Joseph R. Biden Jr., wielding a conciliatory message to end a turbulent presidency that purposely fueled a nation’s bitter divisions and failed to blunt the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, has defeated Donald J. Trump and will become the 46th president of the United States.
It is a victory, harder fought than many had anticipated, steeped in history. Biden, at 77, will become the nation’s oldest person to ever serve as president, the fulfillment of a decades-long quest that makes him the rare challenger to knock off an incumbent. His running mate, Kamala Harris, will attain the highest-ranking position for any woman in American government and become the first Black person and Indian American person to be vice president.
Biden’s clinching of the Electoral College came four days after the polls closed, when the Associated Press on Saturday declared that Pennsylvania, always considered the tipping state, had swung decisively in his favor. The AP later also called Nevada for him, and if Biden holds on to a narrow edge in Georgia, he will exceed 300 electoral votes, along with a lead of more than 4 million in popular votes, and project as a convincing winner.
“The Bible tells us that to everything there is a season—a time to build, a time to reap, a time to sow. And a time to heal,” Biden said at a drive-in victory celebration in Wilmington, Del., Saturday night. “This is the time to heal in America.”
He described his mandate like this: “Americans have called on us to marshal the forces of decency and the forces of fairness. To marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time.”
Biden will be sworn in on Jan. 20, assuming office at a time of once-in-a-century crisis: a pandemic that has killed more than 230,000 in the US, and an economic crisis that has forced millions out of jobs and disrupted every corner of American life. A longtime moderate who cast his experience, demeanor and painful life story as an antidote to a chaotic and divisive presidency, Biden has built up a sweeping range of plans to address the pandemic, the economy, health care, and more, ideas that could bring significant changes to American life — but they have a slim chance of becoming reality if Republicans hold onto Senate control next year.
Trump, who was golfing in Virginia when the AP declared Biden the winner, immediately made clear that he will not concede right away, issuing a statement that said Biden was “rushing to falsely pose as the winner,” even though the projections were based on cold, hard math in the swing states.
“Beginning Monday, our campaign will start prosecuting our case in court to ensure election laws are fully upheld and the rightful winner is seated,” Trump said. So far, the lawsuits his campaign has filed in key swing states have failed to offer compelling evidence of fraud or other irregularities.
Since Election Day, Trump has raged on Twitter and in public appearances, apparently convinced that his path to a second term lies in legal maneuvers and voter disenfranchisement instead of simply winning more votes than his opponent.
His reaction capped off a presidency in which he has constantly tried to deceive the public, and could foretell weeks of distracting attacks by an incumbent who has turned to lies, lawsuits, and angry Twitter posts to deny the reality of his loss.
But ultimately, the question of who wins is simply not up to him, and a presidency that began with an upset victory in 2016 came to an end as the slow, methodical gears of democracy laid plain his defeat.
No top Republican had acknowledged Biden’s victory—a surreal state of discontent that he seemed to acknowledge in his remarks Saturday night.
“I understand the disappointment tonight," Biden said, directly addressing those who voted for Trump. "I’ve lost a couple of times myself. But now, let’s give each other a chance,”
Still, the projection seemed unlikely to halt the distrust of the vote-counting process he has fomented among his supporters by making baseless claims about fraud. His supporters have gathered outside of facilities where ballots are being counted in cities like Phoenix, Detroit, and Philadelphia, raising the prospect of unrest in the days to come.
But in Philadelphia, they were met with a joyful counter-demonstration of people dressed like mailboxes or dinosaurs, dancing in the streets as the counting continued. As news of Biden’s victory came Saturday, people around the country yelled out of their windows, honked their horns in the streets and descended on the White House with bottles of champagne in hand.
Biden’s win, while falling short of the landslide some Democrats dared to hope for, still makes Trump the first incumbent to lose reelection since 1992, and amounts to a significant rebuke of a norm-shattering presidency that was born on a promise to “build a wall” to keep non-white immigrants out of this country and closed with race-based appeals about “law and order” in suburban neighborhoods.
“You chose hope and unity, decency, science and truth,” Harris said as she gave her victory speech in a resplendent ivory suit at the Saturday night event. “You chose Joe Biden as president.”
Yet Trump appeared to have expanded his base of support since his upset win in 2016, suggesting that his fiery politics will continue to shape the party even when he is not leading it. Some Democrats had come to view his 2016 victory as a fluke, one that was made possible by Russian interference and the blind spots of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, but Trump’s vote totals this time make clear that his appeal is deep and broad.
Biden was buoyed by Black voters, suburban voters and even some who usually back Republicans in an election turbocharged by Americans' strong feelings about Trump that smashed turnout records. Ultimately, Biden drew the most overall votes of any US presidential candidate in history.
It means that Biden, a longtime senator from Delaware who then served as a loyal number two to President Obama for eight years, has achieved the presidency with a steady campaign premised on “restoring the soul of a nation.” He stuck with that message even as his campaign flailed in the early primary contests before Black voters saved his candidacy by propelling him to a resounding win in South Carolina. Yet he appears to govern in a deeply polarized Washington, facing a likely Republican-controlled Senate and a diminished Democratic majority in the House.
As a candidate, Biden has called for the nation’s response to the virus to be grounded in science — a pointed contrast with Trump’s dismissal of experts — and has proposed a nationwide mask mandate. He has proposals to rebuild the economy by stimulating manufacturing, passing major climate legislation, and expanding government support for caregiving; he also campaigned on adding a public option to expand health care coverage.
His success will depend in part on his ability to deliver on a promise to reach across the aisle — and whether Republicans, whose opposition to Democrats has grown since the obstructionism that defined their response to the Obama presidency, will grab Biden’s extended hand.
