Joe Biden: Campaigns and Elections
As far back as his high school days at Archmere Academy, Joe Biden had his heart set on the biggest prize in American politics. When the father of a classmate named Dave Walsh asked him what he wanted to do with his life, Biden was quick with an answer: “Mr. Walsh, I want to be president of the United States.”
It took Biden three tries to get to the White House, the first two—1988 and 2008—flaming out early and embarrassingly, and even his final winning campaign in 2020 struggled to gain traction and seemed headed for defeat until it got a last-minute rescue from a powerful South Carolina congressman.
In his first bid, for the 1988 Democratic nomination, Biden had a high-profile leadership role as the backdrop to his campaign. As Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, he was set to preside over the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Robert Bork, starting on September 15, 1987. But a couple weeks before the hearings began, Biden plagiarized a speech by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock during his closing remarks at a debate at the Iowa State Fair. The press swarmed, uncovering other incidents when Biden had appropriated material dating back to his school days. As a law student at Syracuse University, he cribbed from a law review article without citation for a class paper. Later as a politician, he failed to credit words he used that belonged to Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. It was also discovered that Biden had claimed to have finished in the top half of his law school class when he was 76 out of 85 classmates. Having announced his candidacy for president on June 9, 1987, he dropped out of the race on September 23.
In 1988, Biden suffered two aneurysms, which were repaired surgically.
On January 31, 2007, Biden launched his run for the 2008 presidency. But, on the same day, the media reported that he had described another candidate, Barack Obama, as “the first sort of mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean.” Reporters dug up other instances unrelated to Obama when Biden’s casual comments had sounded racially insensitive. His campaign never recovered. Biden trudged along, attracting little attention, and after a dismal showing in the Iowa caucuses on January 3, 2008, he called it quits.
Biden’s run for the presidency in 2020 looked similarly doomed at the outset. He entered the race on April 25, 2019, declaring: “We are in the battle for the soul of this nation.” He cited as his motivation President Trump’s reaction to the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, when Trump asserted there were “very fine people on both sides.” He presented himself as the candidate who could rid the country of the divisive Trump and work to heal political polarization. Recognizing the danger of the spreading coronavirus pandemic, Biden limited public rallies, and when he did appear at campaign events, supporters listened from their cars, honking their applause. He made Trump’s failed management of the pandemic a cornerstone of his argument while the president held his own rallies with supporters crowded together often without masks.
But Biden’s appeal at first did not resonate with Democratic voters. He was deemed too old and too conservative for the young insurgents in the party aligned with rival Bernie Sanders who wanted to push the party farther to the left. Critics zeroed in on potential health issues for the then-77-year-old candidate. In December 2019, Biden released a medical assessment that noted he was healthy and vigorous and had not had any aneurysm recurrences. In the Iowa caucuses, Biden came in fourth, and in the New Hampshire primary he dropped to fifth place. In the next contest, in Nevada, Biden came in a distant second behind Sanders who the media now labeled as the front-runner. Biden, whose chances for the nomination appeared to be fading, threw all his hopes on the South Carolina primary, the first in a series of states where African American voters played a significant role. When Biden won the endorsement of the influential South Carolina Representative, James E. Clyburn, his campaign gained new momentum. He captured 48.6 percent of the vote in South Carolina, decisively beating Sanders who tallied 19.8 percent, marking a startling turnaround for the former vice president.
Biden gained the endorsements of former campaign rivals Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg. After he won 10 of 14 states on Super Tuesday, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker threw their support behind the surging Biden. As Biden racked up victories and delegates in subsequent primaries, Sanders bowed out on April 8, paving the way for Biden’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention. As the presumptive nominee, Biden kept to his promise to name a woman as his running mate. He chose Kamala Harris, a former attorney general of California and a senator of Black and Indian descent, a move that acknowledged the aspirations of both women and people of color.
The Democratic National Convention, held August 17 to 20, was unlike any other due to restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. A mostly virtual event, it was structured to appeal to voters watching on television at home. There were celebrity hosts and musical performances and brief appearances by politicians, political activists, and average Americans who were filmed in a variety of geographic regions around the country. “It was simply more compelling to watch than the fusty, arena-bound version that rolls around every four years,” wrote Lorraine Ali, a television critic for the Los Angeles Times.
Biden and Harris delivered their nomination acceptance speeches in front of reporters in a largely empty arena in Wilmington, then watched a fireworks display with supporters in their cars in a parking lot outside the arena. The celebration was highlighted by supporters honking their horns and flashing their headlights.
In his speech, Biden underscored his themes in battling Trump during the final leg of the race, stressing that Trump had “cloaked America in darkness . . . anger . . . fear [and] division.” He pledged to bring America together. “United we can, and will, overcome this season of darkness in America,” he said. “We will choose hope over fear, facts over fiction, fairness over privilege.” He drew a sharp distinction between himself and Trump, promising to offer generosity, compassion, and character amid the coronavirus pandemic that at the time of convention had killed 170,000 people. Biden painted Trump and his response to the pandemic in simple, stark terms. “Our current president,” he said, “has failed in his most basic duty to this nation. He failed to protect us. He failed to protect America.”
Because of the pandemic, many Americans voted early and by mail, prompting President Trump to assert that the outcome may be compromised by fraud. On election night, November 3, early returns based on voters who showed up at the polls that day—a large majority of them Republicans—indicated a lead for Trump. At around 2:30 a.m., Trump said falsely that he had won the election and demanded that all vote counting stop. It took several days for all the votes to be counted, including the early ballots and mail-in ballots which were dominated by Democrats. On November 7, 2020, the major news networks and the Associated Press declared Biden the winner. Harris became the first woman, the first Black, and first Asian American woman to become vice president.
A record number of voters turned out in 2020, casting nearly 160 million votes. The turnout among eligible voters was the highest in 120 years: 66.2 of eligible voters cast ballots, surpassed only by the election of 1900 when 73.7 percent voted. Trump continued to cry fraud, launched dozens of legal challenges with little effect, until finally the Electoral College met on December 14 and ratified Biden’s victory on November 3 with a solid majority of 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232 votes. Biden collected 81 million votes overall, 7 million more than Trump’s 74 million. Despite his clear defeat in the popular vote and the Electoral College, Trump continued to claim falsely that he had won the election and that the voting was fraudulent.
The consequences of Trump’s false claims became clear to the nation on January 6, 2021, when Trump supporters and white supremacists gathered to protest the results of the 2020 presidential election. A mob overwhelmed Capitol police and pushed their way into the US Capitol, where members of Congress were meeting to certify the election results. As members of Congress were rushed out of harm's way, police were unable to contain the intruders who broke windows, destroyed property, and trespassed through the building. Five people were killed during the attack, including a Capitol police officer. A week later, the US House of Representatives impeached President Trump for a second time, making him the first president to be impeached twice in US history.