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The Unlikely Underdog

Against Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden would break the vice presidential nomination streak

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty

When vice presidents seek their party’s nomination, they win. The last failed veep candidacy was in 1952, when Alben Barkley’s passive campaign failed at the DNC when labor union leaders expressed grave doubts about whether an ill 74-year-old was fit for the presidency. Since then, vice presidents Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, and Al Gore all successfully won their party’s nomination—often comfortably.1 On average, these vice presidents held 45 percent of the vote in pre-primary polls. That should make Vice President Joe Biden well positioned to fulfill his lifelong dream of seizing the White House, but he's not. If Clinton runs, he barely has any chance at all.

Polls don’t show Joe Biden with anything near the 45 percent of the vote that's typical for a vice presidential candidate. Today, Biden's mired in the mid-twenties. That's about as much support as president Barack Obama had in mid-2007, but without the upside. Instead, Hillary Clinton commands a staggering 60 percent of the primary vote, an unprecedented figure for a non–vice presidential candidate and one of the highest levels of support of all time.

That’s got to be sad for Joe Biden, who’s run for the highest office twice before and hasn't ruled out another try. But those uninspired campaigns suggest that he’s probably not going to catch fire and take down one of the strongest candidates in recent memory. Biden only won 1.09 percent of the vote in Iowa in 2008. He’s just not an exceptional candidate.

Yes, Clinton lost in 2008. But it’s important to note how much stronger her numbers are today than they were in 2007. Back then, only 35-40 percent of Democratic voters offered their support. With a few additional gains, Clinton was able to expand to nearly 50 percent of the vote, despite getting only a sliver of the African American vote. Polls indicate that Clinton has won back much of their support, giving her the broad coalition she possess today.

It's possible that some candidate could put up a fight against Clinton, but it's not Biden. Clinton will probably always be weak on her left flank; white college-educated liberals, and perhaps especially liberal men, could easily prove to be skeptical of her candidacy. Of course, Clinton’s less likely to face a liberal revolt than she was in 2008, since the Iraq War is no longer an issue dividing the party. Even if she does face a liberal revolt, an establishment figure like Biden is probably the least likely Democrat to lead it. And even if he did so, there’s no reason to believe it could take down Clinton.

Candidates representing the progressive wing of the party don’t win Democratic primaries, as Bill Bradley, Howard Dean, Jerry Brown, Paul Tsongas, Jesse Jackson, and Gary Hart can attest. Obama’s liberal coalition only added up by winning the African American vote, which has traditionally aligned with the establishment candidate in the absence of a black candidate. For that reason, Clinton’s biggest threat would be another liberal, minority candidate who united progressive activists and won over a bloc of establishment-friendly minority voters. In 2016, no candidate seems likely to do so. There’s not a major issue like Iraq to unite progressives, let alone a candidate capable of leading them. Certainly not Biden.

  1. There is one exception: Dan Quyale, who sought the Republican nomination in 2000. Quyale didn't run as a sitting Vice President. In fact, he ran eight years after last holding office and ultimately dropped out of the contest long before Iowa.