‘A real contrast’: How Joe Biden won Democrats and the White House with a message of healing

Joe Biden won the White House because of who he is and who he isn’t.

Biden campaigned with metronomic consistency for racial equity and common decency to save “the soul of the nation” since declaring his candidacy on April 25, 2019. He promoted plans to expand health care and investment in middle-class jobs. His message held through a campaign dominated by protests for racial justice and a pandemic that killed more than 230,000 Americans – and counting.

But Biden also contrasted himself with opponents. As Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont racked up Democratic primary wins and delegates, Biden distinguished himself from the self-proclaimed socialist to hold the more moderate center. During the general election, Biden contrasted himself with President Donald Trump, whose administration polarized the country over the response to COVID-19, the economic collapse and the protests.

The election became a referendum on Trump – an up or down vote on his four-year term – rather than a choice between him and Biden, according to political experts. About two-thirds of voters said their opinion of Trump, either for or against, drove their choice, according to AP VoteCast, an expansive survey of the electorate.

“2020 was a referendum on the incumbent president on overdrive,” said Melissa Miller, associate professor of political science at Bowling Green State University.

But one of the most pivotal figures who supported Biden’s resurgence, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., Said the challenger still had to offer voters something to believe in.

“I’ve said, ‘He’s not the perfect candidate.’ We’re not comparing him to the Almighty. We’re comparing him to the alternative,” Clyburn told USA TODAY. “You needed somebody who was basically center-left, you needed somebody who had a good solid reputation as a person who could bring people together. You needed a real contrast to the bombastic incumbent.”.

South Carolina rescues Biden

Victory wasn’t assured, despite Biden leading national polls most of last year. Biden called his fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses Feb. 3 “a gut punch.” He left New Hampshire on Feb. 11 before the primary votes were counted that placed him fifth with just 8.4% of the vote. In Nevada on Feb. 22, Biden placed a distant second to Sanders.

But as his money dwindled and support waned, Biden pleaded for patience as the race headed toward the more diverse electorate in South Carolina. “You shouldn’t be able to win the presidency without support from Black and brown voters,” Biden said before winning a decisive 30-point margin against Sanders on Feb. 29.

“All those of you who have been knocked down, counted out, left behind: this is your campaign,” Biden said after the win. “Just days ago, the press and the pundits declared this candidacy dead.”.

Perhaps the biggest reason Biden won was because he sought and won the endorsement three days earlier from Clyburn, the third-ranking member of the House and the most powerful Black lawmaker in Congress.

“Joe Biden bending the knee was a really important part of his winning,” Niambi Carter, associate professor in political science and director of graduate studies at Howard University, told USA TODAY.

Clyburn said Biden had a reservoir of goodwill in the state and had spent a lot of time there. Clyburn said he met with Biden the Sunday before, to plan robocalls and media ads.

“It can be summed up in the way that I summarized the endorsement. I know Joe, we know Joe, and most importantly Joe knows us. I think that’s it,” Clyburn said. “I just thought that if I did it right, we could create the kind of surge that would take him into Super Tuesday and beyond. It wasn’t haphazard. It was planned.”.

Black voters ‘signal’ pragmatic choice

Strong support from Black voters allowed Biden to consolidate his support among party leaders as the candidate with the broadest appeal. Three out of 5 Black voters supported Biden in South Carolina, compared with 1 out of 5 for Sanders.

The results culled the field. Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, dropped out the next day and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota the day after. That narrowed the choice on Super Tuesday between the more moderate Biden or the more progressive Sanders.

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“That was a very powerful signal to other Democrats,” David Hopkins, associate professor of political science at Boston College, told USA TODAY. “Democratic voters wanted a signal from a trusted source, and Black voters in South Carolina were a trusted source.”.

With the win, the Democratic Party united behind Biden. He pocketed endorsements from establishment Democrats such as former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada before sweeping Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee.

Voter turnout:Black, Latino, Asian and Native Americans flock to polls amid deadly, difficult year for brown and Black people.

Biden racked up more endorsements, including from former presidential rivals, Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey. The following week, Biden won every county in Michigan, Missouri and Mississippi and never looked back.

Carter, the Howard professor, said part of the reason Black voters helped guide the broader party was because of their priority for choosing a winner rather than necessarily the candidate with views closest to their own.

“Black voters are pragmatic. They think, ‘If we pick a Bernie Sanders, they are going to beat him over the head with this socialist label. They are going to treat socialism as a dirty word and he won’t be able to do anything,'” Carter said. “‘Let’s go with a guy who may not have the most innovative ideas, but we think white people will go for him, too.'”.

Progressives stick by, but urge change

The Democratic Party changed its superdelegate rules after 2016 after complaints the process favored establishment Democrats over those with more grassroots support. But Sanders’ early success this time around worried party officials that Republicans would pillory the nominee as a socialist and cost them another election.

