You could spot Joe Biden’s presidential trial balloon from space. After spending several months feigning disinterest in another ill-fated White House bid, the Vice President of the United States has dropped the charade. The widely reported anecdote involving a deathbed request to his father by the late Beau Biden, in which he asked his dad to make one more run at the White House, was mainstreamed over the weekend by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. The overwrought outrage her column inspired from Hillary Clinton’s supporters is directly proportional to the unavoidable impression that her campaign is floundering. But prominent political commentators are vexed by Biden’s sudden interest in another campaign. What is the rationale for his candidacy, they ask? The answer is so obvious that it’s strange it has eluded otherwise capable political analysts: Biden may be better suited than Clinton to maintain the integrity of Barack Obama’s winning electoral coalition.
“What is the case for Biden over HRC?” the clearly perplexed New Yorker columnist Ryan Lizza asked. He went on to suggest that Biden couldn’t compete with Clinton in terms of his youth or his gender. Moreover, Biden lacks broad support from Democrats in polls, has less “lefty cred” than Clinton, doesn’t enjoy the support of the donor base, and is an inferior campaigner to the former secretary of state. “Makes no sense,” he remarked.
If Clinton’s reemergence as a political figure has demonstrated anything, beginning with her bumbling book tour in the summer of last year, it’s that her skills as a campaigner have atrophied. For his part, Biden has an earned reputation for making unforced errors on the trail. But campaigns are unpredictable, and straight-line projections are inherently fallacious. Perhaps Clinton’s most appealing trait for the Democratic electorate is her supposed ability to win the support of general election voters and retain the presidency for her party. Biden may, however, be better positioned than Clinton to retain the White House for Democrats in 2016.
In order to win the White House, Hillary Clinton will have to run a bitter, divisive campaign for the presidency that will pit gender, racial, religious, and age groups against one another in a way that will make the 2012 cycle look like a model of cordiality. Look no further than Clinton’s acrimonious speech to the National Urban League on Friday. There, the New York Times described Clinton’s speech as a “surprise attack” on Jeb Bush and Republicans that preempted the “high-minded,” “colorblind” appeal to unity the former Florida governor planned to deliver immediately following Clinton’s address. It is a sign of things to come, and a reflection of the desperation that has characterized Clinton’s efforts to keep Barak Obama’s coalition of the “ascendant electorate” – women, minorities, and younger voters — together.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ ability to attract the support of liberal white voters has compelled Clinton to redouble her efforts to appeal to traditionally Democratic-voting minorities. For now, Clinton can count on the backing of African-American and Hispanic Democrats. Though, Biden’s status as Barack Obama’s second could chip away at that support rather rapidly. An Economist/YouGov survey released this spring revealed that Biden’s favorability rating among black voters is comparable to Clintons (46 percent describe their feelings toward the vice president as “very favorable” compared with 45 percent who say the same for Biden.
That same survey found Biden is viewed favorably by 42 percent of women compared with Clinton’s 55 percent, but Clinton has seen her appeal toward women crater in the intervening months. YouGov’s latest survey, released last week, shows Clinton’s favorably among women collapsing to 45 percent while another 45 percent view her negatively. Whereas 52 percent of voters age 18 – 29 viewed Clinton favorably in the spring, only 40 percent feel the same today. Just 7 percent of younger voters described their views toward Clinton as “very favorable.”
Considering the fact that the GOP nominee is almost certain to be younger than Clinton on Election Day, the Democrats’ “coolness deficit” is going to be especially acute. The party that has spent the better part of the last decade manufacturing a celebrity cult of personality around Barack Obama is on the verge of an identity crisis perhaps best typified by the tortured liberal effort turn the “notorious” octogenarian Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg into a rock star. But unlike Hillary Clinton, who never fails to project coldness and insincerity, Joe Biden is a natural retail campaigner and a figure that effortlessly connects with his audience.
Biden is also a gaffe machine and a liability for Democrats on the stump. His suggestion, for example, that Republicans wanted to repose slavery on African-Americans in 2012 was unforgivable. The vice president’s penchant for stepping on rhetorical landmines is less evident on the debate stage. Yet he was tested on the national stage against Sarah Palin in 2008 and Paul Ryan in 2012, and in neither showing did the vice president embarrass himself or his party. When Clinton and Biden squared off against one another in 2007, the vice president held his own. In fact, his central concession to Clinton was that her experience in the White House perhaps rendered her better prepared for the presidency than most other candidates in the race. After eight years in the Naval Observatory, Biden now has a stronger claim to preparedness for the presidency.
Clinton cannot compete with Biden in terms of authenticity. In 2014, the Bidens reported an adjusted gross income of $338,844 with over $90,000 of that going to the federal government. The contrast with the “dead broke” Clinton family couldn’t be starker. From 2007 to 2014, the Clintons earned $141 million and contributed $43 million to federal taxes. “We can do something about the corrosive impact of massive amounts of money,” Biden told a gathering of young people in July. “You ought to be demanding of all of us, all of us, because at least in our own party fights among ourselves, in primaries, that we adhere to a policy that doesn’t rest on millionaires and billionaires.”
And on the all-important matter of being perceived as empathetic – the issue that undid Mitt Romney’s campaign despite the fundamental conditions favoring Republicans in 2012 – Biden soars. By 57 to 35 percent, the latest Quinnipiac University survey revealed that voters think Biden “cares about the needs and problems of people like you.” Comparatively, only 45 percent said the same of Clinton while 52 percent disagreed – a substantial decline from May, when 48 to 47 percent believed Clinton did care about their concerns.
Finally and perhaps most counter intuitively, Biden can legitimately claim to be better suited to governance than Clinton. For most of the Obama presidency, Biden served as the administration’s go-to ambassador to Capitol Hill. He was integral in negotiating a resolution to the budget crisis that yielded something of a grand bargain between Republicans and Democrats in the wake of the 2012 election. “Have you noticed? Every time there is a crisis, I get sent to the Hill,” Biden told a meeting of America’s mayors in January. They had indeed noticed.
The obstacles Biden will face as a candidate are logistical. As a late entrant into the race, the vice president will find it difficult to create the organization necessary to run an effective campaign and get his name on the ballot in all 50 states. That problem is nothing a little big-dollar donor love cannot remedy. “While the mid-summer saw a sudden burst of donations, the group is still missing contributions from a number of high-profile Democratic contributors, including a handful that have been skeptical of Clinton’s fundraising mechanism after donating to the group when it backed Obama in 2012,” Politico reported last week. If Biden can tap into a substantial amount of that sidelined Democratic money, he can compete with Clinton in the early primary states.
Hillary Clinton remains the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, but those who do not see an opening for Biden are missing the forest. Clinton’s last claim to inevitability rests on her standing in the polls. But if Biden gets into the race, she will soon find that the increasingly pronounced anti-Clinton sentiment within the Democratic Party has found a less quixotic figure behind which it can rally. After nearly 30 years of seeking his party’s presidential nomination, Biden may have found his moment.