Another VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us?

Another VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us?
© Greg Nash

If the most recent polls are to be believed, Joe BidenJoe BidenLawmakers, activists remember civil rights icons to mark 'Bloody Sunday' Fauci predicts high schoolers will receive coronavirus vaccinations this fall Biden nominates female generals whose promotions were reportedly delayed under Trump MORE has jumped into a commanding lead in the brigade-sized Democratic field, after his long delayed, almost Hamlet-esque entry into the race.

The former two-term vice president has zoomed into an impressive double-digit lead not only nationally, but in the key early primary states of New Hampshire and South Carolina. He is also currently even leading Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisWhite House says Biden would prefer to not end filibuster Biden takes victory lap after Senate passes coronavirus relief package It will be Vice (or) President Harris against Gov. DeSantis in 2024 — bet on it MORE in her home state of California.

But polling is fickle. At this point in 2007, former New York City Mayor Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiState sanctions Ukrainian billionaire over alleged corruption Newsmax adds Andrew Giuliani as a contributor Trump sued by Democrat over mob attack on Capitol MORE was way ahead in the Republican race, and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGraham: Trump can make GOP bigger, stronger, or he 'could destroy it' Hillicon Valley: China implicated in Microsoft breach | White House adds Big Tech critic | QAnon unfazed after false prediction Jill Biden redefines role of first lady MORE was leading Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaLawmakers, activists remember civil rights icons to mark 'Bloody Sunday' Why is Joe Biden dodging the public and the press? Here's who Biden is now considering for budget chief MORE by double digits. In the 2012 GOP race, the assortment of one-time poll front runners included, at various times, Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE, Rick PerryRick PerryRepublicans see Becerra as next target in confirmation wars OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Five things to know about Texas's strained electric grid | Biden honeymoon with green groups faces tests | Electric vehicles are poised to aid Biden in climate fight Five things to know about Texas's strained electric grid MORE, and even Herman CainHerman Cain'Trumpification' of the GOP will persist 'SNL' host Dave Chappelle urges Biden voters to be 'humble' winners 18 Trump rallies have led to 30,000 COVID-19 cases: Stanford University study MORE.

Before Trump took charge in the 2015-16 GOP race, frontrunners-of-the-week in that race had included the likes of Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP votes in unison against COVID-19 relief bill Hillicon Valley: YouTube to restore Trump's account | House-passed election bill takes aim at foreign interference | Senators introduce legislation to create international tech partnerships Senators introduce bill creating technology partnerships to compete with China MORE and Ben CarsonBen CarsonBiden administration buys 100,000 doses of Lilly antibody drug Ben Carson launches conservative think tank Trump's '1776 Report' released on MLK Day receives heavy backlash MORE.

So perhaps a more instructive way to assess Biden’s prospects at this point might be to take a look back at the history of vice presidents who became president — and those who didn’t.


In all of U.S. history, only 14 vice presidents have acceded to the role of commander in chief. But eight of those got there because of the death of the president under which they served, and one — Gerald Ford — due to the resignation of his boss. So that leaves only five who were elected in their own right, the last being George H.W. Bush, 31 years ago.

Alas, this has not been for lack of trying. Sitting Vice Pres. Richard Nixon ran for president and lost in 1960. Incumbent Vice Pres. Hubert Humphrey ran and lost in 1968, as did Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreKlain on Harris breaking tie: 'Every time she votes, we win' Al Jazeera launching conservative media platform Exclusive 'Lucky' excerpt: Vow of Black woman on Supreme Court was Biden turning point MORE in 2000. So three of the last four sitting vice presidents who ran for president failed.

Only Bush 41 broke that pattern, but let’s not forget that his 1988 win to replace Ronald Reagan was an historical anomaly: The last time an incumbent vice president had been elected to succeed the president under which he served was 152 years before, when Martin Van Buren replaced Andrew Jackson.

But to fully paint the picture, we need to add two other vice presidents to the mix. Former Vice Pres. Walter Mondale won the Democratic nomination in 1984, but was demolished by Pres. Ronald Reagan, losing every state but his own Minnesota.

And let’s not forget ex-Vice Pres. Dan Quayle, beaten badly along with Bush in 1992 by Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonIt's time to fix an important religious freedom law Senators introduce bill creating technology partnerships to compete with China Edie Falco to play Hillary Clinton in Clinton impeachment series MORE. Quayle laid low for a while, but reappeared in 1999 and announced he would seek the 2000 GOP nomination. His attempted comeback didn’t end well. After finishing eighth — yes, eighth — in the Iowa straw poll, he withdrew from the race a month later, before a single vote had been cast, claiming he couldn’t raise the money to compete.

Speaking of Mondale, Quayle and Biden, it is also interesting to note that Richard Nixon in 1968 became still the only former vice president ever to be elected president after an interregnum between his service as vice president and his election as president. In Biden’s favor, unlike Mondale and Quayle, he wasn’t part of a ticket unceremoniously ejected from office after one term.

None of this history is determinative or even predictive, of course. In 2008, America elected its first African American, then eight years later elected the first-ever president who had never served either in elective office or the military.

I could enthusiastically support Biden as the Democratic nominee for president next year. He is a good guy, a regular joe who has overcome unspeakable personal tragedies to stay involved in public life. But as a student of American history, a healthy pinch of skepticism is to be excused when assessing his capacity as a former No. 2 to pull off a presidential win.

Garry South is a veteran Democratic political strategist based in California, who managed Gray Davis’s successful gubernatorial campaigns in 1998 and 2002, and played a central role in Al Gore’s 2000 presidential winning primary and general election campaigns in California.