This is a common thread in a lot of coverage of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race: that had Biden not caught a few breaks, someone else would have gone up against President Donald Trump last fall — and that Biden may have been lucky to beat Trump as well. Incumbent presidents tend to win reelection, and but for a once-in-a-century pandemic, Trump might have, too.
But this argument deeply discounts the degree to which major players in the Democratic Party backed Biden even before the primaries began, precisely because he was perceived as the candidate most likely to prevail over the incumbent. The “luck” narrative dismisses the hard work the Democratic Party did between 2016 and 2020 to determine the qualities of a candidate who could beat Trump. If Biden appeared to draw a good hand at a few key points in the race, it’s because the party had stacked the deck in his favor.
How did Biden get to be the chosen candidate? After 2016, Democratic insiders, reeling from Hillary Clinton’s loss, struggled to understand what had gone wrong. There were many competing (and overlapping) theories — that Clinton was an unappealing candidate, that working-class people didn’t relate to the Democratic message, that there was more latent racism and sexism in society than Democrats had believed, and that voters were turned off by “identity politics,” among other ideas. Many party activists and leaders decided that the solution was nominating an older, moderate White man the next time around. The party’s elites were willing to surrender a fair amount of its policy priorities to get Trump out of the White House, and they saw Biden as the instrument to do that.
Overwhelmingly, Democratic voters prioritized candidate electability over other issues last year, to a degree that they normally don’t. According to a June 2019 Economist-YouGov poll, for instance, 58 percent of Democrats said it was more important that the nominee be able to win in the general election than that they agreed with him or her on the issues. (Forty-two percent cited stances on issues as more important.) The skew toward electability over issues was even greater for self-described liberals. And overwhelmingly, voters saw Biden as the candidate who could beat Trump, while they worried that other contenders couldn’t. Even Democrats who said their first choice was Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) or then-Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) or Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) were strongly leaning toward supporting Biden, precisely because they thought he could defeat Trump (and their first choice couldn’t).
In that same Economist-YouGov poll, Biden was most popular among both the “electability” and the “issues” groups, attracting plurality support of 29 percent and 24 percent, respectively. (Among Democrats who valued electability, Warren came in second out of five candidates, at 13 percent; among those who wanted a nominee who agreed with them on issues, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) came in second, at 23 percent.)
By the end of 2019, Biden was also the leader in endorsements. According to FiveThirtyEight’s measure of “endorsement points” — which weights endorsements by status in the party (one point for a regular Democratic National Committee member, six for a senator, eight for a governor) — Biden had roughly 180 points at the end of that year, while Sanders had fewer than 50. That showed that party insiders, who often get the nominee they want, were strongly leaning toward Biden. The former vice president was also ahead in another marker of backing by the party faithful: By the fourth quarter of 2019, he was getting money from nearly 50 percent of donors who also gave money to the Democratic Party as an institution. In terms of polling, Biden held a steady 28 percent on average at that point in the race, roughly his number all year, while Sanders was in second place at a consistent 19 percent.
Biden wasn’t the overwhelming consensus party pick the way, say, Clinton was in 2016 or Al Gore was in 2000, but he still had massive internal advantages, and they manifested in a way that helped protect him through the primaries and caucuses. Party leaders, elected officials, interest group leaders, activists and others can make their preferred candidate’s path a lot smoother, largely by minimizing the candidate’s stumbles and magnifying the successes.
Think back, for example, to two of the most dramatic clashes during the Democratic primary debates in 2019 and 2020. The first occurred when Harris went after Biden — in June 2019, in Miami — for saying that he had gotten along well with segregationist senators in the 1970s. The second happened when Warren attacked Mike Bloomberg at a February 2020 debate for his crude words about, and actions toward, women.
In both cases, a prominent White male candidate had committed a transgression against a large and pivotal group within the Democratic Party and was called onto the carpet for it by a member of that group. Harris described Biden’s words as “hurtful,” and she sharpened the attack by personalizing his past opposition to forced busing to reduce school segregation. Speaking of the typical beneficiary of such policies, she said: “I was that little girl.” Warren, for her part, repeated Bloomberg’s worst statements about women and compared him to Trump, saying that Democrats were taking a great risk “if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”
Harris’s and Warren’s criticisms were similar in their nature and their onstage effectiveness. The difference had to do with the target. By mid-2019, Biden was already a party favorite, the poll leader with the bulk of Democratic endorsements going his way. To be sure, Harris’s attack hurt him; his polling position dropped by about five points immediately following the debate. But he recovered within a few weeks, and the attack did no lasting damage.
On the other hand, while Bloomberg had impressed some Democratic insiders in early 2020, he was still a dark horse. His polling position had been improving rapidly since early January, jumping from 7 to 16 percent. Then Warren’s attack halted that surge. Bloomberg dropped out a few weeks later, having won only American Samoa.
Just as being the party favorite can minimize your stumbles, it can also magnify your victories. We can see that in endorsement patterns after the contests of early February 2020. Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg narrowly won the Iowa caucuses, and in the following days he received the endorsements of two semi-prominent Democrats, Rep. Andy Kim (N.J.) and Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett. Sanders’s victories in New Hampshire and Nevada netted him endorsements just from his former rivals Marianne Williamson and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. But when Biden won in South Carolina — the first contest with a substantial number of Black voters — more than 30 prominent Democrats jumped in to endorse him, including former Senate party leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe, and Biden’s former rivals Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Buttigieg.
So Biden’s victories brought him more support, but that didn’t occur for the other candidates. That wasn’t happenstance. And it may well have been crucial to his general election win against Trump last November. The early, consistent and enthusiastic support Biden received from across the Democratic Party was a notable change from the 2016 cycle. In that year, although Clinton had a wide range of endorsements, many people on the progressive left remained wary of her and hesitant about her candidacy. Concerned that this lack of enthusiasm helped cost Democrats the 2016 election, many of those same people came out strongly for Biden in 2020, not because they agreed with him on all issues but because they wanted to present a united front. Their enthusiasm probably helped boost Democratic turnout in 2020 and deliver crucial victories in swing states like Georgia, Arizona and Nevada.
Biden may indeed be a lucky man; if you ask him, he’ll probably agree with that. Given his narrow margins in a number of swing states in November, a few minor differences over the course of the campaign could have meant a different outcome. On the other hand, the elevated turnout Biden received from Democrats across the board came in part because the party had settled on him very early in the process for the specific purpose of defeating Trump. Biden may have gotten some good breaks, but the more his party backed him, the luckier he got.