Sabato's Crystal Ball

Democrats 2016: The Primary Map Still Favors Clinton

Despite myriad problems, demography and geography are possibly the Democratic frontrunner’s best friends

Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball August 27th, 2015


Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been under siege for months as additional revelations and developments regarding her use of a private email account continue to drip out. Last week, the Crystal Ball explored what might happen should Clinton drop out of the Democratic primary or, as the rumors swirl about the possibility, if Vice President Joe Biden enters the race.

But if Clinton is scarred but undeterred by the email scandal heading into the Iowa caucuses, what we know so far about the primary and caucus schedule suggests that Clinton should still be a favorite, even if Biden does get into the race, though that development would undoubtedly muddy the waters.

Clinton’s strength with nonwhite voters

The principal reason for Clinton’s continued polling edge in the face of her email struggles is her consistently overwhelming support among nonwhite voters. In Fox News’ latest poll, Clinton only led Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT) by 19 points, 49%-30% (with Biden at 10%). However, she earned the backing of 65% of nonwhite Democrats to Sanders’ 14% and Biden’s 12%. When it’s been reported in surveys, Clinton has often been at over 60% among minority Democrats. As long as Clinton remains at near parity in the white vote (among whites she trailed Sanders by six in the Fox poll but led by 12 in CNN’s newest survey), her strength among nonwhites should buoy her in a number of states. Consider Map 1 and Table 1, which lay out the nonwhite participation in the 2008 Democratic primary and the 2016 delegate totals from the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the American territories.

Map 1: Percentage of nonwhite voters in 2008 Democratic primaries and caucuses

Notes: Based on exit/entrance poll data. Estimated data derived from equation based on a simple regression analysis of nonwhite participation in Democratic primaries and the nonwhite share of the Democratic vote in the general election in states that had primary/caucus and general election exit/entrance polls. Estimates for caucus states may exaggerate nonwhite participation because caucuses tend to see much lower turnout as a percentage of a state’s citizen voting-age population, and data show that nonwhite turnout as a whole tends to be lower compared to white turnout in election contests. Utah Democrats used a primary in 2008 but will use a caucus in 2016. Texas Democrats used the “Texas Two-Step” primary and caucus/convention method in 2008 but will use just a primary in 2016.

Table 1: 2016 delegate totals and 2008 nonwhite Democratic primary and caucus voting

Sources: Delegate totals based on draft state party plans where possible, for additional data.

Notes: This table does not include the Northern Marianas (over 50% nonwhite), which did not send delegates to the 2008 Democratic convention. Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Nonwhite Democrats played a major role in many 2008 nominating contests. At least 20% of the electorate was nonwhite in 33 state and territorial primaries or caucuses, including 21 that were at least 35% nonwhite. In 2016, it would not be surprising to see a borderline state such as California (48% in the 2008 primary exit poll) move into a higher category as eight years of further demographic change have aged millions of new nonwhite voters around the country into the eligible electorate. If we consider the preliminary delegate situation in 2016, 77% of delegates will come from states and territories that had primary or caucus electorates that were at least 20% nonwhite in 2008, and more than two-fifths (45%) from states that were at least 35%. In light of her solid backing from nonwhite Democrats, all of this bodes well for Clinton.

As most know, President Barack Obama capitalized on his strong support from African Americans, particularly in the South, to win a number of important primaries in 2008. But it’s important to remember that Obama was in many ways the perfect foil to Clinton eight years ago as he was able to win huge shares of black voters, who are more likely to support Clinton this time around. The former secretary of state enjoys sky-high favorable ratings among African Americans, which means she’ll be in a position to win some states she lost to Obama by winning a large percentage of black voters, especially in the Deep South. It’s possible that black turnout will fall in some contests because Obama isn’t running this time around, but there’s little question that African-American Democrats will hold great influence over the outcomes of many 2016 primaries.

Moreover, it’s sometimes forgotten that Clinton did very well among Latino voters in 2008. Pew Research Center reported that Clinton defeated Obama among Hispanics in 11 of 14 primaries or caucuses where there was sufficient data available regarding the Latino vote. Of the nine Democratic nominating contests where Hispanics made up at least 10% of the electorate, Clinton won all but Illinois, Obama’s home state (and he only won Latinos 50%-49% in the Land of Lincoln).

