The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Biden won the presidency by making the most of his lucky breaks

Review of ‘Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency’ by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes

Democratic candidate Joe Biden delivers a speech as he accepts his party’s presidential nomination at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., on the final day of the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 20, 2020. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Sometimes a book is so eager to take readers behind the scenes that it neglects to spend enough time on the scenes themselves. This is often so with works chronicling presidential elections, obsessed as they are with the machinations of high-priced operatives, the strategizing of rival campaigns or the “optics” of who stands where on a debate stage. Read enough of them and it gets hard to discern whether that is all the authors choose to emphasize, or if that is all there really is to see.

“Lucky,” a brisk and detailed account of the 2020 presidential race by political journalists Jonathan Allen of NBC News and Amie Parnes of the Hill, is the first volume to tell the story of this unusual electoral contest, with several competing works scheduled later this year and into 2022. Four years ago, Allen and Parnes co-authored the best-selling “Shattered,” an examination of Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 campaign, in which they placed the blame largely on the ineptitude of the losing side. In this sequel, they are only slightly more generous with the Democratic nominee. Joe Biden won, of course, but mainly because he “caught every imaginable break.” He was the “process-of-elimination candidate,” emerging from a crowded set of more exciting Democratic contenders. He was “lousy in debates and lackluster on the trail,” prevailing despite “a bland message and a blank agenda.” Biden, they argue, got lucky.

The fiasco of the Iowa caucuses, where the app designed to report the results failed miserably, temporarily obscured Biden’s fourth-place showing. “This was a gift,” a campaign aide later explained. Luck returned when rival Democrats such as Pete Buttigieg (who ended up winning Iowa) and Mike Bloomberg (who won American Samoa) suffered debate night takedowns by Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren — and when Biden survived his own hit from Kamala Harris over his past positions on school busing and desegregation. (That almost cost Harris the subsequent veep nod, Allen and Parnes report.) Fortune smiled again when the entire Democratic Party establishment rushed to Biden’s side after his victory in the South Carolina primary, even if it was less about devotion to him than panic that Bernie Sanders might secure the nomination. “On Super Tuesday, you got very lucky,” President Donald Trump told Biden at their first debate. The Democrat did not disagree.

But Trump offered his rival some luck, too, when the president failed to deal effectively or humanely with the coronavirus pandemic. Allen and Parnes quote then-senior campaign official Anita Dunn, now a White House adviser, discussing how the outbreak affected Biden’s prospects. “COVID is the best thing that ever happened to him,” she told an associate early in the crisis, according to the authors. It’s a cynical way to regard a disease that would go on to take the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans, even if it was, they write, what Biden campaign aides “believed but would never say in public.” Well, it’s public now.

Such blunt, insidery talk is the lifeblood of “Lucky.” Biden campaign pollster John Anzalone, for instance, worries about the vagueness of his candidate’s speeches. “No one knows what this ‘soul of America’ bulls--- means,” he complains. At a New York event with Black corporate leaders in the fall of 2019, Barack Obama praised Warren’s candidacy and listed several reasons Buttigieg couldn’t win. “He’s thirty-eight, but he looks thirty,” the former president said, eliciting laughs in the room. “He’s the mayor of a small town. He’s gay, and he’s short.” And top Sanders campaign adviser Jeff Weaver chewed out fellow adviser Chuck Rocha as the early Nevada primary results came in. “Where are the Latinos? You spent three million dollars. Where are the Latinos?”

In her memoir, Kamala Harris calls for social change but plays the inside game

A simplistic focus on identity is evident throughout the Democratic field, with new aides often hired to make staffs look young and more diverse — only to complicate things by, you know, having ideas of their own that diverged from those of entrenched advisers. Allen and Parnes portray a Biden campaign split along “deep fault lines mostly based on generation, race, ideology, and time in Bidenworld.” Biden was in the middle of it, in every sense, hewing to centrist positions on health care, racial justice and law enforcement, no matter the pressures from his campaign team and his party. He may not have been “Sleepy Joe,” but he remained “Unwoke Joe,” Allen and Parnes quip. “That was the ugly truth many Democrats had to face in the aftermath of the 2020 election: To beat Trump, they had to swallow their progressive values and push forward an old white man who simply promised to restore calm.”

