What transpired on Super Tuesday 2020 is by far the most stunning political comeback I have ever witnessed.
Former Vice President Joe Biden nearly swept through the fourteen states like a firestorm, many of them he had not stepped foot in or spent a dime campaigning, while his opponents, especially billionaire and former NYC mayor Mike Bloomberg, spent millions. Yet he flipped states he was a clear underdog in over and over, and won, won, and won again. He beat Senator Elizabeth Warren in her home state of Massachusetts, and bested neighboring and favored Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and did it again in Minnesota and Oklahoma, states Sanders dominated against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Biden even bested Sanders in Texas, where he wasn’t even supposed to collect a single delegate. To add to this amazing election day performance is that the turnout, for the first time in this cycle, was record-breaking—larger in some states than 2016 and shockingly more than the 2008 Democratic revolution of Barack Obama.
All of this from a political dead man.
The week before, Biden, having never won a single primary in his third run for the White House, stood on stage at the Gaillard Center in Downtown Charleston with five other candidates; all of whom were more viable than he. The presumptive front runner throughout the summer, Biden was a no show in the first three primaries. Sanders had millions of dollars, an impressive ground game built from his 2016 run, and rabid rallies, not to mention three wins in his pocket. He was the clear front runner now. Biden was broke, looked old, confused, and beaten. Even Capitol Hill Republicans and Trump loyalists stopped mentioning his son and Burisma and figured they’d dodged the threat that got the President impeached in the first place.
Then something completely unsuspected happened. Biden held his own in the debate, appearing as the adult in the room and making timely quips about the furious cluster of shouting candidates around him. At one point he stopped speaking when his ninety seconds were up and calmly uttered, “Why do I stop when my time is up, no one else up here does?” Even his opponents chuckled. “Must be my Catholic upbringing,” he said. Then he got a little ornery. He started remembering the annoying, loudmouthed Irishman that people both adored and despised in the Senate. He pointed his finger. He did some shouting. He occasionally made sense.
Something else fortuitous, some might say magical, happened on a similar stage the week before. Elizabeth Warren took the opportunity of Michael Bloomberg’s first ever presidential debate in Nevada to relentlessly eviscerate him. It was a bloodbath of personal, business, and political proportions. And suddenly the moderate alternative to Sanders, as Biden lie in ruins, was unmasked as a stuttering dolt who looked like he showed up at the wrong event. The millions he spent on adds that vaulted him in mere weeks to twenty percent in national polls withered to low single digits in days.
When the SC debate was over, while Bloomberg was still being widely mocked as a paper tiger, Biden received condescending praise from pundits. But it appeared at the time that all the debate did was give supporters a reason to hold their noses and vote for him, allow him to get at least one slim victory before he bowed out gracefully, and pulled the final curtain down on the Obama legacy.
Those people were mostly African-American. Some were contemplating Bloomberg, but no more. And they came out in South Carolina in large numbers that Saturday for Joe Biden. He gathered nearly fifty-percent of the vote, despite a veritable horde on the ballot. Thanks in large part to perennial congressman Jim Clyburn, who is to SC what Ted Kennedy once was to Massachusetts, without all the drunken buffoonery and murder. Clyburn, a no-nonsense, astute political thinker, told Biden and then the press he was impressed that his friend Joe found his voice, because up until then he had been a joke: no organization, half-ass operatives, weak stump speeches, and off-kilter TV appearances. He told him in no short order to get his shit together and he would endorse him, then he would carry the state and be reborn.
It was that moment that Clyburn became the man who will either topple Donald Trump or hand him another four years. It was the seminal event thus far in the 2020 presidential campaign, whether Joe Biden becomes the nominee or not. Clyburn almost single-handedly shifted the narrative, forever to be known as the “candidate whisperer,” who resurrected dead Joe, because he was flatlining Saturday morning and by Saturday night he had a landslide victory. Then reborn Joe hit the stage and gave the speech of his life; a speech he needed to give. He needed to sound coherent and energetic and ready to fight and connect. And he did all of that. And within two days he ended the campaigns of Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and former Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the other two moderates frightened by Bernie Sanders.
The evening before Super Tuesday they both joined Biden on stage in El Paso, Texas for full-throated endorsements. Even long-gone Beto O’Rourke, who nearly beat Ted Cruz as part of the 2018 Blue Wave, chimed in. And after that the storyline was maybe Biden could hang in there on Super Tuesday and make this respectable? Maybe he could get to the fifteen-percent viability level to grab a few delegates and stay within a hundred or two hundred of the surging Sanders? Maybe hold off Warren or Bloomberg? South Carolina, they said, was a blip. There are no Clyburns anywhere else, even the other southern states like Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Arkansas. He may do well there, but ho-hum.
By Tuesday morning the odds-addled 538 web site started chirping that the Biden surge was mega-real, and it was scrambling numbers, flipping deficits to big leads, and by Wednesday morning it predicted he would have the delegate lead over Sanders. And boy were they right—to the humming tune of 637 delegates by the time of this writing (they’re still counting California). He is now in the delegate lead. The front runner. Before SC he had nine. Nine.
What Joe Biden has pulled off in one week, and really since the South Carolina primary two days before, is beyond remarkable. The NY Times called it a miracle. The Sanders backers called it party interference. A frightened Trump is tweeting again about coups. One or two GOP senators began floating another possible investigation into Biden’s son, followed swiftly by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, demanding it. Mike Bloomberg, after a half of billion dollars spent on TV and radio ads, a giant multi-state infrastructure, and a superstar team of soulless political vipers, quit the race and endorsed, you got it, Joe fucking Biden. One day later Elizabeth Warren suspended her campaign.
What this means for the race going forward is hard to tell. After the bizarre 2016 results, I am out of the prediction business, but there is one thing for certain: for one week in the late winter of 2020, a 77-year-old former senator of Delaware and Vice President of the United States went from the edge of oblivion to the top of the political heap. This doesn’t happen. Ever.
Except it did.