Joe Biden won the presidency by making the most of his lucky breaks

Crown, 498 pages, $30

Sometimes a book is so eager to take readers behind the scenes that it neglects to spend enough time on the scenes themselves. This is often so with works chronicling presidential elections, obsessed as they are with the machinations of high-priced operatives, the strategizing of rival campaigns, or the “optics” of who stands where on a debate stage. Read enough of them and it gets hard to discern whether that is all the authors choose to emphasize, or if that is all there really is to see.

Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency, a brisk and detailed account of the 2020 presidential race by political journalists Jonathan Allen of NBC News and Amie Parnes of The Hill, is the first volume to tell the story of this unusual electoral contest, with several competing works scheduled later this year and into 2022. Allen and Parnes, who co-authored the best-selling book Shattered, about Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 campaign, are only slightly more generous with the Democratic nominee. Joe Biden won, of course, but mainly because he “caught every imaginable break.” He was the “process-of-elimination candidate,” emerging from a crowded set of more exciting Democratic contenders. He was “lousy in debates and lackluster on the trail,” prevailing despite “a bland message and a blank agenda.” Biden, they argue, got lucky.

The fiasco of the Iowa caucuses, where the app designed to report the results failed miserably, temporarily obscured Biden’s fourth-place showing. “This was a gift,” a campaign aide later explained. Luck returned when rival Democrats such as Pete Buttigieg (who ended up winning Iowa) and Mike Bloomberg (who won American Samoa) suffered debate night takedowns by Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren — and when Biden survived a hit from Kamala Harris over his past positions on school busing and desegregation. Fortune smiled again when the entire Democratic Party establishment rushed to Biden’s side after his victory in the South Carolina primary, even if it was less about devotion to him than panic that Bernie Sanders might secure the nomination. “On Super Tuesday, you got very lucky,” President Donald Trump told Biden at their first debate. The Democrat did not disagree.

But Trump offered his rival some luck, too, when the president failed to deal effectively or humanely with the coronavirus pandemic. Allen and Parnes quote then-senior campaign official Anita Dunn, now a White House adviser, discussing how the outbreak affected Biden’s prospects. “COVID is the best thing that ever happened to him,” she told an associate early in the crisis, according to the book. It’s a cynical way to regard a disease that would go on to take the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans, even if it was, they write, what Biden campaign aides “believed but would never say in public.” Well, it’s public now.

Such blunt, insidery talk is the lifeblood of Lucky. Biden campaign pollster John Anzalone, for instance, worries about the vagueness of his candidate’s speeches. “No one knows what this ‘soul of America’ bulls— means,” he complains. At a New York event with Black corporate leaders in the fall of 2019, Barack Obama praised Warren’s candidacy and listed several reasons Buttigieg couldn’t win. “He’s thirty-eight, but he looks thirty,” the former president said, eliciting laughs in the room. “He’s the mayor of a small town. He’s gay, and he’s short.” And top Sanders campaign adviser Jeff Weaver chewed out fellow adviser Chuck Rocha as the early Nevada primary results came in. “Where are the Latinos? You spent 3 million dollars. Where are the Latinos?”

A simplistic focus on identity is evident throughout the Democratic field, with new aides often hired to make staffs look young and more diverse — only to complicate things by having ideas of their own that diverged from those of entrenched advisers. Allen and Parnes portray a Biden campaign split along “deep fault lines mostly based on generation, race, ideology, and time in Bidenworld.” The nominee was in the middle of it, hewing to centrist positions on health care, racial justice, and law enforcement, no matter the pressures from his campaign team and his party. To beat Trump, they had to swallow their progressive values and push forward an old white man who simply promised to restore calm.”

That “simply” is a little deceptive. The 2020 race transpired against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic, widespread protests for racial justice, and threats to American democracy emanating from the presidency itself. In Lucky, such context matters largely to the extent that it affects the candidates’ rhetoric and fundraising. (George Floyd’s death, for instance, required some “nimble positioning” by Biden, Allen and Parnes write, trying to keep both moderate White voters and party activists happy.) As a result, the moments of high drama in the book can feel small-bore. How do longtime Biden campaign staffers react when the interloping new campaign boss, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, receives a glowing write-up in The Washington Post‘s opinion section, complete with a portrait-type photo? “The profile landed like the mother of all bombs in the civil war between the Obama veterans and Biden’s primary crew,” Allen and Parnes overwrite.