That “simply” is a little deceptive. The 2020 race transpired against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic, widespread racial-justice protests and threats to American democracy emanating from the presidency itself. In “Lucky,” such context matters largely to the extent that it affects the candidates’ rhetoric and fundraising. (George Floyd’s death, for instance, required some “nimble positioning” by Biden, Allen and Parnes write, trying to keep both moderate White voters and party activists happy.) As a result, the moments of high drama in “Lucky” can feel small-bore. Should Biden leave New Hampshire and head to South Carolina before the Granite State’s full primary results are announced, thus potentially alienating supporters there for the general election? (Spoiler: He did leave early. It was fine.) And how do longtime Biden campaign staffers react when the interloping new campaign boss, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, receives a glowing write-up in The Washington Post’s opinion section, complete with a portrait-type photo? “The profile landed like the mother of all bombs in the civil war between the Obama veterans and Biden’s primary crew,” Allen and Parnes overwrite.

There are memorable and telling insider moments in “Lucky,” revealing vital negotiations or highlighting simple truths that parties and campaigns would rather obfuscate. For example, planners of the Democratic Party’s virtual convention thought about featuring a national map that would highlight the locations of various speakers, thus countering the notion that the party was a club for coastal elites — only to can the idea when they realized multiple speakers would be broadcasting from Martha’s Vineyard. And the all-important endorsement of Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina was in play when Clyburn cornered Biden during a commercial break at a Charleston debate and urged him to promise to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court. “This wasn’t offered as a condition of Clyburn’s endorsement, but it was an expectation,” the authors write, parsing a bit too finely. Biden awkwardly complied.

Unfortunately, Allen and Parnes clutter their story with italicized descriptions of what various players are really thinking at particular moments, a tic that carries over from “Shattered” but that here grows more noticeable. “Obviously, we are not able to read minds,” they acknowledge in an author’s note, explaining that they divine such thoughts from first- or secondhand sources, or from “documents that suggest what a person was thinking.” Even so, these asides are distracting and often unnecessary. “How the hell can they do that?” Trump thought when Fox News called Arizona for Biden on election night. (Yes, we all heard he was upset.) And Warren’s supposed inner monologue before eviscerating Bloomberg on a Las Vegas debate stage closely resembled — no shock — what she said to Bloomberg’s face on national television. Note to political reporters and nonfiction authors: Italics are not a get-out-of-quote free card.

The most persuasive case that Biden “barely won” the presidency, as the book’s subtitle states, is found not in the details of Allen and Parnes’s reporting but in their description of the election’s final tallies. Yes, Biden received 81 million votes, the most in U.S. presidential history, but “many voters didn’t realize how close the president had come to winning a second term.” Allen and Parnes note that Trump’s collective margin of defeat in three states that would have given him an electoral college victory — Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona — was 42,918 votes, less than the 77,000-plus votes that cost Clinton Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania four years earlier. That is certainly close.

“Lucky” provides useful detail to understand Biden’s victory, even if the framing is not particularly novel. What candidate has not experienced some luck or misfortune during a long presidential bid? One time it might be a major health crisis, another time, a self-righteous FBI director. Stuff happens, and the best candidates figure out how to react. “Knowing who he was, and where he wanted to be politically, allowed Biden’s campaign to capitalize when luck ran his way,” Allen and Parnes write in their final pages.

In other words, Biden was more than lucky. And for political reporters as for political candidates, spending too much time on optics is just not a good look.

Carlos Lozada is The Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” Follow him on Twitter and read his latest book reviews, including:

In his memoir, Obama is both the subject and the judge

Review of ‘Under a White Sky’ by Elizabeth Kolbert

A call for another Great Migration, this one in reverse