Third time is the charm. After two attempts at winning the nomination to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, in a political career spanning almost five decades, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. has finally won the 2020 election to become the President-elect of the United States. He will now have the chance to make history as the 46th President of the country after he is sworn into office on 20 January 2021.
The result brings a cliff-hanger election to a close. In a contest that has witnessed a surge in voter turnout and required the counting of a record number of mail-in ballots, Americans had been left without a decisive outcome for more than three days after the polls closed on 3 November 2020.
After a long vote-counting process, Biden’s triumph was announced today as major news outlets – including CNN and Fox News – called the State of Pennsylvania in his favour. In a fitting moment, it was his home state that took him over the crucial finishing line of 270 votes in the electoral college, the number required to secure election to the presidency.
With Georgia and Nevada still tabulating ballots, the win in Pennsylvania means that Biden has now secured 273 votes in the electoral college. He is expected to deliver a victory speech soon.
Biden will be 78 years old when he enters the White House, making him the oldest first-term president ever to serve in the Oval Office. His immediate predecessor, Donald Trump, will be bumped into second place: he was a sprightly 70 years of age when he became commander-in-chief in 2017. After that, we have to go further back in the history books, to Ronald Reagan, who was 69 when he took his Inauguration oath in January 1981.
This has not prevented President-elect Biden from staging an impressive win. While many of his allies and critics – Republican and Democratic – have suggested that his failure to win a landslide, take the Senate, and shore up the Democratic Party in the House is a failure, by historical standards he has accomplished a victory against the odds.
The American system makes it very difficult for a challenger from either main party to unseat an incumbent President. To this incumbency advantage can be added the Electoral College, which, for reasons of demography, also favours a Republican candidate. This institution, an arcane legacy of the Founding Fathers’ desire for checks on democratic power, is why it was possible for Donald Trump to win 304 electoral college votes – and with it the presidency – while losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
When all of this is considered, the barriers that Biden has overcome are significant. He is the first challenger to oust an incumbent president since Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush in 1992, and the first to do so with a majority of the popular vote since Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Then there’s the remarkable size of the popular vote in this year’s contest. With what is possibly the highest turnout (about 66.7%) for 120 years, Biden has carried the ballots of almost 74 million people. That is more Americans than have ever voted for anyone else before him. By way of comparison, about 69.5 million people voted for Barack Obama in 2008.
Biden has accomplished this while flipping two states that usually vote Republican: Georgia and Arizona. Apart from Bill Clinton – who won a plurality in 1992 with the help of an insurgent Libertarian Party candidate, Ross Perot, taking votes from Bush Snr. – the last Democrat to win the State of Arizona outright was Harry Truman in 1948.
As well as breaking into the Republicans’ Sun Belt states, Biden has also won back traditional Democrat heartlands in the Rust Belt. He has done enough to restore the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to the Blue Wall that was smashed apart by Trump in his shock win of 2016.
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The Biden campaign appears to have done this by mobilising a broad coalition of blue-collar workers who had turned to Trump in 2016 but returned home to the Democrats in 2020, well-to-do suburban areas, and African-American voters.
Some of the results will have disappointed the former Vice President, however. While bringing crucial Rust Belt states back into the fold, he has failed to win in Ohio – famous for being the state that has correctly voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1960. With this rare event, another record, Ohio’s remarkable 60-year unbroken run of choosing the country’s commander-in-chief, has also been broken.
In addition to this, his party’s failure to seize control of the Senate, which is still, for now, controlled by the Republicans, will make it more of a challenge to pass his legislative programme through Congress.
Biden’s critics have also pointed to the circumstances of what has been an election unlike any other. He was up against a poor Republican candidate with low approval ratings for a president seeking re-election, against the backdrop of an epidemic that has claimed the lives of 234,000 Americans. In light of this, there are some on the left of his party who believe that he should have done better and would have done so with a more radical platform.
There is an irony here – if there has been one thing that has hamstrung Biden, it is not his moderate platform but his association, by proxy, with the progressive wing of the Democrats. A full 88% of voters who cast a ballot for Donald Trump cited the radical protests taking place in American cities since the spring as a factor influencing their decision.
The Trump campaign relentlessly pursued an attack line on this front in the months leading up to the polls, painting Biden as a Trojan horse for radical left-wing politics and policies. At times, alongside his generally underwhelming performance among Hispanic Americans, this appears to have cost him votes in crucial places – such as Florida, where significant numbers of Hispanic voters from a variety of different backgrounds opted for Trump and provided the President with a lifeline to a potential electoral college upset.
The promise that the Democrats would seek to pack the Supreme Court with liberal justices should they win the Senate, made by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, probably encouraged some voters to split their ticket – opting for Biden in the White House but a Republican in Congress. For instance, while Biden comfortably won Maine, the State also opted to keep their liberal Republican Senator, Susan Collins. Ocasio-Cortez herself, even in the safe 14th Congressional district in New York, has taken a hit of about 9% to her share of the vote, although the final votes are still being counted at the time of writing. The local Republican candidate, John Cummings, suddenly finds himself with 30.6% of the vote in a district where the GOP usually polls very poorly (13.6% in 2018; 15% in 2016).
This testifies to yet another hurdle that Biden has managed to clear. He has done something that is notoriously difficult for any challenger: he went to the left of his natural (moderately conservative) politics to win his party’s nomination, but successfully tacked back to the centre in the campaign.
This was not easy by any stretch of the imagination. In a party that is steadily moving leftwards, it was quite a juggling act, an apparent defiance of political gravity. He appears to have squared this circle chiefly through Keynesian spending promises on green projects, pledges to make the criminal justice system fairer for ethnic minorities, and by resolving to expand Obamacare.
In a more bipartisan age, Biden’s win as a centrist candidate would probably have secured him a clear mandate to govern in Washington with support from moderates in both parties. In a more polarised climate, however, it remains to be seen whether even he – a seasoned veteran of the trade-offs and compromises of the Senate – will have the fortune, or the energy, to bring America’s warring parties into constructive cooperation.
For now, Biden will only briefly catch his breath to enjoy his election victory – his greatest challenges are still on the horizon. The series of crises he faces at home and abroad make those inherited by the Obama administration in 2009 look like a walk in the park.