Throughout his vice presidency, Joe BidenJoe BidenFighter jet escorts aircraft that entered restricted airspace during UN gathering Julian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy FBI investigating alleged assault on Fort Bliss soldier at Afghan refugee camp MORE has rarely been considered as a potential presidential candidate in his own right. His two prior runs had come to little, his advancing age worked against him and his party had its eye on another candidate. Further, his immediate predecessor, Dick Cheney, had set something of an example by shunning presidential ambitions of his own.
Still, if Biden does decide to run, it would bring him in line with a strong trend among the 13 men who have held the vice presidency since 1945. More than 75 precent (10) ran for the top job; of these 10, 80 percent got their party’s nominations and 40 percent won their elections — not a bad track record.
Here's how the numbers break down since 1945:
- Five sitting vice presidents have run for the presidency (Alben Barkley in 1952, Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreTrump's election fraud claims pose risks for GOP in midterms Don't 'misunderestimate' George W. Bush Why the pro-choice movement must go on the offensive MORE in 2000). All except Barkley got their party's nominations. But only Bush won the top prize, although it's worth noting that 1960, 1968 and 2000 were all exceptionally close elections.
- Three former vice presidents returned to contest the presidency after leaving office (Nixon in 1968, Walter Mondale in 1984 and Dan Quayle in 2000). Nixon won, Mondale secured the nomination but lost and Quayle dropped out after his nomination bid failed to get traction. (Note that Nixon is counted twice in this list, because he ran for president in both 1960 and 1968.)
- Three former vice presidents sought reelection while they were incumbent presidents, having already succeeded to the top office (Harry Truman in 1948, Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Gerald Ford in 1976). All three got their party's nomination, and only Ford lost in the (very close) 1976 election.
This pattern suggests how unusual it would be for Biden not to run. Indeed, Cheney was the only post-World War II vice president who declined to run under what might be deemed "normal" political circumstances. The other non-contenders were Spiro Agnew, who resigned from office under legal pressure in 1973, and Nelson Rockefeller, who was appointed as a caretaker vice president after the Watergate scandal. Rockefeller, who had previously run for president, didn't even run for vice president in 1976 and died just three years later.
It might be mentioned that the strong viability of vice presidents as potential presidents should be considered as a function of having actually held the office, not simply having run for it. Of the parallel 15 who lost as major party vice presidential candidates, only one (Bob Dole in 1996) went on to win his party's presidential nomination. Few have even tried to get elected president, and several faded away from public life.
Clearly, then, just having been a vice presidential contender isn't enough to prove one's presidential mettle. It's the experience, credibility, political acumen and name recognition of having actually served as vice president that seems to count. And even a last-minute bid by Biden would certainly be able to draw on all of these attributes.
Of course, none of this suggests that running for president would be a particularly wise, or even viable, move for Joe Biden or for the Democratic Party. (And, last December, in The Hill, I argued that there were instead four major non-presidential political paths forward for Biden.) But purely in terms of history and precedents, there's little reason to say that Biden couldn't, or shouldn't, have his shot.
Smith is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute; an adjunct assistant professor of political science at Columbia University and New York University; and author of Importing Democracy: Ideas from Around the World to Reform and Revitalize American Politics and Government.