How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency

Jonathan Allen, senior political analyst with NBC News digital, talks about the new book he co-authored, Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency.

This week, I had Jonathan Allen, senior political analyst with NBC News digital, on the podcast to talk about the new book he co-authored, Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.

The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:

Matt: I love this title, because I think, first of all, it's daring. When you say that “Joe Biden was lucky,” some progressives will assume that means Biden doesn't have a mandate. But it is amazing how close this election was, and, heck, if Trump had just sent out those COVID stimulus checks before Election Day, that alone might have swung the election. Talk about coming up with that name.

Jonathan: Over the pivotal states, which were Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin—they were the three closest that Trump could have conceivably won, and if you flipped them, he would continue to be president—the margin of victory for Biden in those three states was 42,918 votes. Even if [Biden] did everything right, there was a little bit of a wind at his back—maybe more than a little bit of a wind at his back—and whether you want to attribute that to God, or fortune, or fate, or whatnot, we use the word “lucky,” but we also think that outside of that specific campaign construct. The Democratic Party was lucky that it found its way to a candidate who…was not the first choice of the majority of the [Democratic] electorate… And then the country's lucky—look, you know, we saw the Capitol gets stormed on January 6—the country is lucky that the republic stood, because the chances of all of that going down the drain were nonzero for the first time in a long time.

Matt: Trump did all sorts of crazy things for years. Maybe it's abandoning the Kurds. Maybe it's saying that you could inject bleach into your arm. Maybe it’s firing James Comey. Yet, despite all the crazy things Trump said and did, he still almost one. And I find that amazing.

Jonathan: Yeah. You know, I think for a lot of people who watch politics closely, they watched Trump over time, and said to themselves, “There is a limit to the degree to which he can deepen his base, and his reluctance to broaden it is a political mistake.” And I still think that that's true… But if you're the Republican Party, and you picked up House seats (you lost the Senate, but you lost it sort of post election), and your presidential candidate would have won, [had it not been for] 43,000 votes over three states, the lesson that you take from it is you only have to make minor changes to win the next one. And that I think helps explain why you saw all the Republicans who voted against a COVID relief bill, which, in the past, you would think that that was politically, if not suicidal, certainly self harming.

Matt: In 2020, I got most of my analysis right. Like, I argued that Democrats should nominate Joe Biden, and that Joe Biden could beat Donald Trump. But Jon, I have to tell you, probably my worst column, the one that I regret the most from last year, was after Biden lost the first two or three states, I gave up on him. I just didn't think he could win the primary after losing Iowa and New Hampshire, and I wrote a piece that said, like, maybe it's time for everybody to rally around Amy Klobuchar. So even I lost faith in the guy. And yet Joe Biden, never gave up on himself, did he?

Jonathan: One of the things that we report on is that in New Hampshire, [Biden] gets down to the point where his top aides are coming to him and Jill Biden, and saying to them, “Look, we are running out of money, and here are the options for staying in the race and continuing to have people on payroll,” and one of those options was that the Biden's would have to refinance their house and put their own money in. And they drew a red line there and didn't do that. But we also report that Biden had to tell Jill to “Just hold on—just hang on till South Carolina, I think it's going to work out.” Biden had this incredible confidence in himself this incredible optimism about not just his own ability, but what the country wanted, and about the message being to counterbalance Trump in so many ways, you know, from the basic competence of government, to having compassion and being able to show that compassion for people. And he just really believed it. And there are times when Joe Biden's self-belief has seemed to people around him to be a little delusional. Barack Obama not only thought that Joe Biden would lose the primary, he was worried that he was going to embarrass himself and tarnish the the Obama legacy. He went to Biden's people and actually invited them to his office and said before the election, like, “Just make sure he doesn't embarrass himself, I want to feel comfortable that you're not going to let him get to a place where he basically undoes all the good that he's done in his life.”

Matt: I don't think you intended to do this, but Barack Obama does not come out of this book looking good. In 2016, Obama basically froze Biden out of the race, and helped Hillary become his heir apparent, instead of Biden. And then, in 2020, Obama’s encouraging Beto O'Rourke and Elizabeth Warren. This either means one of three things. That Obama knew Biden really has lost a step, and didn't deserve our trust, but he got really lucky. Option two is that Barack Obama is not a savvy, sophisticated, observer—that his political instincts are in question. The third option is that Barack Obama is simply disloyal. I mean, Biden’s a guy who's served very loyally for eight years as his vice president. Like, which of those options is it?

Jonathan: Well, I think there's a degree to which all three are true. Um, you know, Biden is not who he was when he was 45 years old. And, you know, you asked, “Did he lose a step?” Like, he's not the same guy he was, you know, 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, or maybe even five years ago. We all go through this at some level. So on that score, I like to think of this in terms that baseball fans will get this immediately, and I'll explain it a little bit for those who aren't. But [Biden’s] a little bit like the pitcher Tommy John, who is known for a particular type of surgery because they basically had to graft one of his tendons from one arm into the other. It's called Tommy John Surgery. When he was a young man, before he had the surgery, he was a fireballer. He had a great fastball. After the surgery, he had to change his game a little bit, and he was a more savvy pitcher. I think, he still won 20 games three times after the surgery. But he was a different guy. And you know, in terms of his skills, needing to find that craftiness was helpful. And I think for Biden, you know, he used to be a young man in a hurry. And now, he's somebody who is patient and he let the election come to him. He let the Democratic Party find him as its best nominee. He let the electorate that, you know, the broader general electorate come to him. He let Trump go out, you know, essentially unchecked, and talk about COVID for months from the White House podium, and say things like “Inject bleach.”

Matt: I love this analogy, Jon, of the savvy veteran who becomes a finesse pitcher. And instead of using his million dollar arm, uses his wisdom and experience. And yeah, it very well may be that Biden was a better candidate this time around, in terms of this matchup, that if you had the choice between the young, quick, cocky Joe Biden, or the older, maybe a little slower, but wiser, Joe Biden, it may be that the stars really aligned.

Jonathan: I think his humility appealed to people. This is a guy who talks about luck a lot. Here’s a guy who lost a wife and child when he was a very young man in a car accident, who lost a son who he believed was going to be heir to his political dynasty to a brain tumor. He has seen the bad side of fortune, and he also is somebody who talks frequently about the good side of fortune. In fact, we close the book with a quote that Biden often attributes to his father, “It’s the lucky person who gets out of bed in the morning, puts both feet on the floor, knows where they’re going, and still thinks it matters.” And I think that applies so much to Joe Biden.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.