There are memorable and telling insider moments in Lucky, revealing vital negotiations or highlighting simple truths that parties and campaigns would rather obfuscate. For example, planners of the Democratic Party’s virtual convention thought about featuring a national map that would highlight the locations of various speakers, thus countering the notion that the party was a club for coastal elites — only to can the idea when they realized multiple speakers would be broadcasting from Martha’s Vineyard. And the all-important endorsement of Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina was in play when Clyburn cornered Biden during a commercial break at a Charleston debate and urged him to promise to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court. “This wasn’t offered as a condition of Clyburn’s endorsement, but it was an expectation,” the authors write, parsing a bit too finely. Biden awkwardly complied.

Unfortunately, Allen and Parnes clutter their story with italicized descriptions of what various players are really thinking at particular moments, a tic that carries over from Shattered but that here grows more noticeable. “Obviously, we are not able to read minds,” they acknowledge in an author’s note, explaining that they divine such thoughts from firsthand or secondhand sources, or from “documents that suggest what a person was thinking.” Even so, these asides are distracting and often unnecessary. How the hell can they do that? Trump thought when Fox News called Arizona for Biden on election night. (Yes, we all heard he was upset.) And Warren’s supposed inner monologue before eviscerating Bloomberg on a Las Vegas debate stage closely resembled — no shock — what she said to Bloomberg’s face on national television.

The most persuasive case that Biden “barely won” the presidency, as the book’s subtitle states, is found not in the details of Allen and Parnes’ reporting but in their description of the election’s final tallies. Yes, Biden received 81 million votes, the most in U.S. presidential history, but “many voters didn’t realize how close the president had come to winning a second term.” Allen and Parnes note that Trump’s collective margin of defeat in three states that would have given him an electoral college victory — Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona — was 42,918 votes, less than the 77,000-plus votes that cost Clinton Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania four years earlier.

Lucky provides useful detail to understand Biden’s victory, even if the framing is not particularly novel. What candidate has not experienced some luck or misfortune during a long presidential bid? One time it might be a major health crisis, another time a self-righteous FBI director. Stuff happens, and the best candidates figure out how to react. “Knowing who he was, and where he wanted to be politically, allowed Biden’s campaign to capitalize when luck ran his way,” Allen and Parnes write in their final pages.

In other words, Biden was more than lucky. And for political reporters as for political candidates, spending too much time on optics is just not a good look. 

(7) comments

Grace Trujillo

It wasn't a landslide that he won by, but come on! The majority of the votes were big for Biden! People were tired of supporting a President that didn't have the same views, the same sane mind, and the ability to control his negative opinions that we didn't agree with. I guess I don't blame you for making money on such a important subject. You should have called it! The Biggest Bad Sport in an Election!!!!!!!!

Katherine Martinez

I couldn't believe that Barry would disparage a fellow democrat such as Mayor Pete, calling him such salacious names. How typical.

Tom Hyland

This wasn't "luck" that Biden barely squeeked into the Oval Office. It was blatant criminal manuevering the likes of that have never been seen before. Voting headquarters everywhere shut down by 9 pm and registered Republican vote watchers were dismissed from the premises. Then the shipping vans delivered hundreds of thousands of ballots that had only one name on them, Joe Biden. Many witnesses have given testimony that ballots with Biden's name were counted three or four times. Many people know this, the Santa Fe New Mexican knows this, and the Supreme Court knows this, but no court will allow a challenge to come forth. The American people have witnessed a coup of gargantua proportion. Joe Biden was so impared he was rarely allowed to leave his house and only saw a few parking lots of folks whenever he was let outside. Now he's incapable of answering questions and can only read aloud brief written messages with great difficulty. Joe Biden isn't lucky at all… he's been manipulated by criminals and will be discarded quite soon. The whole world is watching.

Carolyn DM

BWAHAHAHAHAHAAA!! Hilarious!! Please provide references to these, "Many witnesses have given testimony that ballots with Biden's name were counted three or four times"!! LMAO!!

Tom Hyland

Doug Billings interviews Sydney Powell who describes the voter fraud of November 3rd. There is an abundance of commercials so click in at the 8:30 mark to begin the interview. I don't expect you to watch this, Carolyn, you don't appear to be curious regarding important events that have injured our nation. But others will watch this.

Tom Hyland

I can't reply if I wanted to because the censors here continue disappearing my comments.

david J.

Tom, you'd better drink the Kool- Aid if you expect to speak your mind here.

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