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Joe Biden’s Schrödinger’s Cat Campaign

Pundits — bored with the prospect of a Hillary Clinton coronation — have conjectured for months that Joe Biden might run for president, but the vice president has remained on the sidelines. So you’d be right to indulge some skepticism toward the latest round of speculation about Biden running.

But let’s consider Biden’s position from our outsider’s view. Does it make sense for Biden to enter the race? Not so much for Biden himself, but does it make sense for the Democratic Party to have Biden run? That’s the relevant question from the “The Party Decides” paradigm, which would claim that Biden’s candidacy would be futile unless he can win the backing of a substantial constituency of influential Democrats.

The problem for Biden is that under this “The Party Decides” view, the Democratic Party has already decided in favor of Clinton. As measured by her level of endorsements, Clinton has more support at this stage of the primary campaign than any Democrat in the modern era.1

Rank-and-file Democratic voters love Clinton too. Her favorability ratings within her party range from 75 percent to 85 percent, depending on the poll, which are among the highest intraparty ratings ever for a non-incumbent candidate. (Most of the recent slippage in her ratings has come from independent voters instead of Democrats.)

Oh, and Clinton has already raised $68 million.

These indicators of party support don’t tell us very much about what sort of general election candidate Clinton might be.2 But you’d have to lose the forest in a field of cherry-picked trees to suggest that Clinton is in all that much trouble for the nomination. Betting markets put her chances at about 80 percent.

Furthermore, it’s not clear what advantage Biden would offer Democrats relative to Clinton. As The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza put it on Sunday:

As Lizza intimates, the demographics don’t work in Biden’s favor. In a primary electorate that’s 55 percent to 60 percent female, he’d deny Democrats the opportunity to nominate a woman for the first time. And while Clinton isn’t new to the political scene, Biden is five years older than her.

Nor is it apparent what message Biden would campaign on, since he and Clinton have extremely similar policy positions and were both members of President Obama’s administration. Biden isn’t a natural fit for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s constituency either. Instead, when he and Clinton were in the Senate together, Biden usually rated as being slightly more conservative than Clinton.

What about general election strength? You’d have to read the evidence selectively to conclude that Biden has any edge on Clinton. General election polls don’t mean much at this stage, but Clinton generally performs better than Biden in head-to-head polls against prospective GOP opponents. And while Clinton’s favorability ratings have worsened, Biden’s are generally no better even though he hasn’t received the same degree of media scrutiny lately.

Endorsement Primary

Interactive: We’re tracking 2016 presidential primary endorsements. Check out the most important race before the actual race »

So “The Party Decides” view would imply that Biden shouldn’t run, right? Not so fast. What Biden offers Democrats is a sort of insurance policy. What if Clinton is linked with some new, very serious scandal? What if she has a health issue? What if the Democratic Party suddenly turns against her?

None of this is likely. To repeat: Clinton is doing very well in the nomination race. But presidential nomination contests don’t provide for the same sort of astronomical certainty that you get from the sun or the moon or the tides. The sample size of competitive primaries in the reform era (since 1972) is relatively small, and the processes that govern them are complex, probably more complex than in the general election. I’d take the “over” on the 80 percent chance that betting markets give Clinton to win the nomination, but that doesn’t mean it’s 100 percent sure.

Should one of those wild-card scenarios transpire, Biden is probably the Democratic establishment’s best choice by process of elimination.

Sanders, although in second place in the polls, has received almost no support from the party establishment. That’s for good reason. Candidates as far to the left (or the right) as Sanders have historically made for losing general election nominees. He’s also had trouble winning the support of nonwhite voters, an enormous Democratic constituency, and his unwillingness to accept super PAC money, noble though it might be, would put him at a major financial disadvantage. Sanders is not even officially a Democrat, something primary voters probably won’t care about, but party elites might.

What about former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley? He’d make for a more traditional nominee, but his campaign has gotten off to such a slow start that he could plausibly lose to Sanders if Clinton bowed out of the race.

There are other Democrats, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who are not yet running but could generate significant enthusiasm within the party base. But they’d be entering the race at an awfully late date. Raising money, hiring staff, building relationships with key constituencies within your party and learning how to navigate the media shit-storm are skills that take months to become competent at and years to master. Just ask Fred Thompson.

Then there’s Biden. He’s run for president or vice president several times and has been vetted by his party and the national media, and if he needs a staff, he can borrow from his White House allies as a starter kit.

But here’s the dilemma: The longer Biden waits to officially enter the race, the more of a problem his late start would become. He couldn’t easily make up for lost fundraising opportunities, for example. And at some point — likely in mid-November — he’d begin to encounter logistical challenges, like having failed to meet the filing deadline in New Hampshire and other early states.

At the same time, Biden has little rationale to enter the race this late except as a break-glass-in-case-of-Clinton-emergency candidate. His formal entry into the race would imply that Clinton’s campaign was under serious threat. The party establishment, most of which is extremely supportive of Clinton, wouldn’t like the signal that sends out.3

So instead, Biden is left running a Schrödinger’s cat campaign, neither wholly in the race or wholly out of it. That helps to explain why this past weekend’s press coverage of Biden was awfully strange. Maureen Dowd, a columnist who does not ordinarily break news, asserted that Biden was “talking to friends, family and donors about jumping in” the race and included intimate detail about conversations between Biden and his sons, but provided no source for her reporting and buried it beneath a belabored anecdote comparing Hillary Clinton to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Other accounts, such as those from the The Washington Post and The Associated Press, were full of qualifications and relied heavily on anonymous or opaque sourcing.

But one detail that made it into several of these stories is that he plans to wait until September to make any decision. Although there are other plausible explanations,4 the simplest one is that Biden is biding his time, waiting as long as possible to see if Clinton is in more trouble than she appears to be right now.


  1. Excluding incumbent presidents.

  2. To me, the general election still looks like a toss-up.

  3. Furthermore, Biden might (correctly, in my view) surmise that he has little chance to win the nomination unless Clinton is severely wounded.

  4. For instance, as Dowd implies, that Biden faces an emotional and personal decision after the death of his son Beau Biden.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.