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Meet the Democrat Who Beat Biden on Super Tuesday

The Democrat who delivered President Joe Biden his first defeat of the 2024 primary cycle wasn’t millionaire Congressman Dean Phillips or new age gadfly Marianne Williamson. It was a previously obscure Baltimore businessman with a name out of an Aaron Sorkin script: Jason Palmer.

Palmer shocked the incumbent, and denied the president a clean sweep on Super Tuesday, by winning the caucus in American Samoa. In so doing, his shoestring campaign — which he likens to a “lean startup” — matched the 2020 Democratic primary performance of Mike Bloomberg, who spent colossal $1 billion on his vanity presidential bid.

Palmer tells Rolling Stone he never set foot in the South Pacific island territory, which is closer to New Zealand than Hawaii. “We hired three local people, part time, who’d worked on prior campaigns. We did less than $4,000 in advertising — and held four virtual town halls.” Palmer insists that his only secret was taking time to listen to the issues of the territory’s residents, including their concerns about the “brain drain” created by a lack of higher education on the island, as well as fears about the frontline impacts of climate change on local reefs and fishing stocks. During the Tuesday caucus, only 91 people showed up. Palmer scored 51 votes to Biden’s 40 — and won three delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

On Wednesday headlines blared: “Who is Jason Palmer?” — calling him “a previously unknown Democrat.” But this is where I need to out myself as a Palmer hipster. I have known Jason for nearly 40 years, having grown up attending the same Quaker family camp on Lake George in upstate New York in the 1980s. I’d been following his bid with personal interest, but was as floored as any national journalist at his upset win. And I couldn’t help but smile as my Facebook feed lit up with posts from Quaker aunties and cousins touting Palmer’s unlikely victory. When I spoke to Palmer on the phone for 20 minutes on Wednesday, it marked a reunion of old friends — and Friends.

Palmer is not quite as off-the-radar as headlines would have you believe. He’s never held elected office. But he’s a former Microsoft executive who previously served as Deputy Director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and he sits on the boards of the Smithsonian and the National Zoo. He currently runs an “impact investing” firm that backs socially conscious “double-bottom line” companies — in the model of Ben & Jerry’s. He describes himself as an advocate of “conscious capitalism, not rapacious capitalism.”

Palmer, 52, is challenging to peg politically.

He says he got into the race because he feared that if Biden ran completely unopposed, the incumbent wouldn’t actively campaign, the Democratic electorate wouldn’t get energized, running the risk that “Trump’s gonna win in a landslide.” Palmer paints himself as a pragmatist who wants to be a “purple president.” And he says he has been campaigning in the same lane as Phillips, the multimillionaire Minnesota congressman and businessman, who got skunked on Super Tuesday and has now dropped out, endorsing Biden.

Palmer’s top objectives are technocratic. He peppers his talking points with phrases about the “new collar” economy, and “upskilling” people to land middle-class jobs. He looks the part of a C-Suite executive, but Palmer touts the promise of B Corps, which pursue positive social returns, as well as shareholder value. He wants to see a federal law enabling B Corps nationwide — and would give those companies a hefty tax break.

The Maryland Democrat seeks to differentiate himself, politically, with a “solutions oriented approach” — pointing to the challenges of immigration at the Southern Border as an example. Palmer says he favors a “talent-based” immigration system, favoring the “best and brightest,” as well as an expanded guest-worker program. Arrivals at the border would be interviewed, he proposes: “We would find out what skills you have and whether there are jobs for them.” A select group would win visas, and the rest would be “sent back.” Palmer also calls for a surge of thousands of border judges, not border agents, so that “asylum cases can be heard and decided within 60 days.”

The candidate recognizes that his centrism is going to alienate many progressives. Palmer’s yen for political compromise extends, for example, to hot-button issues like abortion. He points to a political divide between Americans who favor a 13-week limit and others who seek a 24-week cap. “Maybe we should compromise in the middle at 18 weeks,” he proposes. “At least we’ve reached a solution.”

But dig into the policy pages on Palmer’s campaign website, and the layers of pragmatism peel away to reveal some more-radical thinking. He supports “significant” gun control, including a ban on AR-15 style assault rifles, as well a “Truth And Reconciliation” style commission to establish reparations for slavery — which he insists would “create a new wave of entrepreneurs, investors, and workers to bolster the economy.”

On Gaza, Palmer breaks firmly with Biden. “I’ve been advocating for a ceasefire since November,” he says. “I don’t think we should be sending military aid to Israel, which is immediately used to kill innocent Palestinians and displace them.”

I ask Palmer as a Quaker — a faith rooted in pacifism — if he’d be comfortable wielding the powers of commander in chief. He insists he’s a “Quaker realist,” calling for modernizing but also “downsizing” the military industrial complex. “The military can be much smaller than it currently is,” he insists. “And I would make sure that we shouldn’t be the world’s policeman. That’s not what the Americans want.”

Palmer had just wrapped an interview on CNN before speaking to Rolling Stone and confesses that he didn’t expect the contest in American Samoa to be the “magic keyhole to the universe” that put his campaign on the map. He says his presidential bid, like any good startup, has been “throwing spaghetti at the wall,” trying to go viral.

Another trick his campaign launched as media catnip is a Palmer AI — where users can type in questions and an uncanny — or at least uncanny valley — animation of Palmer’s face will answer in his voice. I asked the AI version of why folks should consider him over president Biden. “According to polls, about 60 percent of Americans disapprove of Biden’s leadership,” Palmer AI responded. “My campaign aims to offer a positive and optimistic vision forward, and I believe we can do better for America.”

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