John Matisonn | How did Biden go from 'Sleepy Joe' to frontrunner?


John Matisson examines how Joe Biden, who has done few high profile campaign events and has never won a single primary election, is now a frontrunner in the US presidential race. 

At the end of January this year, former US vice president Joe Biden had run for president three times and never won a single primary election. His war chest was down to $7.1 million, ludicrously small compared even to his less well-known Democratic rivals.

Now less than six months later, serious commentators are speculating about a Biden landslide, and his war chest has almost caught up with Donald Trump's, even though Trump has been building his since he won in 2016.  

READ | Joe Biden blasts Donald Trump's use of force 'for a photo' in front of riot-damaged church

By far the oldest candidate ever nominated by a major party, at 77 Biden is the frontrunner, even though he has done few high profile campaign events, and no objective observer can deny that in recent years he has experienced distinct cognitive decline.

How did Biden do it?

After the influential Rep James Clyburn backed him in the South Carolina primary and he won there, many of his challengers and Democratic funders quickly came on board, and he won in enough states to lock up the party nomination.


Facing President Trump, it was soon apparent that as with most elections involving a sitting president, the popularity of the president is the main factor determining who wins. It is Trump's election to lose. He started with a lockstep hold on his party, where few dared criticise him. His support among Republicans was among the highest in history. His campaign rallies attracted enormous crowds.

But as Trump's missteps in the face of the three nation-altering crises - health, the economy and Black Lives Matter protests - accelerated, it was clear Biden's best bet was to stand aside and let Trump be Trump.

Many leaders have struggled to figure out the right approach to Covid-19. But as it became clear the countries that were succeeding conducted vigorous testing, tracing, lockdowns and social distancing until they forced the curve of new infections down drastically, Trump proved unable to commit himself to that path.

With his re-election unalterably scheduled for November, he could not see past the need to open the economy quickly and send children back to school, so that the stock market, growth and unemployment statistics - key measurements of success for a campaigning president - would look good enough when voters go to the polls.

The result has been recurring, accelerated infection. After each Trump-supporting politician opened facilities to business, infection rates rose. Trump-supporting governors have followed his lead even when it was against all logic. Only this week, the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, sued the mayor of Georgia's biggest town, Atlanta, to block her decision that mask-wearing be compulsory.

The two states where Trump held rallies, Oklahoma and Arizona, have experienced serious surges. Florida's governor, Ron DeSantis, opened the beaches and proclaimed Florida would never be as bad as New York. Now it is the epicentre of the American outbreak.

And medical workers say they are again short of masks and other personal protective equipment.

Where Biden was successful 

But Biden had to get several things right.

Though he did not become a charismatic campaigner, he took several careful strategic decisions. As the effects of the pandemic and protests against police violence escalated, the country's views on several matters moved left, and Biden followed, but with caution.

When he was asked to support a single, government medical aid for all, he refused. When protesters demanded police forces be "defunded", he refused again. Both would have been hot-button issues easy for Trump to exploit against him.

But in other areas, less high profile and politically exploitable, he has moved quite significantly.

He supports raising the minimum wage, better health care, new funds for those who lost jobs in the pandemic, the reversal of Trump's tax increases to pay for these things and intends to build green industries.

Biden has taken one policy from Trump himself, attacking China for taking American jobs, and moved away from supporting globalisation, a hallmark of his earlier years in the senate and as vice president.

It seems to be a winning formula.

Hillary Clinton told Trevor Noah last week Biden needs to win "resoundingly", because "we have to be ready for Trump not to go quietly". Newsweek reported last week on a constitutional path Trump could take to retain power even if he loses.

It turns out the electoral college isn't the only oddity in US electoral law.

Role of state legislatures 

If Trump challenges the outcome in some states, they can refuse to certify the results. This throws the decision to the state legislatures. The majority in states that are Republican could vote to send pro-Trump delegates to the electoral college.

This is unlikely, but many Democrats and some anti-Trump Republicans argue they have to beat "Trumpism" as well as Trump, for the constitutional order to remain intact, so the next president is seen as legitimate.

Accordingly, Biden is attempting to build a broad base of support that keeps traditional Democrats, brings out the sizeable vote among supporters of the more left wing Senator Bernie Sanders, and also use his history of working with Republicans to win over as many Republicans and independents as possible.

Just as Reagan once persuaded some Democrats to become "Reagan Democrats", Biden aims to build a cohort of "Biden Republicans".

Several organisations of Republicans backing Biden are running anti-Trump adverts that are far more vicious and effective than anything Biden is running. While Biden remains Mr Nice Guy, some ads made by Republicans have all but accused Trump of murder over his spotty pandemic response.

'Worst president in history'

Their revulsion at Trump is hard to match. Steve Schmidt, a lifelong Republican operative who worked for former president George W Bush, described Trump as the worst president in history.

"He has brought this country in three short years to a place of weakness that is simply unimaginable if you were pondering where we are today from the day where Barack Obama left office. But this is a moment of unparalleled national humiliation, of weakness.

"… When you listen to the president, these are the musings of an imbecile. An idiot… Well, he's brought death, suffering, and economic collapse on truly an epic scale… We are the epicentre."

They have also turned on most of the Republican leaders of the Senate running for re-election. At a time when reports show both the government and the Trump campaign paid millions of dollars to Trump hotels and golf clubs for staff accommodation, the Lincoln Project, run entirely by Republicans, excoriated Republican senators for turning a blind eye to corruption.

The Lincoln Project wants Republicans to lose control of the Senate, where their majority is 53 to 47. If Biden does well enough, they might get their way.

Given his age, Biden has signalled he only wants one four-year term as president, to act as a "bridge to the next generation". In the next few weeks, he will announce his vice-presidential candidate who he has promised will be a woman. Soon after there will be a muted, virtual, party convention at which he and his running mate will be formally nominated and voted in.

This week, Trump changed his campaign manager, reportedly in punishment for his failure to fill the benches at his last campaign rally, but allies like former Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie warned him to develop a new vision for his presidency or face defeat.

Watch this space.

- John Matisonn is the author of Cyril's Choices, Lessons from 25 years of freedom in South Africa.

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