However, Clinton struggled in caucus states in 2008, most of which were and remain very white. Out of 16 caucus states and territories, Clinton only won Nevada and American Samoa. And, just to accentuate her campaign’s difficulties in the caucus states, Obama actually won the delegate battle in the Silver State 14 to 11 despite Clinton’s overall edge in the caucus vote. Sanders, whose rallies have demonstrated an energy that might translate into caucus support, could potentially do well in many 2016 caucus states. It’s worth noting that, based on our estimates and Nevada’s entrance poll, only four caucus states in 2008 had electorates that were at least 20% nonwhite (though it’s possible Alaska and Colorado didn’t clear that bar, given the very low caucus turnout — see the note in Map 1). But as Table 1 shows, less than a quarter of the delegates will come out of states with 2008 electorates that were less than 20% white. In 2008, Obama combined his big wins in the South, parts of the Midwest, and the caucus states to claim the Democratic nomination. In contrast to Obama, Sanders will be highly unlikely to win numerous Southern primaries if he doesn’t improve his limited support among nonwhite Democrats.

The primary and caucus schedule

As far as American demographics go, many observers have pointed out the fact that Iowa and New Hampshire are notably unrepresentative states. Not only are the Hawkeye and Granite states very white, but they also have large populations of white liberals, many of whom are currently supporting Sanders. So it’s not shocking that Sanders has shown strength in the two leadoff states, particularly in New Hampshire, which abuts his home state of Vermont (Sanders has led Clinton in the two most recent polls of the Granite State).

But after those two states vote, Clinton’s support among nonwhite voters may well prove to be a huge difference maker for the former senator and first lady. Table 2 lists the calendar as of Aug. 27 and denotes the level of nonwhite participation in the 2008 Democratic primaries and caucuses (using the same color scheme as in Map 1).

Table 2: 2016 Democratic primary and caucus schedule, delegates, and 2008 nonwhite participation

Sources: Primary and caucus dates based on available information as of Aug. 27, 2016, chiefly from Frontloading HQ and Delegate totals based on draft state party plans where possible, for additional data.

Notes: No specific data available to list a date for Northern Marianas’ caucus event. *Estimate of nonwhite participation. Though data are lacking to provide estimates, all territorial primaries and caucuses undoubtedly had majority nonwhite participation in 2008 (and will again in 2016). The table does not include Democrats Abroad, which will also send delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Utah Democrats used a primary in 2008 but will use a caucus in 2016. Texas Democrats used the “Texas Two-Step” primary and caucus/convention method in 2008 but will use just a primary in 2016.

The electorates of Nevada and South Carolina, which are third and fourth in the primary process, will look nothing like those in Iowa and New Hampshire. The Silver State contest will have one of the larger shares of Latino voters, even with a lower-turnout caucus format. In light of racial political polarization, the Palmetto State will have a majority black Democratic primary electorate. Three days after South Carolina votes (it’ll be a Leap Year in 2016), the “SEC Primary” will occur. Although some non-Southern states will vote that day, most attention will be on major Southern states such as Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. Three states voting on March 1 — Alabama, Georgia, and Texas — will likely have majority nonwhite primary electorates, while North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia will probably all have electorates that are at least one-third nonwhite. In fact, of the delegates in the states that have contests up through March 1, 72% will come from states that had at least 20% nonwhite primary and caucus electorates in 2008. These states, among them Arkansas (in some ways still Clinton’s home — she won 70% there in 2008), will be in a position to pledge a fair number of delegates to Clinton, strengthening her as we move deeper into the campaign.

Whither Biden?

It’s true that if Biden enters the race, he will have some appeal among nonwhite voters. But the latest Economist/YouGov survey found that more than 60% of blacks and Hispanics prefer Clinton to be the Democratic nominee in 2016 over Biden or Sanders. Meanwhile, the poll showed white Democrats sharply divided, with Sanders preferred by 38%, Clinton 37%, and Biden 11%. Considering Clinton’s strong support from nonwhite Democrats, it’s even possible that Biden’s entry into the race may weaken Sanders’ campaign as much as Clinton’s. The vice president could grab some of Sanders’ supporters as a new, perhaps more electable “other” option against Clinton, as well as some who currently support Clinton. Given Clinton’s overwhelming appeal among nonwhites and Sanders’ relatively small hold over them in horserace polls, much of Biden’s additional support might actually come from white voters. This would then only further divide white Democrats while nonwhite Democrats may remain predominantly in Clinton’s camp.

