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How The Media Blew The Biden Story

Now and then over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to extend a job offer for someone to come work with me. Being a huge dork, I’ll usually speculate about the candidate’s likelihood of accepting the position. I don’t bat 1.000 on my predictions, but one simple rule has proven reliable the majority of the time: If I can honestly say I’m offering a candidate a better job than the one they currently have, they almost always accept the offer. If I can’t say that with a straight face, they usually don’t.

When you’re in the midst of making someone a job offer, you’re privy to a lot of “inside information” about the candidate: what their mood is during interviews, for example, or how happy they seem to be with their current employer. But it’s easy to get carried away with those things. Unless the “inside information” is weighed very carefully, it often just leads you astray. I was reminded of this by today’s news that Vice President Joe Biden will not seek the Democratic nomination for president. Here at FiveThirtyEight, we’ve been skeptical of Biden’s potential candidacy for a long time, even as on-the-ground reporting — almost always relying on anonymous sources or named sources with tenuous connections to Biden — repeatedly insisted that Biden was likely to run.

The reason for our skepticism was twofold. First, Biden has a pretty good job now: vice president. While I have no doubt that he’d like to be president, the job of being a failed presidential candidate isn’t such a great one. And in all likelihood, that’s what a Biden candidacy would have amounted to. Maybe Biden’s campaign would have ended quickly, as past late-entry campaigns (Fred Thompson, Wesley Clark) often have. Maybe it would have persisted for months and bitterly divided Democrats. But as my colleague Harry Enten explained, Biden would have been a substantial underdog given that Hillary Clinton is well ahead with both rank-and-file voters and the Democratic establishment, Sen. Bernie Sanders is Democrats’ clear second choice, Biden doesn’t have an obvious constituency within the party, and his campaign would be getting off to a very late start.

The second reason is that there was some non-anonymous information on what Democratic insiders were thinking, and it suggested there wasn’t much appetite for a Biden bid. Clinton has received a record-setting number of endorsements from Democratic lawmakers and continued to rack them up while Biden was contemplating his bid. Biden, by contrast, was endorsed only by the governor of Delaware and two of the three members of Delaware’s congressional delegation. Meanwhile, surveys of Democratic insiders in Iowa and New Hampshire conducted by Politico found a lukewarm reaction to a Biden bid.

Although these methods are not quite as rigorous as scientific polls, they at least reflect an effort to be comprehensive instead of potentially cherry-picking the sources they report on. A Biden run would be a great story for the media — it would get to sit back and watch the fisticuffs between Biden and Clinton, who is otherwise something of a dull, predictable story (“inevitability” is boring). That probably biases the media toward reporting on the few Democratic insiders who would have liked to see a Biden bid, and ignoring the large majority who were satisfied with Clinton.

FiveThirtyEight: Joe Biden says he’s won’t run

I don’t mean to paint the whole mainstream media with the same brush. All the while, there have been a few stories (see this article from Politico’s Glenn Thrush or this one from the Los Angeles Times’s Mike Memoli, for example) that relied on traditional reporting but mixed it with the proper amount of skepticism about Biden’s intentions — and wound up getting the story right. And there was this story, also from Politico, suggesting that the links between Biden and the “Draft Biden” super PAC were nebulous, and that Biden might create a different super PAC were he to launch his bid. That seems important, given that “Draft Biden” sources figured prominently in stories suggesting that Biden would run. Perhaps rather than serving as a reliable indicator for his intentions, “Draft Biden” was trying to goad Biden into the race instead.

In another sense, “Draft Biden” and the media were complicit in running a “shadow campaign” on Biden’s behalf, gauging interest in a Biden entry through continual and deliberate leaks, and eventually finding it wanting. All the while, the reporting was far too credulous about Biden’s strengths as a candidate and the probability that he would formally declare for the race. As is often the case, sketchily sourced “inside information” proved no more reliable than other types of gossip.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.