Vice President Joe Biden is thinking about running for president. Speaking purely statistically, it’s a long shot.
We’ve had 47 vice presidents, and, although the truism is that the vice president sits only a heartbeat from the presidency, only 14 of 47 have become president. Nine of those succeeded upon the death or resignation of the president, and of those nine, five were tossed out at the next election.
Only five vice presidents have succeeded to the presidency by election. Two of them don’t really count – John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – because they were elected vice president under the original constitutional scheme that made the presidential runner-up the vice president. One, Richard Nixon, didn’t succeed directly to the presidency, but only won election eight years after leaving office.
In other words, only two vice presidents have ever succeeded directly to the presidency by popular election – Martin Van Buren and George H. W. Bush. Neither, by the way, won a second term. Only one vice president in the history of the Republic has ever served two full terms as president – Thomas Jefferson.
One of the reasons that vice presidents have more trouble with the presidency than it seems like they should is that it’s very hard for one party to win three consecutive terms in the White House, whether their candidate is the sitting vice president or not. Just ask Al Gore.
Another reason is that vice presidents are selected very differently than presidents. Presidents withstand rigorous primary campaigns, and are the focus of voters’ choice on election day. Vice presidents are hand-picked by presidential nominees, subject only to relatively loose scrutiny by party conventions and general election voters. A successful vice presidential candidate is a national figure, but doesn’t necessary have wide national appeal – he may just fill a gap in the presidential candidate’s popular appeal.
When Barack Obama won the primaries, he relied heavily on African-American, Latino, Asian-American, and liberal white voters. Joe Biden gave Obama credibility in the white working class, and Biden has continued to serve that function throughout the Obama presidency. To win the nomination, let alone the presidency, Biden has to considerably broaden his appeal.
But I don’t agree with the pundits who say it’s too late for Biden to enter the race. This morning the talking heads on MSNBC were wringing their hands about how Biden wouldn’t be able to make the requisite “splash” if he entered the race. Au contraire. Biden’s entry into the Democratic primary campaign would be its own splash.
A Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders-Joe Biden three-way would be a lot of fun to watch. And at an average age over 70, they would surely make the oddest competition in history for the youth vote that energized the Obama campaign in 2008.