It’s also worth mentioning — as we did last week — that there are a number of embarrassing episodes where Biden made inappropriate remarks when discussing minority Americans. As long as he isn’t a candidate, those moments will probably remain largely in the background. But should he declare his candidacy, media scrutiny and the attack dogs of other candidates will certainly bring them into the campaign conversation, probably to the detriment of Biden’s support among nonwhite Democrats.

Nevertheless, one development could help Biden immensely with nonwhite voters — an endorsement from President Obama. Biden has already earned Obama’s “blessing” to make a 2016 run if the vice president so desires. That doesn’t mean Obama will endorse him in the end, but the president has left open the possibility of backing a Democrat during the primary process. If Obama were to endorse someone, it would be a seismic political event — especially if it wasn’t Clinton.


We can’t know what will happen with Clinton’s email scandal or if Biden will enter the race. But there are data that suggest Clinton remains in a relatively strong position because of her seemingly entrenched support among nonwhite Democrats. Most states don’t look like Iowa or New Hampshire demographically, which may buoy Clinton’s nomination chances. After the Hawkeye and Granite states’ contests, the schedule quickly moves into states that Clinton will probably be favored in, assuming she retains the levels of support from nonwhite voters that have mostly stayed with her despite the email affair.

What it really comes down to is this: There is no Barack Obama in this cycle’s Democratic field. Neither Joe Biden nor Bernie Sanders are likely to fill that role, and Clinton’s solid support among nonwhite voters may endure even if Biden throws his hat in the ring, positioning her to remain the favorite in the long run.

Notes on the State of Politics

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball August 27th, 2015


How the North Dakota gubernatorial race could decide the Senate

The decision by Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R-ND) to not run for another term potentially puts a 2016 gubernatorial race in play for Democrats. But winning it might involve a trade-off that most Democrats wouldn’t make: the governorship of one of the nation’s least populous states in exchange for continued Republican control of the U.S. Senate.

That’s because the strongest Democratic contender for the open governorship is Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), who was elected to the Senate in 2012. If Heitkamp runs for governor and wins, a special election will be held to fill the remaining two years of her term, a recent change enacted by the Republican-controlled state legislature designed to prevent a future Gov. Heitkamp from appointing her own Democratic successor. The special election must be held no later than 95 days from the time of a vacancy, and the seat would remain vacant in advance of the special election. In North Dakota, the new governor will be inaugurated on Dec. 15, 2016. That would probably put the special election sometime in mid-March 2017.

It’s not impossible to imagine the Senate starting 50-49 either way in January 2017, with the North Dakota seat vacant, and the special election deciding control of the Senate. Given North Dakota’s Republican leanings, the GOP would probably begin as favorites to win that seat and potentially the Senate majority, even if the Democrats had narrowly won an edge in the upper chamber the previous November.

Heitkamp faces an interesting decision, one that she says she will make “sooner rather than later.” She might feel powerless in the Senate minority, particularly because she’s more moderate than most of her colleagues. If she stays in the Senate, she would face a difficult reelection race in 2018 in a midterm climate that may or may not be favorable to her party. Also, losing the gubernatorial race would not necessarily prevent her from seeking another Senate term, although kicking off a 2018 reelection campaign coming off a statewide loss isn’t exactly starting from a position of strength. Formerly North Dakota’s attorney general, she may also simply prefer to be governor and decide jumping back into state-level politics is worth the risk. Given the state of national politics, who could blame her? However, one wonders how much she could accomplish as governor. Republicans have huge majorities in the state legislature: 32-15 in the Senate and 71-23 in the House. For what it’s worth, two of her class of 2018 Senate colleagues — Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) — also flirted with gubernatorial runs this cycle but passed. Ultimately, Heitkamp will face immense pressure not to jeopardize the Democrats’ chances to re-take the Senate.

