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Biden Had To Fight For The Presidential Nomination. But Most VPs Have To.

Aside from the unusual end to the primaries this year — the pandemic, of course, interrupted voting in some of the last key contests — how unique was Joe Biden’s experience as a former vice president seeking the presidential nomination?

Turns out, despite the historically crowded field, his experience wasn’t all that unusual. Most sitting and former vice presidents face some competition for the party nod, but what was unusual about Biden’s bid is how much he embraced the idea of being Barack Obama’s heir apparent, and how he was able to translate that into success. Many VPs have had to distance themselves from the presidents they’ve served under, but that wasn’t the case with Biden. So let’s take a closer look at how Biden’s path to the nomination has resembled that of other VPs and how it has differed.

First of all, sitting and former vice presidents tend to win their party’s nomination when they seek it, so in that way, Biden’s experience was perfectly normal. (The recent exception is Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush’s vice president, who floated a presidential bid in the 2000 election but dropped out before the voting started.)

Most vice presidents run for president … but not all win

Vice presidents since 1948 who have run for president, and whether they won their party’s nomination and the subsequent presidential election

Vice President Party Won nomination Won pres. election
Alben Barkley D
Richard Nixon* R
Lyndon Johnson† D
Hubert Humphrey D
Gerald Ford† R
Walter Mondale D
George H.W. Bush R
Dan Quayle R
Al Gore D
Joe Biden D

* Nixon lost the first time he ran for president, in 1960, after serving as vice president, but ran again in 1968 and won.

† Johnson and Ford both became president upon the death or resignation of their predecessors, so they technically ran as incumbents.

Spiro Agnew, Nelson Rockefeller and Dick Cheney didn’t run for president after serving as vice president. This list does not include Vice President Mike Pence, as he could still run for president in the future.

Part of the reason why so many vice presidents run for president, especially in recent years — that’s 10 of the 13 VPs since the end of World War II (excluding Vice President Mike Pence) — is that they have some serious advantages starting out, including widespread name recognition and relevant experience. They have also already been vetted on the national stage, minimizing the possibility of hidden personal scandals or problematic stances emerging.

However, vice presidents also face a number of disadvantages in the modern nomination system. For instance, the primary process highlights the ideas, charisma and biography of individual candidates, which is potentially tricky for presidential hopefuls who are closely tied to a previous administration. Additionally, the process sometimes gives an advantage to those who can claim status as an “outsider,” something that’s difficult for a sitting or former vice president to do.

In other words, even for a former vice president, it’s not necessarily easy to fend off competitors. Before Biden, Al Gore was the most recent VP to win his party’s nomination, and he did manage to clear the field of any major challengers — former NBA player and New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley didn’t win a single primary — but the fact that Biden faced stiff competition is actually more common than it might seem.

Take Walter Mondale and George H.W. Bush. Both were considered strong prospects — even front-runners — when they entered their respective races, but they still faced stiff competition. In fact, studies of the 1984 process suggest that it was unpledged superdelegates who helped Mondale defeat Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, who had won 26 contests, including the influential New Hampshire primary. And even though civil rights leader Jesse Jackson won only a few contests against Mondale, he still drew a significant amount of media attention away from the former vice president due to his charismatic presence and the historic nature of his candidacy (few Black Americans had sought the presidency at that time). Likewise, in 1988, Bush ultimately won the nomination, but not before coming in third in the Iowa caucuses and having some tense debates with Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole.

Therefore, it’s not uncommon that Biden’s entrance into the contest in April 2019 didn’t immediately clear the field. The number of candidates was unprecedented, but even still, Biden remained a front-runner like Mondale and Bush, never really slipping in the polls all that much. But the early contests were still tough for Biden, and at points, Sen. Bernie Sanders looked as though he might win the nomination, or at least compete with Biden in a long, close contest. Of course, the South Carolina primary was a major turning point, and then Biden swept Super Tuesday. After that, he handily won the nomination despite having faced quite a bit of competition in the beginning.

