Skip links

The Vice Presidential Advantage

There is a longstanding belief that the vice presidency is a poor launching pad for a presidential candidacy. The argument invariably notes that few sitting vice presidents have been elected president and points out the obstacles the second office places before those who mount presidential campaigns.  The distinguished historian Julian Zelizer of Princeton University has most recently advanced this position in a CNN opinion piece headlined “Why Biden Won’t Win.” It’s too early to know whether Vice President Joe Biden will run for president, and, if so, whether he’ll win, but the idea that the vice presidency is now a poor presidential springboard is myth.

Those who dismiss the vice presidency as a good source of presidential candidates often note that only four of the 47 men who have held the nation’s second office were elected president upon the retirement of the chief executive with whom they served. Yet the 1/12 ratio is a highly misleading measure. Nine of the 47 vice presidents became president through the death or resignation of their predecessor. Accordingly, they could not have been elected directly from the vice presidency. Nor could most of the seven vice presidents who died in office or the two who resigned. (Yes, these numbers include George Clinton and John C. Calhoun, who theoretically could have been elected president before serving a second vice presidential term with a new president. But being passed over for James Madison and Andrew Jackson respectively is hardly a disgrace.) Of the remaining 29 vice presidents, 12 (including Biden) were effectively blocked because a president of their party with whom they served sought another term.

Of the 17 other sitting vice presidents, eight were chosen as a national presidential candidate and four were elected. So once the denominator is reduced by eliminating those sitting VPs who essentially could not have succeeded their predecessor by election, some 47% of America’s sitting vice presidents have been nominated for the presidency (8/17), and 24% of the eligible pool were elected (4/17). Of the nine others, some, like Dick Cheney, credibly disclaimed any presidential ambition.

Even this focus on sitting vice presidents who were directly elected president distorts, in both directions, the value of the office as a presidential springboard. It overstates vice presidential success because two of those elected (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) became vice president through the original electoral system that rewarded the electoral vote runner up with the second office.  It understates the value of the office as a presidential springboard because it makes the fallacious assumption that the utility of the vice presidency as a springboard now can be based on the performance of the quite different office that existed for much of our history. During the 19th century, the office often attracted men with modest resumes or in poor health or both.  Until Richard M. Nixon’s service beginning in 1953, vice presidents generally functioned as legislative figures who presided over the Senate and did little else.

It is true that George H.W. Bush is the only vice president directly elected president in modern times. Yet since 1953, each of the four sitting vice presidents who sought the presidency following the retirement of the incumbent (Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey, George H.W. Bush and Al Gore) won the nomination and were either elected (Bush) or ran dead-even races for president against formidable opponents. Gore won the popular vote and would have carried the electoral vote but for the vagaries of the Florida ballot. Some believe Nixon rightfully won in 1960, and Humphrey probably would have prevailed in 1968 had information emerged regarding efforts to keep the South Vietnamese government from the Paris peace talks to benefit Nixon. Two former vice presidents (Nixon and Walter Mondale) were also nominated, and one was elected.

The vice presidency enhances almost any official’s presidential prospects. Four recent vice presidents — Humphrey, Mondale, Bush, and Gore — each unsuccessfully pursued their party’s presidential nomination before becoming vice president. After serving in the second office, each won the presidential nomination the next time he tried. Biden’s presidential prospects are exponentially greater after his vice presidential service than they previously were.

The effort to disparage the vice presidency as a presidential springboard based on the 4/47 argument is misguided for another basic reason. The vice presidency can’t be compared to other potential sources of presidents without considering the distorting fact that at any one time there is only one vice president, yet many occupants of other presidential feeder offices. Since 1900, only three sitting senators — Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama — have been elected president, even though at each such presidential election most of the 90 to 100 Senate seats were filled, so there were plenty of senators who didn’t fulfill their probable ambition to move down Pennsylvania Avenue. Since 1900, four sitting governors (Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) have been elected president, but each time there were 44 to 49 other governors who were not chosen.

To be sure, the vice presidency presents some challenges to a presidential aspirant, as Professor Zelizer and others have noted. A vice president is held accountable for an administration’s record even when he might have handled certain matters differently. It’s tricky for a vice president to distance himself from administration policies without incurring some costs. The public’s tendency to embrace vague promises over real, but invariably imperfect, accomplishments sometimes makes the prospect of uncertain change appear more attractive than “four more years,” thereby disadvantaging sitting vice presidents.

Moreover, most vice presidents have some problem emerging from the presidential shadow. It’s hard to appear as a leader when you’ve been performing as a follower, especially because many vice-presidential contributions are not publicly visible.

It’s too soon to know how these factors will affect Vice President Biden if he does choose to run for president. We don’t know how the public will perceive the Obama administration in 2015 and 2016. Biden seems less likely than his predecessors to have a “shadows” problem. He has managed to be a loyal vice president while remaining very much his own person, and he has established a record of engagement in critical, substantive areas that few, if any, of his predecessors can match. Like other candidates, Biden has vulnerabilities, but he also has some unique advantages, some of which are related to his performance as vice president.

No recent vice president has faced as formidable a potential rival for the nomination as Hillary Clinton. Yet Bush defeated a former Senate majority leader and future presidential candidate, Bob Dole; a Republican icon and future vice presidential candidate, Jack Kemp; a former White House chief of staff and secretary of state, Alexander Haig; and a favorite of the Republican religious right, Pat Robertson, to win the 1988 Republican nomination at a time when the Reagan administration was weakened by the Iran-Contra debacle. Gore defeated Bill Bradley, a prominent former senator, in 2000. Each presidential campaign has its own, often unpredictable, dynamic, and 2016 probably will, too.

It’s premature to predict whether Biden will win or not. It seems clear, however, that being vice president has not only enhanced Biden’s ability to serve in a presidential context but has improved his chances of being elected president should he decide to make the race.

Joel K. Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law. He is the author of The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution (Princeton University Press, 1982) and numerous other works on the vice presidency, presidency and constitutional law.