“The Democratic Party establishment never wanted Sanders,” Caitlin Jewitt, assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech and author of “The Primary Rules: Parties, Voters and Presidential Nominations,” told USA TODAY. “At that point, it was double-barreled. It can’t be Sanders, but it has to be somebody who can beat Trump.”.

Sanders was more cooperative this time around. In 2016, even after Democrat Hillary Clinton wrapped up the nomination, Sanders continued contesting primaries, didn’t endorse her until July, and tensions lingered at the party convention. This year, Sanders endorsed Biden in April.

Biden and Sanders appointed task forces to hammer out policy compromises like a party platform, which included more progressive positions for Biden on health insurance, climate change and an overhaul of criminal justice.

“I think Joe Biden has done a good job in starting those conversations and getting us to where we are today,” said Waleed Shahid, spokesman for Justice Democrats, an organization that aims to elect progressive candidates, saying that no other nominee in recent history offered the movement that sort of olive branch.

But Shahid told USA TODAY that there would be no “honeymoon” for Biden in office. Progressives are eager to see how much Biden can win for economic stimulus and what funding he will provide to address systemic racism and climate change.

“Progressives are going to pay really close attention to how bold, how big his stimulus package is, and whether it will move our country toward solving the huge crisis we’re going through,” Shahid said.

Trump ridiculed the 110-page document from the Biden-Sanders task forces as a manifesto from the “radical left.” But Biden denied being a socialist and invited voters to look at his record of 36 years in the Senate and eight years as vice president.

“The fact of the matter is I beat Bernie Sanders,” Biden said at the first debate with Trump on Sept. 29. “I beat him by a whole hell of a lot.”.

Despite their truce, Sanders and Biden continued to disagree. For example, Sanders supports “Medicare for All,” while Biden prefers to strengthen the Affordable Care Act.

But Sanders rallied supporters by assuring them that Biden would improve the lives of tens of millions of people with proposals such as canceling student-loan debt and raising the minimum wage to $15, becoming what could be “the most progressive president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”.

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“Now, it’s no secret that Joe Biden and I have differences of opinion and, as a United States senator, make no mistake about it,” Sanders said in Warren, Michigan, on Oct. 5. “I will continue to fight for the principles that I have advocated for a very long time.”.

Protests contrast Trump, Biden

The death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25 sparked nationwide protests for racial justice. The incident rekindled attention on the shooting death of Breonna Taylor during a police raid March 13 in Louisville, Kentucky. And outrage roiled Kenosha, Wisconsin, after a police officer shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake on Aug. 23.

The personal responses of Trump and Biden offered another stark contrast.

Trump campaigned as the law-and-order president, supporting police as protests occasionally turned violent with arson, burglaries and shootings. Federal authorities cleared a path June 1 with tear gas for Trump to walk from the White House to a nearby church to hold a Bible aloft.

Biden walked a line between supporting peaceful protests while denouncing violence. He urged greater training for police to calm tense confrontations while dismissing proposals from more progressive supporters to defund police. And Biden, who had lost his wife, a daughter and a son to an accident and illness, met relatives of the victims.

Biden recounted a wrenching conversation with Floyd’s daughter, Gianna, in a video for his funeral.

“You’re so brave,” Biden said. “No child should have to ask questions that too many Black children have asked for generations: ‘Why? Why is Daddy gone?’ In looking through your eyes, we should also be asking ourselves why the answer is so often too cruel and painful.”.

Biden also met with Blake’s relatives and spoke to him by phone before visiting Kenosha, where protesters burned several businesses.

Blake “talked about how nothing was going to defeat him, how whether he walked again or not, he wasn’t going to give up,” Biden said.

Protests over police violence were a factor in the election for 91% of voters, according to a VoteCast survey of 110,485 voters by The Associated Press. More than three out of four voters said racism is a “very” or “somewhat” serious problem in U.S. Society, according to the survey. But the responses divided sharply along party lines, with 90% of the voters saying racism wasn’t a problem supporting Trump, according to the survey.

Two-thirds of voters said the criminal justice system needs a complete overhaul or major changes, according to the survey.

Stefanie Brown James, who led efforts to engage African American leaders and voters in 2012 for former President Barack Obama, said protests and calls for racial justice forced Biden to confront systemic racism and talk about his plans. The protests were embraced by more than just Black people with participation of whites, Latinos and Asians, she said.

“I think it pushed him, and it also pushed other voters, and other demographics, to also understand we need some real policy changes and some policy solutions because this is egregious the way Black people are treated in this country,” James said.

Harris, the groundbreaking running mate

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Cemented her reputation for tough oversight of the Trump administration during clashes with Attorney General William Barr and Brett Kavanaugh, when he was nominated to join the Supreme Court.

