Listening to former Vice President Jo Biden Jr’s South Carolina victory speech, it was possible to tell something was in the air. For better or worse – the power of words has the ability to change the course of history. In America, this is particularly so.
As the votes from Super Tuesday are counted, one thing is certain – Biden has found at the timeliest moment an ability to put forward an argument that cuts across the American patchwork. With wins in ten of the fourteen states, Democratic voters latched on to narrative of ‘hope’ and ran with all the poll defying vigour they could muster.
Biden’s critical victory speech wasn’t always the most elegant but it came across as the most heart-felt of the Democratic Primary. It combined a mixture of basic policy vision with a call for Democrat voters to embrace a higher ideal. Building on Obama’s transformative assessment on race relations from 12 years ago, Biden called on Americans to “focus on our goodness”, create a ‘more perfect union’ and talked to stories of personal resilience.
It was powerful stuff as Biden drew on the best of America and emphatically channelled the Declaration of Independence claiming that he believed “with every fibre of my being, that all men and women are created equal’. At the same time, he didn’t mince his words in defining Donald Trump’s Presidency as lacking “any sense of empathy or concern for anybody else”.
Biden’s speech stands in such contrast to Sanders’ daily attacks on the President. In nearly every speech that Sanders’ delivers, he calls Trump a ‘racist’, ‘sexist’ and ‘homophobe’, all to the wild applause of supporters. One of Sanders’ biggest problems here is that he hasn’t been able to offer a set of countering ideals. Instead, the overwhelming focus is on important political and structural challenges that define modern America – especially inequality.
And despite the best of intentions, it all comes across as though Senator Sanders doesn’t like America very much. Especially when contrasted with a more positive message.
There’s a basic rule in politics that any effective campaign needs to give people something to either vote for or vote against. In sharpening his message at the right moment, Biden gave Americans both of these options while Sanders has inadvertently set-up a negative campaign about a positive vision.
In casting a message that empathised with southern and rural Voters and offering an inclusive outlook to those in more urban areas (especially the suburbs), Biden found a winning formula.
While Biden’s strong performance in the South had been on the cards, the end result was that in winning states such as Minnesota and Massachusetts, he showed that he could put forward a narrative that Democrat voters from all walks of life could get behind.
For Sanders, his victories were limited to the highly urbanised Western states: Colorado, Utah and California (in addition to his home state of Vermont). He really didn’t get close to advancing a unifying vision for America.
As the next round of analysis brings more swing states into play, we’ve all learnt to never underestimate a 77-year-old with a better knowledge than most about the common threads that hold America’s patchwork together and a bit more about the importance of a good speech.
(Photo: Biden after his South Carolina Victory, source: Washington Post)