Joe Biden’s Lucky Break

A big win in South Carolina and Pete Buttigieg’s withdrawal are the first two things that have gone Biden’s way all year

Michael A. Cohen
GEN
Published in
5 min readMar 2, 2020

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Joe Biden declares victory at an election-night rally in Columbia, South Carolina. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

ItIt took Joe Biden a mere 33 years to finally emerge victorious in a presidential primary, and on February 29, he did it in the biggest way imaginable. In winning the South Carolina primary by more than 28 points over Bernie Sanders and capturing the lion’s share of the state’s delegates, Biden has gained much-needed momentum in the race for the party nomination.

He’s also reversed a spate of bad political luck that came perilously close to derailing his third try for the presidency. Virtually every step of the way, Biden has been undercut by a group of similarly middle-of-the-road candidates who have never had much hope of matching the broad-based and diverse coalition that he assembled in South Carolina. As a result, Sanders has found himself in the lead for the Democratic nomination.

This series of events would have seemed unimaginable just a few weeks ago. It’s difficult to remember now that Biden had, at the end of 2019, emerged as the Democratic frontrunner. He had a persistent lead in national polls. He showed consistent strength in state polling, and his key progressive rivals (Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) were splitting the votes of more liberal Democrats.

But beyond the headlines, four key developments that would deal his campaign a near-fatal blow were percolating. The first two began much earlier. Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg had months earlier made the tactical decision to shift his message toward more moderate, centrist voters and launch a huge ground game in Iowa. He backed away from his earlier support for Medicare-for-All in a concerted effort to fight for the same swath of voters Biden was pinning his hopes on in the early voting states.

Virtually every step of the way, Biden has been undercut by a group of similarly middle-of-the-road candidates.

Then, in the fall, the emerging national polling frontrunner, Warren, released her comprehensive Medicare-for-All plan. Concerns over the plan as well as larger fears about Warren’s electability led to a rapid

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Michael A. Cohen
GEN
Writer for

Political columnist for the Boston Globe. He is the co-author of “Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters To Americans.”