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Can Joe Biden's Campaign Message Carry Him Over The Finish Line?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When Joe Biden launched his campaign last year, he said he was running to rescue the country from a president who threatened American values.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JOE BIDEN: Today, we're engaged once again in the battle for the soul of the nation.

Remain locked in the battle for the soul of this nation.

Join in the battle for the soul of the nation.

GREENE: It was a simple message focused on unity and character. And it has remained consistent even as Biden ends his campaign today. Here are NPR's Asma Khalid and Scott Detrow.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Joe Biden entered this presidential race relatively well-known and well-liked, thought to have the best shot at defeating Donald Trump in a general election. Still, he faced plenty of skeptics along the way. He spoke of empathy and bipartisanship at a moment when many Democrats were demoralized and many Republicans were angry. And yet, he's done exactly what Doug Thornell says a good campaign ought to do. Thornell is a longtime Democratic strategist and ad man.

DOUG THORNELL: What you say at the beginning - we often tell our clients, you know, your launch video should - you know, you should be able to air your launch video at the end of the campaign.

KHALID: Here's Biden in April of 2019 kicking off his campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

BIDEN: But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation.

KHALID: And here he is in a closing ad last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

BIDEN: Character's on the ballot, the character of the country. And this is our opportunity to leave the dark, angry politics of the past four years behind us.

KHALID: Despite calls for purity tests from his fellow Democrats, and then later accusations from Republicans that he was too old and too corrupt, Biden has largely stuck to the same message.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: And while that message might seem to resonate with a broad cross-section of voters now amid racial reckonings, a global pandemic and an economic recession, there were many moments during the primaries where it seemed out of step. For most of 2019, the Democratic primary seemed like a race to the left. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren set the pace, calling for policies like universal, government-run health care. Even Biden's now running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, criticized Biden for rejecting the idea of a single-payer system.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMALA HARRIS: Under our plan, we will ensure that everyone has access to health care. Your plan, by contrast, leaves out almost 10 million Americans.

DETROW: Other candidates attacked Biden's long legislative record and votes that most modern Democrats would oppose. And all along, with just a few exceptions, Biden refused to denounce his past record or rush to rework the platform he was running on. He also stuck to his message about unifying the country and mostly kept his focus on Trump. Bernie Sanders' campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, took note.

FAIZ SHAKIR: You just generally saw him feeling comfortable that, at the end of the day, he was going to rise or he was going to fall based on people accepting that his kind of almost normal, Democrat appeal - is a way to put that, (laughter) right? - kind of a normal, Democrat appeal was going to be steady and strong in this moment of Trump.

DETROW: And implicit in that so-called normal, democratic appeal - the argument to Democrats that this was the way to win votes in the key states deciding a general election. Biden held a steady national lead all throughout the primary. Then suddenly, he seemed to collapse. Biden finished fourth in Iowa, then a humiliating fifth in New Hampshire. Still, he didn't ditch the message and insisted on waiting for a broader, more diverse slice of the party's base to weigh in. That's why on the night of the New Hampshire primary, Biden was already in South Carolina talking about - yep, you guessed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: But I learned hate doesn't ever go away. It just hides. It just hides. And, folks, this president has done nothing but breathe oxygen into that hate and bring them out from under the rocks.

DETROW: The bet paid off. After a big South Carolina win, Biden came close to sweeping the rest of the primaries. It was the fastest effective end to a Democratic primary since 2004. But just as Biden was locking up the nomination, an unprecedented pandemic swept across the country.

KHALID: Suddenly, with the uncertainty of COVID-19, Biden's message of a return to normalcy had a new resonance. He spoke about trusting scientists as the president downplayed the virus. And it wasn't just what Biden was saying, it was how he was saying it. As the death toll ticked up, Biden spoke to people's fears.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I and many of you know what loss feels like. When you lose someone you love, you feel that deep, black hole opening up in your chest. And you feel like you're being swallowed into it.

KHALID: During the presidential debates, Biden had this habit of turning to the camera to speak directly to viewers about COVID and loss. The president mocked him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Just a typical politician when I see that...

KRISTEN WELKER: Let's talk about North Korea Now.

TRUMP: ...I'm not a typical politician...

WELKER: OK, President Trump.

TRUMP: ...That's why I got elected.

KHALID: But after four years of Trump, many voters are craving a typical politician. Biden is banking on the fact that even some independents and Republicans might join him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I'm running as a proud Democrat for president. But I promise you this, I will govern as an American president. I'll govern for everyone who voted for me as well as against me.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORNS HONKING)

KHALID: Biden closes this campaign sounding essentially like he did at the outset. He and his campaign have been remarkably disciplined about staying on message. Now, on Tuesday night, he'll face the biggest test of whether or not voters actually wanted that message.

I'm Asma Khalid.

DETROW: And I'm Scott Detrow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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