There are several examples of people becoming vice-president after running lackluster bids for the presidency. I’m thinking of people like Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, and Al Gore. All four went on two win their party’s nomination for president after having served in the second-in-command role. Of course, only one of those politicians went on to win the presidency, although Gore deserves at least an asterisk. Still, if the question is whether Joe Biden has a good chance of winning the nomination, these historical examples suggest that he should be optimistic. As for whether history suggests he can win, that’s less clear.
Either way, it’s really not a good analysis to suggest that Biden would make a bad contender just because he failed to win the Democratic nomination in either 1988 or 2008. People view him now through the lens of his role as Barack Obama’s affable sidekick, which is also why blemishes in his Senate record are probably overblown as obstacles in his path.
The fact that he ran for president 31 years ago shows his age, and age may be the biggest mark against him. Polls consistently show that the American public is skeptical about electing people who are already in their seventies. Of course, that same concern would apply equally to Bernie Sanders, as well as Donald Trump.
Biden has a little more room to maneuver now that Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio has announced that he will not run for the presidency. Both Brown and Biden are almost ideal general election candidates against Trump in my home state of Pennsylvania, and Biden has a clearer path now to picking up white progressive/labor votes, especially in the western part of the state. Biden also has the advantage of being from Scranton and almost an honorary senator in the Philly suburbs that border Delaware. He would be extremely formidable against Trump in Pennsylvania.
It’s likely that some of these strengths would transfer to other key states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, but not with the same force.
Nonetheless, it’s unfortunate that Sherrod Brown dropped out of the race because he was occupying a unique lane. Despite many similarities with Biden, Brown is more instinctively progressive and a better hybrid candidate with appeal to the white labor/intelligentsia split within the party. The challenge for Brown was going to be avoiding being typecast as the candidate for Rust Belt Obama/Trump voters. Biden actually has a much more natural appeal to black voters, many of whom see him as the best approximation of a third term for Barack Obama. He’ll struggle instead with the white academic/socialist left. He’ll get hammered for anachronisms and heresies in his Senate record, ranging from his tough-on-crime record to his treatment of Anita Hill to his Delaware-centric approach to bankruptcy law. He’s not going to be the preferred candidate of the progressive grassroots or the second choice of too many Bernie voters. He will also probably struggle with the youth vote, partly because the youth vote is more socialist and more idealistic, but also because they’ll be more attracted to an obvious “change” candidate.
Biden is starting in a strong position. He leads in all the polls and has enviable personal popularity numbers. He won’t need to win everywhere either. He can pile up delegates with second place and even in some cases third place finishes, and simply outlast most of the other candidates. The odds of a brokered convention are higher than normal for several reasons. It’s easier than ever to raise small donations or funds from Super PACs, so people don’t drop out for financial reasons the way they used to. With so many candidates running, it will be hard for anyone to get more than half the delegates. This is partly because a lot of candidates may be winning delegates, but also because of the proportional way that the Democratic Party doles them out. To win a majority, a candidate will probably have to win a lot of states outright. If no one emerges to dominate the field, we could easily see the conventioneers as the deciders. That scenario would also favor Biden as someone basically acceptable to all factions.
I could just as easily write a piece about all the reasons that Biden will fail to secure the nomination, but I think he’s being severely underestimated. I also think Sanders is being underestimated, but mainly because he’s being given almost no chance at all. He, too, could benefit from a splintered field, good name recognition, and the proportionate awarding of delegates. It’s hard to see how he could fail to top the minimal threshold for winning delegates in too many states. He’ll also benefit from the reduced role of superdelegates this time around.
Both Biden and Sanders have some advantages at the start, but it could all prove ephemeral if someone new catches the imagination of the people. There are candidates like Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris who each have their own kind of powerful charisma. There are outsiders like governors Jay Inslee and John Hickenlooper who can try to take advantage of their executive experience and distance from Washington, D.C. There are another twenty or so people thinking about running. Maybe one of them will rise suddenly to the top.
I still think Biden should be considered the front-runner. But first, he has to actually declare his candidacy.