Harris brought the political experience of her own short-lived presidential campaign and having served statewide in the largest state as senator and attorney general.

But beyond her resume, Harris fulfilled a goal of women and people of color by becoming the first African American woman and the first South Asian person named on a national ticket. Black women demanded recognition for their demographic group, a reliably Democratic voter bloc.

“I think it was essential,” said Carter, the professor at Howard University, where Harris earned her bachelor’s degree. “That was an inspirational message that bridged a lot of parts of the Democratic coalition.”.

‘I’m speaking’:Kamala Harris curbs Mike Pence’s interruption in vice presidential debate.

People danced on a hot, blue-sky afternoon in the parking lot at Morehouse College in Atlanta while waiting for Harris to speak at the historically Black school. Jacinda Jackson, 34, the president of DeKalb Young Democrats, brought her mother, Brenda Thomas, to celebrate the historic nominee.

“Seeing a Black woman become the first vice president is something that is very, very special and so I brought my mom as well,” Jackson said. “She wanted to come as well because it is very important for Black women to see themselves in this kind of role.”.

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“This is a very special moment in history for me,” Thomas added.

Biden adopts safe coronavirus practices

The coronavirus pandemic changed the nature of the campaign completely. Both parties held conventions largely remotely. Door-to-door canvassing became tougher. Rallies halted temporarily.

But the response to the health crisis became one of the defining contrasts between the campaigns. Biden remained mostly secluded at his Delaware home and appeared at speeches or rallies where participants wore masks and kept separated. Trump resumed rallies with large crowds packed closely together without requiring masks.

About two-thirds of likely voters approved of Biden’s more cautious approach, according to a USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll released days before the election.

The coronavirus pandemic was the “most important issue facing the country” to 41% of voters, according to the AP VoteCast survey. The economy was the top issue for 28% and all other issues received single-digit responses, the survey found.

More:For Joe Biden, two face masks are better than one in the era of COVID-19.

The survey found about 1 in 5 voters thought the virus was completely or mostly under control. But half the respondents said it wasn’t under control at all, and 3 in 10 said it was somewhat under control, according to the survey. More than 3 out of 4 voters favored a requirement that people wear masks, according to the survey.

“The big difference between us – and the reason why it looks like we’re not traveling – we’re not putting on superspreaders,” Biden told reporters in Chester, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 26. “It’s important to be responsible.”.

Trump blasted Biden repeatedly for campaigning largely by remote video rather than visiting states like the president. Trump tweeted side-by-side images Oct. 28 showing him arriving by helicopter at a crowded rally while Biden walked into a sparsely populated gathering where attendants sat separated in white circles.

“He’s waved a white flag on life. He doesn’t leave his basement,” Trump told reporters Oct. 26 after he landed for a rally in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “He’s a pathetic candidate, I will tell you that.”.

The virus infiltrated both campaigns. Trump was hospitalized for several days after testing positive for the virus. And Harris canceled a weekend of campaign trips in mid-October after a staffer tested positive for the virus.

Miller, the Bowling Green professor, called the “campaign from his basement” an extraordinary achievement – one that no one will try to replicate in future campaigns.

“That is not the normal way,” Miller said. “No one is going to adopt that as their playbook going forward.”.

Money buys ads, expands map

Despite the hurdle of holding fundraisers by video call and being the challenger rather than incumbent, Biden raised far more money during the campaign than Trump. The advantage allowed Biden to run two or three times as many ads as Trump in key battlegrounds.

Biden’s campaign received $952 million through Oct. 14, compared with $601 million to Trump’s campaign, according to the Federal Election Committee. Fundraising doesn’t dictate the winner, as Trump demonstrated in 2016 when he was dramatically outspent.

But the financial advantage allowed Biden to spend $223 million airing television ads 356,366 times from April 9 through Oct. 15, according to a report from the Wesleyan Media Project. Trump spent $161 million on 261,633 airings during the same period, the study found.

The advantage played out in battleground television markets. During a two-week period in early October, ads supporting Biden more than doubled those supporting Trump in Tampa, Orlando and Miami, according to the Wesleyan study. And ads ran more than 3-to-1 in favor of Biden in Philadelphia, the study found.

Campaign ads:Trump, Biden shower ad money on Phoenix, Philadelphia, Florida’s I-4 corridor in final stretch.

Another advantage to Biden’s bountiful advertising was that he could afford to expand the campaign map. Biden ventured beyond the fiercely competitive states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin during final week of the campaign to also visit Georgia and Iowa. He argued a week before voting ended that he also had a fighting chance in Ohio and North Carolina.

“I just want to make sure we can earn every vote possible,” Biden told reporters in Chester.