As we wait for Heitkamp’s decision, we’re moving North Dakota’s gubernatorial race from Safe Republican to Leans Republican. We don’t expect that rating will last all that long, though: If Heitkamp runs, we’ll probably move the race to a straight Toss-up. If she does not, we’d consider pushing the race to Likely Republican, because there’s a drop-off from Heitkamp to other Democratic candidates. One could be Heitkamp’s brother, former state Sen. Joel Heitkamp (D), who is now a radio host and who says he doesn’t believe his sister will run for governor. Another is state Sen. George Sinner (D), who lost to Rep. Kevin Cramer (R) last year by 17 points in a race for the state’s at-large U.S. House seat.

Sinner’s father, also named George, was the last Democrat to win the state’s governorship, capturing it in 1984 and 1988. Since then, Republicans have won the office six straight times, often by huge margins. The Democrat who came closest to winning was Heitkamp, who lost to now-Sen. John Hoeven (R) 55%-45% in 2000. That margin probably understates how competitive the race was, though. Polling showed the race tight throughout, and Heitkamp’s breast cancer diagnosis in the latter stages of the campaign might have affected the result. (Heitkamp obviously beat cancer and went on to future political success.)

On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley (R) and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem (R) are both potential candidates, and there’s some indication that they would not run against each other. Other Republicans, such as former Rep. Rick Berg (R, ND-AL), who lost to Heitkamp in the 2012 Senate race, could also run. Whoever the Republican nominee is will likely benefit from presidential coattails: A Democrat has not carried the state since President Lyndon Johnson’s massive national sweep in 1964. Still, Heitkamp overcame Mitt Romney’s 20-point triumph at the top of the ballot to win her Senate seat in 2012.

If Heitkamp does run, Senate watchers would need to factor in her possible victory as they assess the battle for the upper chamber next year. As it stands now, Democrats need to win four Senate seats to get the Senate to 50-50, and a Democratic vice president would break a tie, giving them the majority (Democrats would need to net five seats otherwise, but that’s unlikely if they are simultaneously losing the White House).

However, a bare Democratic Senate majority could prove fleeting if Heitkamp wins the governorship and a Republican captures her seat in 2017.

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings change

Recalculating: Waiting on new House maps in Florida and Virginia

Last week, the Florida legislature failed to come to an agreement on a new U.S. House map. The same thing happened in Virginia. Courts that threw out the current maps are now expected to determine what the new maps will look like going forward.

We have held off on making rating changes in anticipation of the new maps because of the inherent uncertainty of this redistricting. The failure of elected officials in both states to pass new maps in response to the court rulings only heightens the unpredictability of these mid-decade remaps.

Ultimately, the likeliest outcomes in both states probably will help Democrats, but we’re going to continue to hold off on reassessing these races.

In Virginia, a panel of federal judges ruled that Rep. Bobby Scott’s (D, VA-3) district, which takes in black voters from Richmond to Norfolk, was packed with too many minority voters. Unpacking that district could make the marginally Republican-leaning surrounding districts of Reps. Scott Rigell (R, VA-2) and Randy Forbes (R, VA-4) more competitive (Forbes seems likelier to be hurt, but let’s wait and see what happens).

Republicans in the state legislature probably would have preferred to sacrifice Rep. Dave Brat (R, VA-7), the insurgent who defeated then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R) in a shocking primary upset last year. Brat has few friends in the state Republican establishment. But Virginia Senate Democrats, aided by a rogue Republican state senator, shut down a special session called to draw new maps, punting the decision back to the judges. A court-drawn map may have been the end result even if the GOP-controlled legislature had passed a new map, as Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) might have vetoed the new lines anyway.

Florida’s changes should be more substantial because the court’s ruling addressed multiple districts. The Tampa Bay-area seat of Rep. David Jolly (R, FL-13), the 2014 special election winner who is now running for Senate, should become more Democratic, potentially allowing party-switching former Gov. Charlie Crist (D) to win it. The majority-minority district of Rep. Corrine Brown (D, FL-5), which currently runs from Jacksonville in the north to Orlando in the center of the state, is likely to be redrawn east to west from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. That could imperil one or more Republican-held seats in Northeast Florida while also robbing Rep. Gwen Graham (D, FL-2) of the most Democratic parts of her panhandle district, making it nearly impossible for her to hold her seat.

