Biden’s Waiting Game Has Paid Off -- for Now
Policy + Politics

Biden’s Waiting Game Has Paid Off -- for Now

REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

It’s probably past time for Vice President Joe Biden to end his Hamlet-like deliberations and finally decide whether to challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination or take himself out of contention.

His months of public soul-searching, including an emotional appearance on Stephen Colbert’s late night show, have placed him in the Democratic catbird seat and enabled him to influence the course of the presidential campaign. But Biden risks overplaying his hand unless he announces his decision soon.

Related: Here Is Biden’s Big Advantage over Clinton

The media frenzy over whether Biden will comply with his son Beau’s death-bed admonition to run again for president and spare the country another Clinton administration has helped skew the polls against the former secretary of state while providing ample grist for the draft-Biden faction.

(About that media frenzy: Jim Newell of Slate wrote that “the media really, really, really want Biden to transform the Democratic primary into what it’s currently not: a highly clickable three-way donnybrook in which Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders claw each other to death for public amusement.”)

Biden has benefited from a national outpouring of sympathy over the death of his 46-year old son from brain cancer and the belief by many that he would make a far better nominee in the general election than either Clinton or Sen. Bernie Sanders – despite two previously failed and highly flawed campaigns for the White House.

Related: Joe Biden: The Looming Threat to a Republican

By staying on the sidelines as long as he can – likely past the first nationally televised Democratic presidential debate next Tuesday – Biden will continue to loom large as a factor in the campaign without having any real skin in the game. And by stringing out his decision-making process as he confers with family and advisers, he can keep Clinton slightly off balance by suppressing her poll numbers among mainstream Democrats who are still hoping he will enter the race.

A number of  recent surveys, including one this week by Public Policy Polling, show that Biden supporters more likely would gravitate to Clinton rather than Sanders if the vice president announces he will not get into the race. Clinton leads in the PPP national survey with 42 percent compared with 24 percent for Sanders and 20 percent for Biden.  Among the Biden supporters, however, 44 percent said that Clinton would be their second choice compared with only 21 percent who said they would turn to Sanders.

There’s more evidence of the benefit to Biden of hanging back: A new Quinnipiac University poll in the three battleground states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania shows that while Clinton continues to lead the Democratic field in the primary contests, Biden would make a far better candidate in the general election.

According to the Quinnipiac findings, Clinton and GOP frontrunner Donald Trump continue to have the worst overall favorability ratings among all voters in those three swing states, while Biden and Republican Ben Carson stand out as the strongest candidates in the fall campaign.

Related: Do You Trust Her? For Clinton, More People Say ‘No’

In hypothetical general election matchups, Biden tops Carson in Florida, 45 percent to 42 percent. In Ohio, the roles reverse and Carson leads Biden, 46 percent to 42 percent. And in Pennsylvania, Carson leads Biden, 47 percent to 42 percent.

Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, says that in the general election, “Biden does better against leading Republicans than does Clinton or Sanders.”

While Biden’s strategy appears to be working for now, it carries considerable risks down the road. Among those risks are missed opportunities for campaign fundraising to catch up to Clinton and Sanders, and the problem of building a national campaign organization ahead of deadlines for filing for early primaries and caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and a batch of southern states. 

Moreover, while there is considerable good will among voters and the media towards Biden – a veteran of the Senate and national politics for over 40 years—his prolonged agonizing over whether he can move beyond grief to run for president is beginning to attract unwelcome scrutiny.

Related: Why Every Passing Day Makes It Harder for Biden—or Any Latecomer--To Run

The vice president’s office hotly disputed a Politico report this week that Biden himself leaked an account of his dying son's wish that he seek the Democratic nomination to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd for an August 1 column that drew widespread attention and triggered intense speculation that Biden would likely enter the race.

Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere, citing multiple sources, wrote Tuesday that Biden's conversation with Dowd "effectively placed an ad in The New York Times" inviting donors and potential political supporters to reach out to him or hang back while he reached a final decision.

"The bottom line on the Politico story is that it is categorically false and the characterization is offensive," said a spokesperson for Biden, according to CNN . Biden aides said it was “flatly wrong” to suggest that Biden intended to use the story of his son’s plea as a trial balloon for his candidacy.