brought two things into focus: Sanders was on a roll, and Biden was as well-positioned as anyone else to stop him.
“Kind of a realization that, ‘Holy crap, Bernie Sanders might be our nominee’ — I think that really just brought everything into focus for a lot of Democrats,” said California Rep. Ami Bera, a Biden supporter. Bera is one of the leaders of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s program for lawmakers facing tough re-election races in 2020, and said he began hearing “buyers’ remorse” from some of those lawmakers who had endorsed Bloomberg.
South Carolina blowout
The race shifted to South Carolina, where African-American voters would make up more than half the Democratic electorate. Older black voters are Biden’s base — his “firewall,” he said weeks earlier. And anything short of a win would be a campaign-ending disaster.
At the beginning of the weeklong sprint to the South Carolina primary, Biden met privately with Rep. Jim Clyburn, the No. 3-ranking Democrat in the House and a long-time friend — a conversation first reported by The Washington Post.
Biden had already begun to narrow his message, scrapping some of the soliloquies on electability and the past and making a stronger moral case against President Donald Trump. He’d shown flashes of a sharper approach in New Hampshire, then delivered a well-received speech on gun violence in Las Vegas. Clyburn gave Biden blunt advice to show more fight and focus.
Clyburn got through to Biden, and the former vice president told aides he was going to take the congressman’s advice.
“It was, ‘Jim Clyburn told me I need to be talking about these things, he gave me these suggestions, and I think he’s right,'” Dunn said. “He shared it with us, and he basically said, ‘He’s right.'”
On Tuesday night in Charleston, Biden turned in what some analysts called his best debate performance yet.
The next morning — in a pivotal moment that proved decisive for huge numbers of voters in South Carolina — Clyburn threw his weight behind his old friend, endorsing Biden in the strongest possible terms, telling reporters that his wife who died last fall had greatly admired Biden.
“I know Joe. We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us,” Clyburn said.
Then, on Wednesday night, a CNN town hall brought one of the most moving moments of Biden’s campaign. Biden spoke at length with a pastor whose wife was killed in the 2015 shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church. Biden recalled returning to the church to attend a Sunday service, and that it helped him heal weeks after his son Beau had died of brain cancer.
“There’s that famous phrase from Kierkegaard, ‘Faith sees best in darkness,'” Biden said in the town hall. “It gives me some reason to have hope and purpose.”
It became a viral moment: a well-timed reminder to Democrats of why they’d loved Biden.
Meanwhile, in Texas, Beto O’Rourke saw a clip of the moment with Biden and the Rev. Anthony Thompson online. The former Texas congressman and one-time 2020 presidential candidate was on the road, campaigning for state legislative candidates, and hadn’t decided who to vote for in the upcoming Texas primary until he watched the video. He sent it to his wife and said he thought Biden was “the guy for us.”
“I just was struck by his ability to connect with that one person, and then with all of us, simultaneously,” O’Rourke said. “I feel that’s what this country needs. We need to heal after a very divided time.”
The stage was set.
“You had a very concentrated time when Democratic primary voters really saw the Joe Biden that they know, that they respected and loved as vice president and that ultimately they feel is the best person to take on Donald Trump,” Dunn said.
Biden hadn’t fixed all the problems that dragged him to a fourth-place finish in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire — but he’d caught all the breaks, and made some of his own, in the lead-up to the South Carolina primary.
It was a blowout. Biden won by 28 percentage points.
The margin of Biden’s victory had blocked out his moderate rivals from making any inroads with African-American voters who made up Biden’s base. It forced businessman Tom Steyer, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar to confront a bitter reality: There was no path for them to the Democratic nomination.
Steyer dropped out that night. Buttigieg departed the race on Sunday. And Klobuchar exited Monday morning. Bloomberg, who’d skipped the first four states and would be on the ballot on Super Tuesday, remained, but Biden had sidelined all of his other moderate rivals — just in time.
There was virtually no window for Biden to change his advertising or campaign tactics ahead of Super Tuesday. His campaign had planned a $2.2 million advertising push.
Beyond that, though, he was riding pure momentum — the win in South Carolina and the massive amount of media attention it had earned.
But in the hours and days that followed South Carolina’s results, that momentum continued to build.
The money began pouring into Biden’s nearly empty campaign coffers — about $5 million per day on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, Biden said.
So did the endorsements. Biden had barely contested Virginia, with just one field office and $233,000 in advertising there. But weekend endorsements from Sen. Tim Kaine, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and several members of Congress led to a show-of-force rally Sunday night in Roanoke — a united front from the Democratic establishment in a state that was suddenly wide open.
“I think a huge amount of this has been organic,” Dunn said. “Elected officials and people who have been watching the race and have been looking for moments of clarity on what the final shape of the race is going to look like got that in South Carolina.”
The next day, Biden’s former rivals made their moves. Buttigieg flew to Dallas for an event with Biden early Monday evening. Klobuchar was there to kick off a rally later Monday night. And O’Rourke was the closer, whipping up the Dallas crowd at the most raucous rally of Biden’s campaign to date.
Biden’s campaign felt the swelling momentum. Aides who had previously hesitated to name states the former vice president would win on Super Tuesday were acknowledging that they saw the map of competitive states expanding.
They tried to turn the Klobuchar endorsement into a late play for Minnesota, where Sanders was favored to win. Klobuchar cut a radio ad for Biden, and his campaign produced a television spot featuring her speech from the Dallas rally. Klobuchar’s campaign also deployed its volunteers and organizers in a last-minute ground push for Biden.
The tight window between Saturday’s South Carolina primary and Tuesday’s contests in 14 states left no time for polling — so it wasn’t clear how directly the endorsements and donations would translate into votes.
The results were better than Biden’s campaign ever could have hoped for.
There were signs he’d picked up nearly all of the supporters of the candidates who had dropped out. According to exit polls, half the voters who made their minds up in the last few days voted for Biden.
Biden had pulled off a close victory in Texas and swept the south. He’d won Virginia and romped in North Carolina, the southern state Sanders’ campaign saw as its best shot. He’d won Minnesota. And — in perhaps the biggest shocker of all — he won Massachusetts, stealing Warren’s home state.
He also won Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma. He’d won in five states where he hadn’t even campaigned.
Biden had reshaped the electorate, with suburbanites who’d made up their minds late joining African-Americans, older voters and loyal Democrats to form a Biden coalition.
Wednesday morning, Bloomberg — who has committed to spending from his vast personal fortune to defeat Trump — dropped out and endorsed the former vice president.
Biden has been here before. He was the national leader for most of 2019, but squandered his early advantages with a muddled message and a lagging organization. Political liabilities developed over more than four decades on the national stage and three runs for president won’t be erased overnight. Allies acknowledged he has work to do with young voters and Latinos.
But the former vice president is now in his best position in months.
“I think this is the day that the campaign got real and voters started looking in the race in the context of the problems American face,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a Biden campaign co-chair. “We are Team Amy, Team Beto, Team Pete, and Team You. And that’s what I think voters are recognizing.”