By Donald Gilpin
Providing behind-the-scenes stories on the campaigns, the primaries, and the twists and turns of the 2020 election, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes discussed their just-published book, Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency, in an April 1 Zoom webinar sponsored by Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs and Labyrinth Books.
In addition to describing the Biden campaign itself, “lucky,” Allen noted, also means that the Democrats were lucky that they nominated Biden, the only candidate who, he thinks, could have beaten Trump, and the nation was lucky that its system of government withstood the onslaught.
“We’re lucky that the Republic held,” said Allen, a senior national political reporter with NBC News Digital. Biden was able to capitalize on the breaks that went his way, and it was lucky for the Republic that our system held. People up and down the line in terms of judges and election officials did the right thing, and we were only one adverse decision away from the Republic crumbling.”
Also co-authors of HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton (2014) and Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign (2017), Allen and Parnes, who is senior correspondent for The Hill, talked with Princeton University Historian and CNN Political Analyst Julian Zelizer.
“Everyone knows what happened in the last election, but they don’t really know,” said Parnes. “So we kind of give you the ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ version of what went on behind the scenes. The Democrats tried to rebuild themselves after the 2016 election. They tried to learn their lessons from 2016. We talk about how Joe Biden barely got through the primaries and how he was barely able to win in the general election.”
Working almost entirely remotely, Allen and Parnes started by putting together a list of people to talk to. “There were so many candidates,” said Parnes, “25 at one point. So we started talking to people, writing the story in real time. The reporting guided us and almost told the story for us. Jon and I have a very good partnership. Jon is very good at analysis. I’m good at the detail and putting readers in the room.”
Allen added, “We were building the car and driving it at the same time, which means that we were going back and tampering with stuff in the first and second chapter on the last day before we had to publish. The key for us is that we try to identify the moments that we think are important in the campaign by a couple of different metrics. One of them is ‘What do people remember?’ We try to take those moments and go behind the scenes to see what led up to them and other factors that people couldn’t see leading up to them.”
Allen pointed out that they balance the investigation of those key memorable
moments in the campaign with a look at “stuff you didn’t have any idea about before.”
As an example of one memorable moment, Parnes discussed Senator Kamala Harris’ primary debate attack on Biden when she talked about his stand on busing in the 1970s.
“Her campaign had stalled,” said Parnes. “She knew she needed a moment to break through. She’s really good in these moments. We’ve seen her perform in committee hearings. She knows how to stand out, and she was looking for a standout moment here. We took you behind the scenes and showed you how she prepped for that moment.”
Parnes continued, explaining how Lucky goes on to tell the story of tensions that remained between Biden and Harris and their staffs throughout the selection process for the vice presidential candidate and how Biden for a long time remained unsure whether he could trust her.
Allen and Parnes cited other moments in the primary campaign where Biden suffered setbacks that could have ended his campaign, but luck was on his side. The book describes in detail how the disputes between Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg in the Iowa caucuses and delays in vote counting helped to distract from Biden’s poor fourth-place showing there.
“Everyone knew that he had lost the caucus, but no one really knew who won and we like to think that that was one of the things that played in his favor,” said Parnes.
Allen described a low point of Biden’s campaign in the early months of 2020. “What we see with Biden is somebody who did so much more poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire than we would expect of a former vice president, and even in Nevada where he came in second, but a distant second. He gets to the point where his campaign aides are telling him that he might have to refinance his house or take a second mortgage to make payroll. The subtext, as we wrote, is that it might just be time to wrap things up. The betting on Biden at that point was pretty low. As we go through the book there are many points where it could have been curtains for Biden.”
In the book, Allen and Parnes describe in detail the dramatic turnaround for Biden in South Carolina as he won the support of influential African American Congressman Jim Clyburn, and then went on to win the nomination and the presidency.
Commenting on lessons learned from the 2016 Clinton-Trump campaign, Allen noted, “Biden was very much conscious about having a message that was about other people and what he could do for them. I think Clinton really failed at that as an overarching need for a good presidential candidate. ‘Why are you running for president?’ The answer has to be about other people, and for Clinton it was ‘I’m with her.’ It was very much about her and that makes it difficult I think to have an umbrella
under which you can put all your policies and explain them as what you’re doing for other people. I think that matters a lot. It matters for how you’re building your organization and the way you respond to things.”
He continued, “The main thing is that he had a message and he stuck to it. It was fairly milquetoast — you know ‘the battle for the soul of America,’ but at least it was about something other than him.”
In a particularly dramatic section of the book, Lucky looks beneath the surface to describe what was going on in the chaotic first Biden-Trump debate, a moment when, Zeliger noted, “American politics reached rock bottom.”
“Trump really didn’t settle on a strategy,” said Parnes. “One group was telling him he had to trip up Biden and make sure he kept interrupting him and be obnoxious and that Biden would stumble. Another group wanted him to look more presidential. He chose to interface and be obnoxious and that backfired. It didn’t do him any favors.”
Allen added, ”He gave away the single greatest advantage of being president, which is looking presidential. Biden ends up looking more presidential than the sitting president. It was an egregious debate performance. Politics 101: never cede being presidential.”
Allen went on to cite other missteps in the Trump campaign. “If you look at Trump, from the onset of COVID, there are really very few things he does right politically. Most presidents when they face a crisis recognize that there’s political opportunity in it, rallying people around the flag. And Trump did the exact opposite. He really drove that division home as hard as he could, and still I’m surprised to this day that he got 12 million more votes than he had in 2016.”
Allen described the unusual position of former President Barack Obama during the Biden campaign. “It must be painful to Obama to see that in order to be successful Biden had to campaign significantly to the right of where Obama had campaigned,” he said. “You had the Trump rejection of Obama, then you had the Democratic Party scared to nominate another Obama, so they moved to the right and got together with Joe Biden. And then to watch Biden get into office and be able to do things that Obama could never have gotten away with and push to the left, particularly in matters of race.”
He concluded, “It must be very painful for Obama to be experiencing yet another kind of backlash to his presidency and a lack of understanding of people in his party about the constraints that held him where he was politically during his campaign and his presidency.”
Zelizer pointed out that Lucky “really helps in making sense of a campaign that was so fast-paced and sometimes hard to digest exactly what was happening. This book does it with a really terrific narrative.”
Noting several of his favorite parts of the book, he added, “You guys are great. You know how to tell a story. You know how to put the pieces together.”