On balance, the changes should help Democrats win at least one or two additional seats in the House, but it’s possible there will be no net partisan change in either state.

In Virginia, perhaps the changes to Scott’s district will be minor enough that Forbes and Rigell can survive them. In Florida, Democrats could capture FL-13 and an additional Republican seat made more Democratic through the unpacking of FL-5 — under the proposed map the legislature ultimately failed to pass, Rep. Dan Webster (R, FL-10) almost certainly would have lost — but Republicans could negate these Democratic gains by winning FL-2 and also winning FL-18, which was narrowly won by Mitt Romney in 2012 and is now open because Rep. Patrick Murphy (D) is running for Senate.

After all, the maps matter, but candidate performance and the national climate will play a role in these races, too. There are lots of potential scenarios, but they do not all automatically result in the Democrats netting House seats as a result of the new maps, even if the new lines, when finalized, initially suggest that they should.

Democrats 2016: Biden His Time

If there’s a Clinton crash, the vice president might not be the only one who exploits it

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball August 20th, 2015


It’s time to ask a question, the answer to which we do not know: Will former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email server scandal do fatal damage to her campaign?

Over the past few months it’s become clearer that the questions surrounding Clinton’s emails — and a corresponding flood of negative press that she has been unable to counteract — have done her considerable harm, at least in the short term. Her favorability rating has continued to erode. In June, we noted that despite months of questions about her emails — the story broke in early March — Clinton’s net favorability had only gone from 48%-46% favorable to 46%-48% unfavorable, according to HuffPost Pollster’s average. Since then, her unfavorability has only inched up to 49%, but her favorability has dropped to about 41%.

The fact that her unfavorability number hasn’t grown much while her favorability number has clearly dropped suggests that some Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are not willing to say they like their party’s frontrunner right now, but they also aren’t willing to say they dislike her. These are the voters that Clinton, as the nominee, would probably be able to bring back into the fold. Polarization raises the floor for candidates of both parties, even ones who are damaged.

So perhaps the damage is only temporary.

However, it’s possible to imagine that the email scandal could get so bad that it would drive Clinton from the race. It’s certainly not something we’d predict right now, but we also can’t rule it out. Not when the FBI is sniffing around and Clinton felt compelled, after months of stalling, to turn over her private server, and when there are indications that those tens of thousands of emails she deleted might be retrievable on a backup server.

Clinton could be brought down by facts about the emails we don’t know. Her secretive behavior has reinforced preexisting suspicions, as she’s reminded voters of the consistent scent of scandal that has hung around the Clintons ever since they arrived on the national scene. Like so many other Clinton scandals, this one might roll off their backs. Or it might be the one that sticks.

If Clinton does leave the race, then Katie, bar the door: Every Democratic governor and senator will look in the mirror and see a future president.

However: If she remains in the contest, which is still highly probable, we continue to believe Clinton is a very formidable favorite for her party’s nomination.

Our argument for Clinton’s primary strength is largely unchanged from last month, and we won’t reiterate those points here in detail. The case for Clinton, in short, is this: Party leaders still overwhelmingly support Clinton over any other contenders; the impressive crowds that Clinton’s chief rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT), has been attracting have no predictive value; Clinton is widely supported by Democratic women and minorities, both of whom have a dominant say in the primary process; and the primary calendar suggests looking beyond the very white, unrepresentative opening contests of Iowa and New Hampshire to the more diverse contests that follow, where Clinton should be stronger than Sanders.

But what if Clinton’s perceived weakness draws other candidates into the race even as she remains? This brings us to the rumor of the moment: a potential run by Vice President Joe Biden.

Dartmouth College’s Brendan Nyhan, a shrewd analyst who has contributed to the Crystal Ball, recently argued that Biden already is running. Not because he has announced a decision, but because the growing media buzz around his potential candidacy is a way for Biden and his allies to “test the waters.” If donors, elected Democratic officials, and others are receptive to his candidacy, Biden might actually run. If they are not, he won’t.

