Inside Joe Biden’s race of a lifetime

Inside Joe Biden’s race of a lifetime

  • He has been trying to win the White House for more than 30 years.
  • Can he beat Donald Trump in 2020?

It was late afternoon on February 2, the eve of the Iowa caucuses. We were jammed into a high-school gymnasium in Des Moines, the state capital, for Joe Biden’s closing rally. No one thought he would win the primary season’s talismanic opening contest the following day. Nor was he expected to come close to beating Bernie Sanders, the socialist Vermonter, in New Hampshire the next week. Though he was still ahead in the national polls, the 77-year-old former vice-president was treated as yesterday’s news.

A crowd of several hundred was waiting unexpectantly. Biden entered roughly half an hour late, accompanied by a phalanx of retired politicians: John Kerry, 76, the former secretary of state; Chris Dodd, 75, the retired senator from Connecticut; Tom Vilsack, 69, former governor of Iowa; and Harold Schaitberger, 73, president of the International Association of Firefighters. The oxygen seemed to drain from the room. As Biden’s surrogates spoke one after the other, the air got progressively thinner. By the time the candidate got up to speak, it was positively embalmed. “This is like a wake,” joked one veteran television anchor. Biden’s low-key soliloquy did little to lift the energy.

Such are the limits of conventional wisdom. Twenty-seven days later, Biden grabbed the Democratic mantle after sweeping the South Carolina primary. With the notable exception of Sanders, who fought on for another five weeks, most of the rest of the field dropped out and endorsed him. It was a breathtaking twist. With hindsight, Biden officials say they always knew he would be the Democratic nominee. They were playing the long game. “We made a decision from the start not to listen to the loudest voices on Twitter,” says Stef Feldman, Biden’s policy director. That was not how many sounded at the time. When I asked a Biden staffer in Des Moines about the campaign’s mood, he used the TV anchor’s same funereal analogy.