Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinions at CNN.
Election week in America has come to an end. The votes have been counted. And Joe Biden will be the next President of the United States.
While Democrats did not get the landslide victory they were hoping for, make no mistake: Biden’s win is huge and historic.
So far, Biden has won over 74 million votes – more than any other president in American history – exceeding the previous record President Barack Obama set in 2008. Biden won with at least 50.5% of the popular vote, crossing the majority threshold that President Donald Trump failed to clear in 2016, when he received just 46.4% of the popular vote.
On the road to 270 electoral votes, Biden flipped at least three states Democrats lost in 2016. He became only the 11th challenger to dislodge an incumbent president. He reclaimed the upper Midwest and is also leading in Arizona, Nevada and Georgia. According to exit polls, he won independent voters, union households and moderates by double-digit margins over Trump.
It is an impressive mandate for the former Vice President, who became the oldest person to win the presidency, 32 years after his first run for the White House and 48 years after he was first elected to the US Senate as the face of generational change. This time, the mantle of generational change was embodied by his charismatic VP nominee, Sen. Kamala Harris, who will become the first woman – and the first woman of color – to serve as Vice President of the United States.
Running against a conspiracy-theory-peddling President who failed to contain a raging pandemic that has already killed more than 235,000 Americans, Biden was able to appeal to a country hungry for unity, empathy and competence. His closing argument offered a clear contrast to Trump, who has stoked partisan fires for the last four years: “I’m running as a proud Democrat, but I will govern as an American president. I’ll work with Democrats and Republicans. I’ll work as hard for those who don’t support me as for those who do. That’s the job of a president, a duty of care for everyone.”
But there has been grousing among Democrats, despite the big win at the top of the ticket. Many voters quickly fell into despair after Biden failed to win Florida on election night, and PoliticalWire’s Taegan Goddard later pointed out, “Democrats let their expectations get way ahead of reality.” While the results show Biden won with a broad coalition, the days-long count frustrated voters looking for a quick and clear repudiation of Trump.
The divisive and broadly unpopular incumbent managed to rally his passionate base and gain more than 7 million more votes than he did in 2016. In Florida, Trump surged in Miami Dade County and won the support of many Cuban-Americans who may have been turned off by aggressive disinformation campaigns spreading conspiracy theories and tarring all Democrats as socialists. This led centrist House Democrats to rail against the political costs of their more progressive colleagues immediately after the election.
And despite the President’s race-baiting and culture war politics, exit polls show he won 18% of Black men and 36% of Latino men nationally. Overall, he won the highest percentage of non-White voters among Republican presidential candidates since 1960, according to political strategist Adrian Gray.
While a conservative, populist demagogue lost the election, he also demonstrated that Trumpism still has a constituency – particularly among white men without college degrees. And conspiracy theories may be here to stay. As Mitt Romney’s former chief strategist and Lincoln Project advisor Stuart Stevens put it, “The Republican party will now have more QAnon believers than African-Americans in the House of Representatives.”
Black voters and suburban voters turned out big time for Biden. Democrats still have an uphill battle to face in the Senate, having only gained one seat so far (they picked up seats in Colorado and Arizona but lost one in Alabama), with two more seats up for grabs in Georgia’s run-off elections in January. While Democrats will likely retain their hold on the House, their majority will be slimmer, having lost several seats to Republicans.
For months, Donald Trump has been trying to undermine faith in the election and spreading baseless claims of voter fraud. Now that the President has lost, he is taking the desperate and predictable route of launching flimsy legal challenges, while his allies have spread unsubstantiated claims on social media. On Thursday night, Trump spewed lies about winning the election, falsely claiming that it was being “stolen” from him during a press conference at the White House before reiterating the sentiment in a rage-tweet at 3 am on Friday night. This is toxic nonsense and more evidence of Trump’s impulse to put his self-interest over national interest. Ellen Weintraub, chair of the Federal Elections Commission, put it bluntly when she tweeted: “Enough, Mr. President. Enough. Spewing conspiracy theories regarding this election will not change the results…Your lies undermine our democracy and harm our country. Just stop.”
Trump won’t stop. But he is powerless to unilaterally change the democratic outcome. The rage and fear we hear from Trump stems from his own confrontation with reality, and the fact that he is a loser who has been fired by the majority of the American people.
Due to the slow drip of results over the last five days, Republicans and some Democrats may be tempted to make the case that Joe Biden will enter the Oval Office without an overwhelming mandate. But let’s not forget: Biden won the White House with a bigger margin in the popular vote than John F. Kennedy in 1960 or Richard Nixon in 1968. And his victory is far more sweeping than Donald Trump’s in 2016, when he lost the popular vote by 3 million votes before proceeding to govern with a complete disregard for uniting the nation.
President Biden promises a very different approach than Trump. His experience primes him to make government work again, although it remains to be seen whether Senate Republicans will work with him in good faith. Either way, the divisions in this country run deep and will not be magically erased by the results of this election. A raging, recalcitrant incumbent who refuses to accept the reality of the democratic vote, will only make the task of bringing the country together even more difficult. But leadership matters. And unifying leadership is what we’ve been missing.
Now Biden’s time has come, with a political approach that is a cross section of former Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama. Like LBJ, he knows how to move legislation through Congress. He has campaigned as a champion of the working class and middle class for decades. And he believes in the power of personal diplomacy, often repeating his belief that while you can question someone’s judgement, you shouldn’t question their motives. He is in some ways a man who transcends the bitter politics of our era.
During his campaign, Biden did not get distracted by Twitter mobs that so often distort our civic debates. He promises to be a steady leader in an unsteady time and harkens back to an era when bipartisan coalitions could be cobbled together to solve common problems with a combination of decency and raw political skill.
He was a giant of the Senate who was seen by many as past his presidential prime when freshman senator Barack Obama asked him to join the ticket as an experienced hand with foreign policy expertise. A potential bid for the presidency in 2016 was derailed by the tragic death of his beloved son Beau, who died at the age of 46 from brain cancer. It devastated Biden, who has endured a life of loss, consoled and buoyed by faith. But he found renewed purpose in his oversight during the Obama administration of a national “cancer moonshot” initiative to find a cure.
Biden had stepped away from politics until white nationalist violence broke out in Charlottesville in 2017, and Trump responded with his “both sides” equivocation. Biden decided to enter the 2020 race. It was poetic justice that his path to the presidency was cleared by flips in the home states of two of his friends—both Trump foes–who died of cancer in the past four years: Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. It was almost as if their spirits helped him over the finish line.
Biden has been preparing for this challenge his entire adult life. As the author Richard Ben Cramer wrote of Biden in his epic history of the 1988 election, What It Takes: “If there came a time when he should run for the White House, he’d know … There would be time, in his life, to establish in everyone’s mind, that he was of good character.”
That time is now. For Biden, character proved to be the clearest contrast with the incumbent president he dislodged with a decisive defeat. Now his success will be our country’s success, and by leading with character he might help our nation rediscover the central importance of character, not only within the presidency, but within ourselves.