In effect, Biden is doing what 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney did at the start of 2015, when he semi-publicly considered a candidacy. The reaction among GOP elites to a third Romney run was mixed at best, so Romney passed. If Biden does run, it will tell us that Democratic elites are less sold on Clinton than her long list of endorsements from sitting party officials would suggest, and that the email scandal and her declining favorability have done her harm.

But just because a Biden run would add to Clinton’s mounting list of woes doesn’t automatically mean Biden is a truly serious threat to win the nomination.

As a candidate, Biden would find himself in an unenviable situation. So long as Clinton remains in the race, Biden would have to contend with her daunting funding, organization, and popularity in the party (which remains quite strong). And if Clinton is not in the race, it is unlikely Biden would have to contend only with Sanders, former Gov. Martin O’Malley (MD), and the other existing candidates: As noted above, a Clinton-less field could entice several others to launch a late entrance. It’s unclear whether Biden would be the favorite in a reshuffled Democratic presidential scrum.

That’s because, for a sitting vice president, Biden is unintimidating.

Throughout the entire presidential cycle — going all the way back to 2013 — Clinton has led every single national poll of Democrats, and even in her weakened state her level of support in every poll is near or over 50%. Biden, on the other hand, has never reached even 20% in any national primary poll included in RealClearPolitics’ list, and his average in the most recent surveys is 12%. That strikes us as a fairly weak number for a sitting vice president who did not, unlike former Vice President Dick Cheney, frequently and loudly insist he was not considering a run for president. There just has not been much grassroots support for Biden.

Now, there’s an important caveat here. If Biden actually announces his run, his poll numbers will assuredly improve. But by how much? It’s hard to say, but it doesn’t seem likely that he would jump ahead of Clinton in the polls. It’s also not impossible that a Biden run would hurt Sanders more than Clinton. Although Clinton and Biden are ideologically closer to each other than either is to the socialist senator, Sanders is benefitting somewhat from the perception that he is the leading alternative to Clinton among the currently announced candidates.

Biden’s two previous presidential runs in 1988 and 2008 were busts. He was forced from the former race long before voting started in part because of accusations that he plagiarized from the stump speech of British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. More recently, in 2008, Biden’s candidacy was almost inert, barely registering in Iowa before he dropped out. Biden’s public persona as a scrappy underdog from Scranton also feels increasingly out of step with the diverse Democratic Party, particularly because of the things Biden has often said — “You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.” — and done — getting much too close to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s wife (pawing her, in fact, to her obvious discomfort) during Carter’s swearing-in earlier this year. These incidents are problematic when running for the nomination of a party increasingly reliant on women and minorities.

This gets at Biden’s perception problem: To many, it’s impossible to separate Biden the vice president from Biden the caricature. One of the most popular running gags on The Onion, the satirical news site, is poking fun at “Diamond Joe” Biden (example headlines: “Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am In White House Driveway” and “Biden To Cool His Heels in Mexico For A While”). His frequent gaffes make him the subject of ridicule, and conservatives have criticized press coverage of Biden for years, saying that the vice president gets away with behavior that would imperil Republicans.

Responding to another Biden flub last year — Biden told a group of girls learning computer programming and coding that they were “as smart as any guy” — the sharp conservative commentator Noah Rothman summed up what he saw as Biden’s frequent free passes from the media: “What frustrates conservatives is that a small but influential community that occupies itself with daily outrages over trivialities just can’t seem to find it in themselves to express dissatisfaction over these comments.”

But it’s possible that Biden has paid a deeper price for his years of verbal missteps and indecorous behavior. The public and the media may excuse or ignore his behavior because they just don’t view him as a truly serious presidential candidate.

It’s an uncomfortable thing to discuss Biden’s vulnerabilities, given his recent personal tragedy: His beloved elder son Beau died in May of a brain tumor. Supplementing this is that, for many, Joe Biden is impossible to dislike.

But if Biden runs for president, the personal behavior outlined here will come up. Certainly Biden’s rivals would try to argue that he’s unfit for the presidency, and they will have plenty of examples to cite as they try to make that point.

