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Don’t Sell Biden’s Vice Presidential Experience Short


Editor’s Note: The Crystal Ball will be away for the University of Virginia’s spring break next week. We’ll return on Thursday, March 21. We’re pleased this week to welcome back to the Crystal Ball Joel Goldstein, perhaps the nation’s leading expert on the vice presidency. Joel challenges the notion that the vice presidency is not a true stepping stone to the presidency and asserts that Joe Biden’s vice presidential experience is much more important to his 2020 chances than his previous presidential bids.

— The Editors



— The vice presidency, contrary to the belief of some, is actually a good springboard to the presidency.

— Former Vice President Joe Biden’s proven experience in the second slot is a lot more important in assessing his presidential odds than his two previous failed bids for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Biden and the presidential benefits of being vice president

Some pundits have emphasized Vice President Joe Biden’s lack of success in prior presidential races in assessing his strength as a presidential candidate this cycle. In arguing that Biden should not throw his hat into the ring, Julian Zelizer, the prominent Princeton University history professor, recently argued that Democrats had reason to be skeptical that Biden was the best available candidate. Zelizer offered other arguments for his conclusion but he wrote that “[m]ost problematic is the fact that Biden has run for the presidency several times, and each time he has struggled under the intense spotlight. When it comes time to hit the campaign trail, Biden has never been able to generate the level of support that is necessary to win.”

A little study of vice presidential history cautions against measuring Biden’s potential strength as a presidential candidate post-vice presidency based on his past presidential races. In fact, the emphasis on Biden’s past struggles illustrates the perils of using historical data without proper context.

Biden has run twice — in 1988 and in 2008 — and neither race ended near the presidential nomination. He withdrew from the former in September 1987 after a rival campaign leaked information that he had used a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock without crediting the source. Biden had identified Kinnock on other occasions, and the event happened a few months before Biden had surgery for a serious brain aneurysm. He withdrew from the 2008 race after finishing a distant fifth in Iowa in a strong field that included Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as well as John Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee, among others.

But those races occurred before Biden served two terms as vice president, and recent history teaches that service in that position often helps transform previously unsuccessful presidential candidates into presidential nominees and even presidents.

Hubert H. Humphrey withdrew from the 1960 race after losing primaries in his neighboring state of Wisconsin and in West Virginia to John F. Kennedy. But after a term as Lyndon B. Johnson’s vice president, he secured the Democratic nomination in 1968 and narrowly lost the presidency.

Walter F. Mondale was an early dropout in the 1976 race after his candidacy failed to catch fire. But after a term as Jimmy Carter’s vice president, he won the Democratic nomination in 1984.

George H.W. Bush lost badly to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Republican primaries and caucuses. But after two terms as Reagan’s vice president, he won the Republican nomination and the presidency in 1988 over a pretty impressive field.

And after Al Gore’s poor performance in the 1988 Democratic primaries and caucuses, he served two terms as Bill Clinton’s vice president and then secured his party’s nomination and almost the presidency, winning the popular vote by about half a percentage point but very narrowly losing the Electoral College.

The vice presidency furnished each of these talented public servants a national and international stage on which to demonstrate their political skill. Service in the second office also brought them enhanced visibility and name recognition, a larger political network, access to a wider donor base, and increased stature and experience.

Biden’s vice presidency had similar, if not greater, effects for him. His favorability rating in a Gallup poll as he concluded his vice presidency was 61% (even higher than Obama’s). By contrast, when Obama chose Biden as his running mate in August 2008, 51% either had not heard of him or had no opinion about him even though he had served six terms in the Senate, led two major committees, and run the two presidential campaigns that now cause various pundits to dismiss his candidacy. Biden’s work with Democrats across the country and his national campaigning for Democratic candidates during the last six campaigns from 2008 to the present as a vice presidential candidate, vice president, or former vice president have broadened his network. Biden’s service as vice president bolstered his record and experience in domestic and international matters, won Obama’s effusive praise, and positioned him as a leader on a range of potentially appealing issues.