Vice presidents often don’t buck the direction of a party, but they can expose cracks

Ideology is tricky when we look at politics within parties. And nomination contests featuring vice presidents have not exactly resulted in ideological showdowns, as they tend not to stray too far from their administration ties. That said, the primary process can still reveal different fault lines in the party.

Take Bradley’s brief run against Gore. He tried to present himself as a progressive alternative to Bill Clinton’s vice president. And while Mondale and Bush were not that different ideologically from their main competitors (Sens. Hart and Dole, respectively), the field was large, which meant there was room for other candidates with more ideologically diverse viewpoints, or who represented a specific constituency within the party, to run. In 1984, Jackson pushed for racial equality and more left-leaning policies like single-payer health care, for instance.1 And in 1988, evangelical leader Pat Robertson, seeking the Republican nomination, embraced very conservative religious views and positioned himself as a critic of Ronald Reagan’s administration from the far right.

That said, Bradley, Jackson and Robertson were sidelined in a way we didn’t see in 2020. (Remember Bradley didn’t win a single primary, Jackson won only a handful, and Robertson even fewer than that, so their ability to affect the direction of their parties was hobbled.) The 2020 contest was different, however. The historically crowded field meant that multiple candidates were able to make claims either to their progressive bona fides or to their more centrist credentials. In fact, ideology ended up being the biggest distinction between the final two candidates, Biden and Sanders. And more so than in previous contests, Sanders (along with such candidates as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro) was able to mount a credible challenge to Biden’s claim as the party’s ideological standard-bearer.

Yes, Biden built the winning coalition in the end, but it’s hard to argue that a more progressive vision for the Democratic Party isn’t also part of the conversation now.

Vice presidents typically stick close to the administrations they were part of, but that makes campaigning tricky

Vice presidents must always strike an awkward balance — develop their own political brands while also getting at least some credit for the accomplishments of the administrations they were part of.

And in a nomination battle, it’s particularly easy for other candidates to criticize the VP’s former administration for not being true enough to its promises and ideological ideals. For example, in 1988, Bush was pressed on whether he would raise taxes and whether the Reagan administration was tough enough on the Soviet Union. Bush found himself in a difficult position because, while facing criticism on the right for the administration’s decisions, he had also been brought on the ticket in 1980 as a more moderate presence. Ultimately, though, Bush pivoted and appealed to the party’s increasingly conservative voters and activists, especially on taxes.

In 2000, Gore’s status as Clinton’s “heir apparent” was enough to win him the nomination, but during the general election, Gore tried to distance himself from the Clinton administration – both because of Clinton’s scandals and because he needed to establish a distinct brand that could answer critics of the administration’s policies. Gore tried to do this by using populist critiques of the economy in his campaign rhetoric, highlighting growing inequality in the U.S. despite the overall strength of the economy.

Ultimately, Gore and Bush both found themselves in difficult situations. They had to try to build on their respective administrations’ legacies while also appeasing critics from their parties’ ideological bases and yet still remain close enough to the center to be competitive in the general election. To say the least, it’s a lot to balance. And arguably, by having to run in a more competitive primary with opponents who embraced ideological views very different from his own, Biden was free of that dilemma. Throughout the primary, he was able to embrace the idea of carrying on Obama’s legacy while also allowing others to criticize Obama’s record from the left. And, as the Democrats’ platform and policy plans are formulated, the Sanders wing of the party has continued to play this role.

That intersection of competition, ideology and connection with the previous administration illustrates one way that Biden differs from recent vice presidents who’ve sought the presidential nomination, making it clear that while Biden will be this year’s standard-bearer, his vision for the party is not — and does not have to be — the only one. Instead, Biden is in a unique position to claim the legacy of a popular past president while allowing others to offer competing visions of what that legacy means.

Footnotes

  1. It’s worth noting that Jackson wasn’t a uniformly left candidate at the time, as his stance on abortion was more conservative than that of many Democrats.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

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