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Would It Be Weird If Biden Didn’t Run?

Former Vice President Joe Biden is arguably a 2020 front-runner. He has led or tied for the lead in almost every Democratic presidential primary poll he’s appeared in so far. The catch? He isn’t running — at least not yet.

How common is it it for candidates to lead in the polls and never enter the race? We found 10 politicians1 since 19722 who didn’t end up running but who, like Biden, led the field in at least one question in a national poll conducted one to two years before the New Hampshire primary (we’re about a year away from that primary now).3 As you can see in the table below, many of these potential candidates were similar to Biden, as they had large public profiles and high name recognition. And three (not including Biden) — Hubert Humphrey, Gerald Ford and Al Gore — had even previously served as vice president. In other words, it wouldn’t be that shocking if Biden decided against waging a 2020 campaign. After all, he was in a similar position in 2016 and decided not to run.

Potential candidates who lead in the polls don’t always run

People who didn’t run for president after leading a national primary poll more than a year but less than two years before New Hampshire’s primary

Primary Polls
Cycle Party Potential candidate led Appeared in Share led
2020 D Joe Biden* 25 26 96%
2016 D Joe Biden 1 7 14
2016 R Mitt Romney 3 3 100
2012 R Mike Huckabee 7 28 25
2012 R Sarah Palin 2 28 7
2004 D Hillary Clinton 4 14 29
2004 D Al Gore 24 24 100
1992 D Mario Cuomo 3 3 100
1980 R Gerald Ford 5 6 83
1976 D Hubert Humphrey 1 3 33
1976 D Ted Kennedy 5 5 100
1972 D Ted Kennedy 2 4 50

*Biden has not yet announced his plans for the 2020 election.

If two potential candidates were tied for first place, both were counted as a leader. Some polls asked about multiple possible configurations of the primary field, in which case the leader was counted separately for each question. Table includes only candidates who appeared in more than one poll in that election cycle.

But as you can see, there’s a difference in how dominant early front-runners appeared to be — some led just a handful of the poll questions that asked about them, while others were consistently at the top. And while Biden wasn’t a major poll leader in 2016, his current standing is similar to that of Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1976, former President Ford in 1980, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1992, former Vice President Gore in 2004 and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2016. These candidates led in most or all of the primary poll questions that included them as options. Let’s take a look at what these early front-runners have in common with Biden and see what that might tell us about whether he’ll run in 2020.

Two of the other front-runners, like Biden, had two failed presidential runs in their past. Gore ran in 1988 and 2000, and Romney ran in 2008 and 2012. Despite leading in the polls, both Gore and Romney decided against a third run, as did Biden in 2016 — but as we head into 2020 with Biden leading far more often than he did in 2016, he may decide differently this time. (Ford also had a failed presidential bid in his past when he opted not to run again in 1980, despite leading most primary polls).

The stigma of losing such a high-profile race can make it difficult to run again, and it can complicate relationships with potential donors and supporters who may prefer to back someone with less baggage. The last time one of the two major parties nominated someone who’d lost the previous presidential election was in 1956, when Democrats picked Adlai Stevenson again after he lost in 1952. But that was a different era, when the nominating convention — not the primaries — was the main way nominees got picked. This time around, party insiders probably won’t choose the nominee like they did in Stevenson’s day, and with a growing number of Democrats entering the 2020 race, there are plenty of fresher faces to choose from, so Biden might not be as desirable a choice.

After Gore’s close loss in the 2000 election, many expected him to take another shot in 2004. However, Gore decided against launching another bid even though he led every poll question he was mentioned in and even polled around 50 percent in a few cases where then-Sen. Hillary Clinton — another prominent potential candidate — wasn’t included as a choice. So if Gore was in a similarly strong position — possibly stronger — than Biden is now but didn’t run again in 2004, it might not be that surprising if Biden forgoes a bid in the end.

Biden’s extended waffling about whether to enter the race is reminiscent of Mario Cuomo, the New York governor who considered a presidential run in 1992 but didn’t end up getting in the race — Cuomo’s indecision earned him the nickname “Hamlet on the Hudson.” Although Biden has run twice, he has flirted with and decided against running for president in several other cycles, including 1984, 2004 and 2016. As his 2020 deliberations continue, Biden risks losing out on potential staff members as top operatives are hired by other campaigns, and he could lose ground with his likely supporters as they are courted by candidates already officially in the race, both of which could push him toward a “no” decision.

It’s harder to say what Biden and Ted Kennedy have in common, except that both have been major names in Democratic politics. Unlike Biden, Kennedy had a serious scandal hanging over his head when he looked at running in the 1970s, and while Biden has had some awkward moments over the years, nothing comes close to the Chappaquiddick incident.

Will Biden run? For the past week, the betting market PredictIt has given him about a 70 to 80 percent chance of entering the race, but given that other early front-runners haven’t always thrown their hat in the ring, it shouldn’t come as a shock if Biden also opts to sit things out in 2020.



From ABC News:


Footnotes

  1. Ted Kennedy is included twice, once in 1972 and again in 1976.

  2. The start of the modern presidential primary era.

  3. More specifically, we’re looking at polls taken at least 359 days before the New Hampshire primary — that’s how far from the primary we were as of Sunday — but not more than 730 days before the primary. Some polls ask respondents multiple questions about various configurations the primary field could take, and in those cases each question was counted individually.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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