Biden performed in a supporting role during the presidential races of 2008 and 2012. But he did quite well when he took center stage during the two vice presidential debates. He avoided bullying the over-matched Sarah Palin in 2008. Some 87% judged him qualified to be president and a majority thought him the winner even as Palin exceeded the low expectations for her performance. Four years later, after Obama’s disastrous first debate, Biden’s spirited performance revived the Democratic ticket, impressed uncommitted voters, and created a favorable impression about him.

Five years ago in this space, I responded to an earlier column by Zelizer and to other discussion that disparaged the vice presidency as a presidential springboard for sitting vice presidents. Zelizer had pointed out that only four sitting vice presidents had been elected president. I argued that that statistic was true but misleading because many of the 47 sitting vice presidents didn’t really have a chance to be elected president. Nine vice presidents had succeeded to the presidency, so most could not have been elected directly, nor could the seven who died in office and the two who resigned. In addition, 12 others had been blocked by the sitting president running for another term. When these 30 were dropped from the denominator, the fraction became 4/17, not 4/47. A 24% chance of election seemed pretty good! Four others had been nominated, but not elected, so eight of the 17 (47%) eligible vice presidents had won presidential electoral votes. When the distorting fact that there is only one vice president but many senators, governors, representatives, and mayors at any given time is considered, the vice presidency emerges as even more clearly the best presidential springboard, notwithstanding its challenges. The numbers differ when former, as well as sitting, vice presidents are considered, but in essence five vice presidents who subsequently ran for president were elected, and five (Richard M. Nixon is in both groups) later received presidential electoral votes but were not elected. The correct denominator is more difficult to determine but once we eliminate the vice presidents who succeeded to the presidency (9), died in office (7) or before the next open race (2), or left office amidst scandals (3) or in poor health (1), some 25 remain who had at least one chance to run as a sitting or former vice president. Of course, these computations based on American history since 1789 understate the vice presidential advantage because for most of the time the vice presidency was much more modest and vice presidents far less prominent than today. More relevant, of the 12 vice presidents from Nixon to Dick Cheney, two became president by succession, two by election, and three won presidential nominations but were defeated (not counting Nixon). The other five were Spiro Agnew, who left office in disgrace; Nelson A. Rockefeller, who died before the next election; Dan Quayle, who ran two abbreviated campaigns; Cheney, who disclaimed presidential ambitions; and Biden. That experience over more than six decades suggests the political advantages the vice presidency can confer.

Given the boost the vice presidency provides, it’s simply fallacious to predict how a Biden 2020 presidential candidacy would do based on his two pre-vice presidency races (even without considering that one occurred 30 years ago and one included two historic frontrunners and a former national candidate).

Biden’s vice presidency isn’t the only contextual information that minimizes the value of his prior runs in predicting his strength in 2020. Many political figures won presidential nominations after prior defeats for presidential nominations and other races. Nixon won the presidency in 1968 after running a poor campaign in 1960 and losing the California governorship in 1962 to Pat Brown. Bob Dole won the 1996 Republican presidential nomination after losing races for the nomination in 1980 and 1988 and after a poor vice presidential campaign in 1976. Reagan lost the nomination twice, in 1968 and 1976. John McCain and Mitt Romney each received the presidential nomination after failing once apiece. George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, and George W. Bush were among recent presidential nominees who suffered one or more defeats in prior races for lesser offices.

It’s impossible to know how the 2020 campaign will unfold. Every campaign has its own dynamic. Biden’s past races are certainly part of his political biography. But history teaches that it’s misleading to judge a former vice president’s quality as a presidential candidate based on pre-vice presidential races, and it’s a mistake to assume that past political losses measure the boundaries of a political future.

If Biden runs, he may or may not succeed. But he’ll run, and should be judged, as former Vice President Biden 2020, not an earlier model.

Joel K. Goldstein, the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University, is the author of The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden.