Savior or Spoiler: What Happens if Joe Biden Runs Against Clinton?
Policy + Politics

Savior or Spoiler: What Happens if Joe Biden Runs Against Clinton?

Depending on whom you listen to, Vice President Joe Biden is either about to announce his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, or is vaguely considering it as he grieves the death of his cancer-stricken son.

ABC News reported that an unnamed Biden advisor believes the VP is “90 percent in” for a presidential run. The Washington Post and Associated Press, by contrast, paint a picture of an effort that is far from fully formed, and is more driven by Biden’s friends than by the man himself.

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But say the vice president decided to make a run at Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic frontrunner. How would he measure up? In some regards he would do pretty well, but in others, it’s far from clear that he would bring the kind of advantages to the race that would provide the momentum he’d need to catch a Clinton effort that has been years in the making.

Here’s the tale of the tape on some key questions:


Biden: 72

Clinton: 67

Advantage: Clinton The edge here goes to Clinton, despite the fact that she would be the second-oldest first-term president ever inaugurated, trailing only Ronald Reagan, who was 16 days short of his 70th birthday when he entered the Oval Office. Clinton would be a few months past her 69th birthday.

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Biden, however, would be the oldest president ever elected, and by a wide margin at that. He would be more than four years older than Reagan was at the time of his first inauguration. Should he serve two terms, Biden would be in office into his early 80s.


Biden: Male

Clinton: Female

Advantage: Clinton. By the time the next president is inaugurated, the United States will have had a male president for 228 consecutive years. This is not to suggest that Clinton’s candidacy is dependent on her gender, given her stellar qualifications for the job. But only a crazy person would suggest that the chance to put a woman in the Oval Office for the first time won’t have a strong appeal for many in the electorate, at a minimum driving turnout higher.


Biden: 36 years in the U.S. Senate, where he chaired the Judiciary Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee; nearly 8 years (by the time of the 2016 election) as vice president of the United States.

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Clinton: 12 years as First Lady of Arkansas; 8 years as First Lady of the United States; 8 years as U.S. Senator; 4 years as U.S. Secretary of State.

Advantage: Biden. Hillary Clinton is often touted as the candidate in the field with the best political resume for a presidential run, but Biden has her beat. He served more than four times as long as she did in the Senate and chaired two major committees. Clinton’s service as Secretary of State is tough to match, but Biden’s long years of service on the Foreign Relations Committee, culminating in the chairmanship, blunt her edge in that department.

Clinton spent 20 years as First Lady in Arkansas and then Washington. And while that surely provided unique insight into the way politics works, the nature of the position meant that she had little official responsibility for policymaking. Biden however, has been an active and engaged vice president, frequently brokering deals between the administration and Congress from behind the scenes.

Campaign Infrastructure

Biden: Err…

Clinton: Everything she needs and more.

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Advantage: Clinton. An absolute no-brainer here. Clinton has been laying the groundwork for this presidential run for most of the past year, and has substantial presence in key primary states. Biden, by contrast, would be trying to catch her from a standing start, at a time when big money donors and key political operatives – including his own long-time chief of staff – have already committed to Clinton.

Public Opinion

Biden: 75 percent net approval rating among Democrats

Clinton: 68 percent net approval among Democrats

Advantage: Biden. For the moment, at least, Joe Biden is simply more popular than Hillary Clinton. In a recent Quinnipiac poll of Democrats, he had an 82 percent approval rating and a 7 percent disapproval rating. Clinton posted a 79 percent approval rating and an 11 percent unfavorable rating. That may be too slim a difference to confer any real advantage to Biden in the primary. However, if Democratic voters look beyond the primary to the general election, Biden has a net favorable rating with the American people as a whole (49/39), while Clinton is dramatically underwater (40/51).

The Democratic primary, of course, can’t be so easily broken down.

While Biden could certainly make Clinton uncomfortable, his candidacy comes with some unique disadvantages that don’t necessarily show up in a head-to-head comparison.

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Apart from the huge mountain Biden would have to climb in trying to challenge Clinton at this late date, sitting vice presidents historically have had trouble running successfully for president. While many vice presidents stepped in when a president died or was forced out of office, only four sitting vice presidents won election as president (and only one since 1836) – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren and George H.W. Bush, who was elected in 1988 to succeed Ronald Reagan.

Biden would have another problem to overcome besides historical trend. Rather than being his own man, Biden would have no choice but to base his campaign largely on a ringing defense of the Obama record and legacy.

In her effort to attract support from liberal Democrats and progressives Clinton has gradually distanced herself from some of Obama's policies, including trade, tax and economic policies and the intensity of the war effort against ISIS. While she has defended the Iran-U.S. nuclear deal, she has been less outspoken about that in public than in closed meetings with Democrats on Capitol Hill.

After spending nearly eight years as Obama's vice president, Biden would not have that luxury. He would have no choice but to defend the president's record on the economy and national security policy -- warts and all.

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In the end, Biden’s best shot at the Democratic nomination might be as a consensus alternative if the Clinton candidacy implodes. The former secretary of state is laboring under no small number of problems – her use of a personal email server for sensitive State Department communications, the ever-present Republican obsession with Benghazi, and the perception that large donors to her family’s philanthropic foundation might have had influence on her decision making while in office.

At the moment, none seem serious enough to really threaten her nomination, but the Democratic nominating convention is the better part of a year away.

If Biden jumps in now, he faces a long and daunting journey. At this point, his best shot at being president might be to decline to run, and leave open the possibility that a Clinton collapse could result in a draft-Biden surge.

Eric Pianin contributed to this story.