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Larry Donnelly: Super Tuesday 2 makes Joe Biden the Democratic nominee in-waiting

Biden was all but counted out by most onlookers before recently, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

BARRING SOMETHING TOTALLY out of the blue, we can now assume that Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominee trying to deny Donald Trump a second term in the White House this November.

All but counted out by the vast majority of interested onlookers (this one included) for waging a poor campaign and performing dismally in the ordinarily prophetic Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, the ‘comeback kid’ doesn’t suffice as a label for the former vice president.

Lazarus is better. Joe Biden may have Pennsylvania roots and have represented Delaware in the United States Senate for decades, but the state of South Carolina and its people should forever hold a very special place in his heart.

In particular, the African-Americans who are a crucial constituency in its Democratic primary decided on Barack Obama’s governing partner very early on and never yielded.

They were courted aggressively by aspirants from their own community and by billionaire Tom Steyer, a committed social justice activist who poured many millions into the state in his long-shot bid over recent months.

Yet they stuck with Joe Biden. Much has been offered by way of conjecture as to why black voters were so loyal to him.

One extremely provocative and broadly circulated social media post noted that, both before and after he was President Obama’s deputy, Biden at no point challenged or criticised his commander-in-chief. He has always been an unwavering and robust defender of the inherently transformative leader.

For many African Americans, the willingness of a powerful, experienced white man to so enthusiastically carry out the dictates of a younger, less-seasoned black man at a pivotal juncture in history was as uplifting as it was unprecedented.

They will never forget it. They were delighted and determined to repay that allegiance at the ballot box.

It was the scale of Biden’s triumph in South Carolina that brought a theretofore dithering and hesitant Democratic establishment to rally around his candidacy. To be blunt, insiders had serious age-related concerns about his capacity and were flirting with throwing their endorsements to Mike Bloomberg.

The rout there last month, coupled with Bloomberg’s horrendous performance in debates, engendered the biggest and fastest shift in political momentum in recent memory.

Prior to assessing the manner in which the dominoes have swiftly fallen on the past two Tuesdays, it is worth considering the extent to which electability has actually overwhelmed the process.

It has been the dominant sentiment throughout for Democrats desperate to get rid of a president they find so abhorrent. The party’s grassroots have flirted with several putative standard-bearers before settling on their senior statesman.

The charismatic, compelling Kamala Harris started fast and faded even faster. Whether spoken or unspoken, the equally sensitive and important question of whether a black woman from California could move hearts and minds in Middle America was probably dispositive.

Elizabeth Warren

The eminently qualified Elizabeth Warren was the next they fancied. She had a detailed plan for everything.

But could a Harvard Law School professor living in Cambridge, Massachusetts – known to make comments to the effect that everyone must have a favourite local cheese shop – connect at a personal level with struggling steelworkers in Pennsylvania?

Her dubious identification as a Native American – she was once even labelled a woman of colour – was the final nail in her political coffin.

There is no doubt that Harris and Warren faced the same persistent institutional and attitudinal obstacles as women running for public office around the world.

Many otherwise sympathetic voters’ collective memory of Hillary Clinton’s stinging loss in 2016 didn’t help either. But it is debatable as to whether gender was the decisive factor in the demise of either of their candidacies.

‘Mayor Pete’ Buttigieg then caught fire. Young, articulate, energetic, a Midwesterner, he was something different and refreshing.

But he also stood out as a gay, married man with no real experience beyond being the mayor of a city the size of Cork. A palpable sense emerged that he didn’t have ‘it’ – at least not yet.

Lastly, the sole person in the race older than Biden, Vermont Senator and self-proclaimed democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders, shot up in the opinion polls just as Iowans and New Hampshirites were to have their first-in-the-nation contests.

Sanders won in both and in Nevada and became the unexpected frontrunner.

But electability sunk him, too. It wasn’t really the fears stoked about Medicare for all or free college education. These ideas have finally gained currency in the US.

Instead, it was Sanders’ past praise for the Soviet Union and Fidel Castro, the latter in concert with fierce criticism of the widely beloved John F Kennedy, which provoked anxiety about how he’d fare against President Trump and the damaging impact his nomination could have on Democrats down the ticket.

The party’s leadership was, as a result, galvanised. This led to Joe Biden’s wonderful Super Tuesday and he snuffed out whatever chances Bernie Sanders had remaining with big wins in Michigan and elsewhere this week.

Biden was deliberately conciliatory in his subsequent speech. The task of unification is underway.

Should Sanders opt to continue, Biden is on track to clobber him in Florida on St Patrick’s Day and to beat him across the board. The delegate maths is going one way.

Political junkies will have to put their fantasies of a brokered convention in July on hold.

Speculation 

We can turn to the fascinating, though never all that consequential, speculation as to whom Joe Biden might choose to run alongside him and to the myriad dynamics of a Biden v Trump campaign.

On the first, Kamala Harris – both because of their strong personal relationship and the fact that Biden is indebted to African Americans, who were the catalyst for his extraordinary recovery and who he hopes will turn out in big numbers later this year – has to be the early favourite.

On the second, those who dismissively say that Trump will easily repel Biden would do well to recall that the 45th president only won last time by 80,000 votes in three key Electoral College states when everything broke his way and he was facing a deeply unpopular opponent.

It is unlikely that he will be so lucky again. Biden is respected and esteemed by many Americans, and the fallout from the coronavirus is a great unknown.

Some worrying polling data from an otherwise excellent March for Joe Biden reveal that young Americans did not participate in the Michigan primary at anywhere near the same rate as their older fellow citizens.

The young people who did partake went for Bernie Sanders by monstrous margins.

Moreover, Sanders’ supporters were much less likely than Biden’s to say that they would definitely vote for the Democratic nominee regardless of who it is.

Biden and the Democrats have their work cut out to keep the most ardent of the “Bernie Bros” et al on side.

Simultaneously, they must also seek to nuance some of their hard-left pronouncements during the primary, especially on cultural issues, in order to reassure a not-insignificant chunk of the electorate they need back in the fold. Succeeding on both fronts will be no mean feat.

It is, just about, safe to say that we have now crossed one large bridge in this protracted campaign. There is still an awful long way to go before we get to the biggest one in November.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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