We’ll just have to wait and see, and if the Donald Trump surge has taught us anything, it’s that primary polls can move on a dime. Perhaps all the previous polls on Biden are meaningless and he’ll get a giant surge in support if he runs. But just because we can imagine something happening doesn’t mean we expect it.

One other note about Biden: There are a couple of rumors surrounding his potential candidacy that merit comment.

The first is that Biden could make a one-term pledge as an acknowledgement of his advanced age (74 at the time of the 2017 inauguration). He could promise to protect President Obama’s legacy and spend his four years in office trying to govern without worrying about reelection. He also could pick a running mate with the idea of grooming that person to be the nominee in the 2020 election and make a contrast with Clinton, who is also an older candidate (Biden is currently 72, Clinton is 67).

This is probably a non-starter and it wouldn’t go over well with the base, which not only wants to win the White House but keep it for eight more years. He would also be a lame duck as soon as he was elected. Republican presidential nominees Bob Dole (1996) and John McCain (2008) considered this strategy, and the fact that both underdog nominees decided against it means they ultimately did not believe it would be very effective. We suspect Biden might discover the same thing.

The other rumor is that Clinton could potentially cut a deal with Biden in order to keep him out, promising to make him her running mate instead.

There would be some precedent for a vice president serving under two different presidents, though it’s ancient. George Clinton served as vice president during President Thomas Jefferson’s second term and President James Madison’s first, and John C. Calhoun held the position under both Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson (during his first term).

Frankly, if Clinton sees Biden as such a threat to her that she has to keep him on as her running mate, then she has more problems than we think. And more broadly, the Democrats don’t have much of a national bench right now. At least from a purely political standpoint, the running mate slot would be better used on a promising, younger politician who could either try to retain the White House after a President Hillary Clinton retires or win it back if the Republicans triumph in 2016. Biden would also add little or nothing from an Electoral College standpoint, whereas someone like Sen. Tim Kaine (VA) could help Clinton squeeze a few extra votes out of a swing state, which could be the difference in the election.

With that, Table 1 features our most recent ratings of the Democratic presidential field. The order of the candidates is unchanged. Given the uncertainty surrounding Biden, we’re keeping him just as a wild card. If he runs, we’ll probably put him above Sanders but behind Clinton. The other three candidates — O’Malley, former Sen. Jim Webb (VA), and former Gov. Lincoln Chafee (RI) — have largely failed to make much of an impression. Of these candidates, O’Malley has the best chance to have a moment, as he’s working Iowa hard and has an ideological profile generally in line with the Democratic electorate.

Harvard law Prof. Lawrence Lessig is considering running for the Democratic nomination as a referendum president. If elected, he says, he would stay in office only until he oversaw the passage of a package of political and ethical reforms, after which he would resign the presidency, allowing his liberal vice president — someone like Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA) — to take over. His candidacy is a pipe dream, but so too are many of the other campaigns this year. If he announces and indicates he is running an actual campaign, we’ll add him — to the very bottom of our list.

Table 1: Crystal Ball rankings of 2016 Democratic presidential primary field

First Tier: The Undisputed Frontrunner
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Hillary Clinton
Ex-Secretary of State
•Very popular within party, more so than in ’08
•Pro-Iraq War vote fading in importance
•Woman: chance to make history
•Overwhelming support from party leaders, at least for now
•Ran unfocused, too-many-cooks ’08 campaign; could make similar mistakes in ’16
•Keeping Bill in check — and on the porch
•How serious is email scandal?
Second Tier: The Emerging Challenger
Bernie Sanders
Senator (Ind.),
•Showing polling strength in early states
•Small-donor fundraising potential
•Drawing big crowds
•Outsider in what is very much an insider process
•Little appeal to nonwhite voters
•Big crowds don’t predict wins
Third Tier: The Others
Martin O’Malley
Ex-Governor, MD
•Liberal record and policy achievements •Baltimore baggage
•Candidacy largely invisible so far
Jim Webb
Ex-Senator, VA
•Unique populist niche •Invisible candidacy, not in line with base of party
Lincoln Chafee
•Voted against Iraq war •Left office very unpopular
•No base of support in party, nationally unknown
The Wild Card
Joe Biden
Vice President
•Vast experience
•VP bully pulpit
•Gaffe machine
•Party establishment with Clinton, at least for now