The victory means the nation will swap one septuagenarian white man for another, yet the two are in many ways each other’s foil. Trump has been a caustic president who delights in busting convention and upsetting his opponents, a showman who relishes raucous campaign rallies and adoring crowds.
During his tenure, the president has attacked institutions in his own government, spewed out every thought on Twitter, turned on his political allies, and used racially divisive rhetoric that has drawn praise from white nationalist groups. He has often seemed more compelled by the Fox News lineup than the mundane workings of government, and has delighted in an undisciplined approach to weighty matters like foreign policy. Much of his tenure has been dominated by scandals and investigations, like the two-year probe by Robert Mueller into whether his campaign coordinated with Russia in 2016. Trump also was impeached by the House earlier this year.
That will make Biden’s ascension to the White House an immediate departure from Trump’s reality-show presidency, even if Republicans stonewall his agenda. Biden represents a restrained institutionalism that can sometimes seem out of a different era.
Where Trump is driven by score-settling and personal invective, Biden is conciliatory, and he has built his campaign on the idea that Americans exhausted by four years of Trump’s political theater are now seeking a return to decency and political convention. His 47-year career in public office earned him a reputation for loquaciousness and occasional verbal gaffes, but as a presidential candidate in the most important race of his life, he found a new sense of discipline.
And in a nation mourning so many dead in the pandemic, Biden will lean on an indelible quality that Trump often seemed to lack: his sense of empathy, forged by a lifetime of tragedy, that has shaped his worldview and given him an authentic path to connect with individuals and the broader electorate. As a candidate, Biden gave his phone number to supporters who would clasp his hands and tell them they had lost loved ones, as he has; as president, he will likely embrace the role of “mourner-in-chief” with utter sobriety.
Biden secured his victory with wins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, rebuilding the so-called “blue wall” states that Trump snatched from the Democrats in 2016. He also made new inroads into the Sun Belt with a projected win in Arizona and a narrow lead in Georgia, neither of which a Democratic presidential candidate has won for more than two decades.
Despite handily winning the popular vote, Biden scored an Electoral College win built on slim margins, state to state, in a vindication of a cautious campaign strategy that has been second-guessed by Democrats who thought he didn’t campaign boldly — or often — enough.
The elder statesman of the Democratic Party, Biden is an ambitious politician who has been in elected office for decades. He was born in Scranton, Pa., in 1942, but spent most of his life in Delaware, overcoming a childhood stutter by reading poetry into the mirror.
Biden was elected to the US Senate in 1972 at the age of 29. But he soon met a personal tragedy that forever shaped his public image as a figure with an intimate understanding of grief. About a month after he was elected, his first wife and his infant daughter were killed in a car crash that also injured his two sons, Beau and Hunter. Biden was sworn into the Senate by their hospital bedside, and famously commuted daily on Amtrak between their home in Delaware and Washington, D.C.
By 1987, he was running for president for the first time, making a pitch for generational change that flamed out well before the primaries after a plagiarism controversy. As a senator, he worked closely with Republicans, and his relationships with segregationist senators and his work in passing the 1994 crime bill became a political liability for him later in his career. In 2008, he ran for president once more, but got eclipsed by brighter stars like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ― who later made him his vice president.
Biden’s role as the second-in-command to the country’s first Black president endeared him to voters of color, and he and Obama grew personally close over their eight years in office. By 2015, he was considering mounting yet another presidential campaign, but he decided against running as he mourned the death that year of Beau, to brain cancer.
When Trump won the presidency in 2016, however, Biden had a new reason to run for president: to defeat him. His campaign was premised on predictability and electability, and he initially failed to catch fire with Democrats who saw candidates with bolder ideas as an antidote to the Trump presidency.
Biden stuck with his message about unifying the country even as Bernie Sanders' calls for Medicare for All or Elizabeth Warren’s promise of “big structural change” resonated with voters in the months before the primaries and the caucuses. The voters of Iowa and New Hampshire handed Biden two humiliating defeats in their nominating contests — fourth and fifth place, respectively, leaving him frustrated and other Democrats convinced his campaign was all but dead.
But a few days in February changed everything.
Biden allies urged Jim Clyburn, the powerful Black South Carolina congressman, to endorse him, which helped Biden achieve a smashing, 29-point victory there, powered by the state’s Black voters. It amounted to a defibrillator for his candidacy. Two other moderate contenders — Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg — quickly dropped out of the race and coalesced behind him.
By Super Tuesday, Biden was winning primaries in states — like Massachusetts — where he barely campaigned. Yet as soon as it was clear that he had an insurmountable lead over Sanders, the second-to-last candidate standing, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic shut the nation down and suspended all normal campaigning.
Biden sought to turn the race into a referendum on Trump’s handling of the pandemic — an issue that drowned out others, like immigration or the president’s impeachment. With livestreamed speeches from his home in Delaware, he accused Trump of not having a plan to defeat the virus. The drumbeat of deaths seemed to drive home his point.
Trump urged states to reopen their economies. In May, when a Minneapolis police officer killed a Black man named George Floyd, Trump dismissed the Black Lives Matter protests that spread across the nation, attempting to depict them as “riots” that would endanger white voters' quiet lives in the suburbs. As protesters tore down Confederate statues, Trump launched a spirited defense of American “heritage.”
By late summer, Trump had relaunched his raucous campaign rallies, crisscrossing the country while Biden stayed quieter and closer to home, betting that voters tired of Trump’s cacophony would reward his discipline.
It is not clear how many minds that changed. An AP analysis found Trump performed well in parts of the country that have the highest rates of the virus. And Democrats who are evaluating their losses in the House and their failure to pick up control of any new state Legislative chambers already are debating whether it was a mistake to so sharply curb in-person campaigning.
Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.