Joe Biden had one field office in Massachusetts, a suite in a nondescript Quincy office building.
His moribund campaign had just two paid staffers focused on the state. He hasn’t spoken at a public rally here since April 2019.
Last week, polls showed him as far back as fifth place in the state, behind Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and trailing Pete Buttigieg and Mike Bloomberg.
In a night that saw Biden take home wins throughout the country, his Massachusetts presidential primary victory was one of the most eye-popping in the bunch. Ultimately, late-deciding voters, many of whom had previously backed Buttigieg and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, secured Biden the win, surprising pollsters, stunting Sanders’ momentum, and delivering a mortifying defeat to Warren in her home state.
According to a CNN exit poll, 37 percent of Massachusetts respondents who voted for Biden said they had decided whose name they would check on the ballot on the day of the primary, and 48 percent of Biden voters had decided within the last few days before Super Tuesday.
“It’s just unprecedented, no ground game, no resources, and he didn’t just win, he won decisively,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said of Biden’s Bay State results.
Many voters pointed to Biden’s experience as a senator and vice president and his moderate platform as reasons to support him. But they acknowledged his success may have less to do with the candidate himself and more to do with the field and the political culture surrounding him.
“He’s the most electable in the group,” said Stephen Petitt, 69, who previously supported Klobuchar. “I’m a lifelong Democrat and am just most interested in beating Donald Trump. I just want a socially conscientious person in office.”
“He does have the best shot against Trump. And of the policies they’re all presenting, his seem the most achievable,” said Donna Kentley, 53, a self-described moderate and former Buttigieg supporter.
“I went with Biden simply because I thought it would be similar to having Obama again,” said Nathan Dowd, 36, of Ashland. “I’m not a huge fan, but any other candidate seemed to further the divide within our party.”
And analysts said the former vice president’s personal attributes helped.
“Joe’s redeeming quality is that he’s a likable figure in such a poisonous climate, and more than anything else that might be what people are looking for,” said Mark Horan, a political consultant and Democratic strategist who worked on Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign.
Sanders, who placed second in the Massachusetts primary, led among the state’s early deciders, according to CNN’s exit poll of Democratic primary voters. Thirty-two percent of Sanders voters decided he was their candidate in February, and 42 percent had landed on the Vermont senator as their candidate before that. Both Biden and Sanders have more than 500 delegates.
Early on in the primary season, Biden seemed to be floundering. He failed to crack the top three in New Hampshire and Iowa and trailed far behind Sanders in Nevada. But he scored a decisive victory in the South Carolina primary Saturday, which resurrected his campaign and reinserted him into the electoral narrative.
“I have to say, this is stunning, I’ve never seen such a turnaround in a nomination process,” said Ray La Raja, a political science professor at UMass Amherst.
The South Carolina win pushed Klobuchar and Buttigieg out of the race and shattered Mike Bloomberg’s claim that he was the most viable and unifying candidate. The former New York City mayor flat-lined in Tuesday’s primaries and left the race less than 24 hours later.
“The Biden support has just spiked everywhere since he won in South Carolina,” said David Hopkins, a political science professor at Boston College. “If you were for Bloomberg or Klobuchar or Buttigieg, a lot of those people changed their minds and went for Biden, post-South Carolina.”
Although Bernie Sanders’ message of democratic socialism and a political revolution has succeeded in igniting a fiery base of diehard supporters, it has also driven some in the party away. Dowd, who lives in Ashland, said unity is his number one priority, and he doesn’t envision Sanders achieving that, given his message and the dismissive rigidity of some of his supporters.
“I’m so sick of my friends that are for Bernie bashing every other candidate,” he acknowledged.
Once Klobuchar dropped out, Mark Chaplin, 61, voted for Warren in an attempt to take away from Sanders.
“I can’t do free health care, free college, free everything. I don’t know how we’re going to pay for it, and I’m not alone,” he said.
Biden’s Super Tuesday success in a state that he only lightly contested may be proof that local Democrats are “unsure of themselves and fearful" of losing to Trump, one analyst said.
“Late deciders," O’Brien said, "went to Biden because he is the one that finally appears electable.”
Hanna Krueger can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @hannaskrueger. Danny McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.