The kickoff Democratic debate is in the books, and Vice President Joe Biden still has not announced whether he will run for president. Time seems to be running short: As we wrote last month, the filing deadlines for the first primaries are coming up soon.
The first one for the Democrats is Nov. 6 in Alabama — Georgia’s Oct. 29 deadline appears flexible, with Dec. 1 a harder deadline. By the time of the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1, 2016, more than half of the state deadlines will have come and gone. We argued in that piece that if Biden wanted to get in the race, he needed to hurry so he could get on all the state ballots. That’s even truer today. If Biden’s goal is to compete against Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and the others with the goal of winning the nomination on the first ballot at the Democratic convention, he probably can’t afford to miss out on winning delegates anywhere. He would do exactly that if he continues his act as the Hamlet of the Potomac.
There is another possibility, however remote. What if Biden doesn’t announce for president, but doesn’t announce that he’s not running, either? What if he just hangs around the periphery, waiting for a Clinton collapse to activate his candidacy? Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie have both raised the possibility that the vice president is running as a Clinton understudy, ready to step up if for some reason she is no longer a candidate.
This trial balloon could stay afloat for a long time.
Biden’s silence would of course be unnerving to the Clinton campaign, but the state of the race would probably continue on just as it has. Clinton would lead nationally, and Sanders would show strength in some states, such as New Hampshire. This could continue for months, with Biden jetting across the country as vice president, making speeches and news but demurring when asked about a presidential run.
Ballot filing deadlines would come and go, and Biden’s name would not be on the ballot in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early states. Let’s say in this imaginary world, Clinton wins Iowa, Sanders wins New Hampshire, and then Clinton captures Nevada, South Carolina, and the bulk of the states that vote on March 1, the so-called Southeastern Conference primary that features many Southern states. At this point, it appears that Clinton is on her way to the nomination. Throughout this process, Biden remains a non-candidate.
But then, in mid-March, disaster strikes for the Democratic frontrunner. Something happens to Clinton that is so bad she announces she is leaving the race. She gets indicted over some facet of her use of private email while secretary of state, she has a health problem, or something else happens. Given the questions surrounding Clinton, there is a small but non-zero possibility this happens, right? Then what?
Biden steps into the void.
While he would be getting in very late, there might be some campaign infrastructure he could effectively inherit. Any Super PACs set up on Clinton’s behalf, such as Priorities USA Action, could decide to back Biden instead. Super PACs are legally required to keep their distance from formal campaigns, so a pro-Clinton Super PAC could morph into a pro-Biden one. The donors who have given to the Clinton Super PACs probably wouldn’t mind the changed course: In fact, many of them would likely donate to the new Biden campaign, too.
The remaining money in Clinton’s primary and general election accounts — which would be millions upon millions of dollars — could be reimbursed to donors with a strong suggestion that they re-donate the cash to the Biden campaign. The vendors and contractors with which Clinton is working could simply sign up with Biden — heck, so could many of the staffers.
In essence, couldn’t Biden just take over the Clinton campaign?
A Democratic Party desperate for a new standard-bearer could figure out a way to make it happen, particularly because the party and its establishment would be desperate to avoid a Sanders nomination. Plenty of Democrats would see the independent, democratic socialist as the second coming of George McGovern, someone who is unelectable in a general election. (Sanders’ backers disagree strongly, of course — and today’s political polarization would surely permit Sanders to win a bunch of blue states. McGovern won only Massachusetts and DC.)
With a mid-March entry, Biden’s name would not appear on a large majority of primary ballots. He could, however, likely get on the ballot in California (so long as he entered the race by the end of March) and also in a handful of other states. He could win pledged delegates in these places and, more important, build popular momentum among the voters heading into the late July convention.
A big key to this strategy would be the superdelegates. These are the party leaders and elected officials who get a formal vote at the convention. There are about 700 of them. Estimates differ on the number of total delegates at the convention, but according to our research it will probably be about 4,700 (our estimate is higher than many other reported totals because of some pending bonus delegates — yes, this is confusing). But let’s say Biden gets about 600 of the superdelegates. That would be more than a quarter of the roughly 2,350 delegates needed to win the nomination.
Remember: Superdelegates were created by Democrats in 1984 to save the party from a potentially disastrous, McGovern-style candidacy. Superdelegate support helped establishment favorite Walter Mondale win the nomination that year, although he of course lost 49 states, just like McGovern did 12 years before. But superdelegates are establishment types who would naturally gravitate toward an establishment candidate like Biden.
How would Biden get the rest of the delegates needed? Well, those Clinton delegates already pledged to her in the early contests would no longer have a candidate, and Clinton would not even have to “release” them to make them free agents. The Democratic Party’s delegate selection rules say that “Delegates elected to the national convention pledged to a presidential candidate shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.” That isn’t really binding.
It’s reasonable to suspect that a great many of these Clinton delegates would back Biden over Sanders or another candidate. Biden and Clinton are ideologically similar — less liberal than Sanders — and far closer to the party establishment and to President Obama. One would assume that a typical Clinton delegate would be more aligned with Biden than Sanders. And, crucially, Biden would not have to secure enough delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot: He’d just have to deny Sanders the ability to win in the first round of voting. Get past that hurdle, and while anything could happen, a Biden nomination seems the likeliest outcome.
While Biden wouldn’t be on the ballot in most of the contests that take place after his hypothetical mid-March entry, he could urge voters to select “uncommitted” delegates or mount a write-in bid in the states that permit those strategies. Or he could tell voters to vote for Clinton as a proxy for his campaign. Clinton herself could bless such a move if she decided to back Biden’s candidacy. There are many creative possibilities designed above all else to deny Sanders pledged, first-ballot delegates.
How likely is any of this? Not very. It’s contingent on Clinton not just being dealt a deadly political blow, but leaving the race as a result. It would be a grim, final political act for someone who would have kicked away her party’s nomination not once, but twice. Even a heavily damaged Clinton could fight on to the end and perhaps win the nomination on the first ballot. So this scenario is likely predicated on Clinton willingly surrendering in the face of new, deeply negative, and damaging developments. By waiting, Biden loses the opportunity to actually compete against Clinton for the nomination. Instead, his nomination would be contingent on her exiting the race.
It’s a wild scenario, but it’s one that’s possible even if Biden announces that he will not be a candidate. Or if he makes no announcement at all and remains, for the foreseeable future, as a shadow candidate. This might mean that, in a Clinton-less primary world, the likeliest Democratic nominee wouldn’t be someone who is currently running. It could, instead, be the vice president.