The current buzz in the 2016 campaign on the Democratic side is that Joe Biden is mulling over announcing his candidacy, and is more likely than not to enter. Ezra Klein over at Vox.com suggests that Biden running would be a boon to Hillary Clinton because it will allow people to focus on something other than Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses. Klein has a point, certainly, but I think Biden’s entry cuts the other way: if Biden enters, Clinton should worry. (I’m going to speculate a lot here, but I think it’s necessary, considering that I’m trying to tease out the implications of a potential future event that may not happen.)
For a few reasons, Hillary Clinton is a stronger candidate in 2016 than she was in 2008. It is worth summarizing those:
1. Bill Clinton’s tenure looks better every year. Say what you will about Barack Obama’s two terms–and certainly, liberals have a lot to appreciate–but economic growth and prosperity have paled in comparison to the Clinton years. The country has basically faced low growth since the end of the Clinton Administration. That’s a decade and a half of relative stagnation. The prosperity–and perhaps the comparative insouciance–of the 90s certainly feels like a better place to be than the tumultuous 21st century.
2. Hillary basically fought the premier presidential candidate of our generation to a draw, but lost on a “technicality.” Anyone who was watching Obama’s fundraising throughout 2007 knew that he would be a threat to Hillary Clinton once voters started paying attention. And Obama came through on his promise: he delivered some great speeches and electrified his voters. (Obama did not run a lackluster campaign in 2007, period. Once voters started paying attention, lots of people loved what Obama had to say.) And yet… Obama’s margin of victory in the delegate count really came because his campaign understood the complexities of delegate allocation better than Hillary Clinton’s, particularly with respect to caucus states. In other words, Clinton basically fought Obama–who was undoubtedly a fantastic candidate–to a draw, at least in terms of the overall votes cast. That speaks well of her appeal, and it is basically inconceivable that her campaign will make the same errors, in terms of following delegate allocation rules.
3. Hillary Clinton dramatically underperformed with black voters in 2008. As Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight.com points out, Barack Obama won 82 percent of the black vote in 2008. Prior to Obama’s emergence, it looked like Hillary Clinton had a lock on many of those votes; indeed, for months, people were wondering how Obama would break into Clinton’s support there. He eventually did, and still just barely defeated Clinton for the nomination.
4. It seems that the Democrats want to nominate the first woman presidential candidate from a major party. This one goes without saying, but it would be important and historic if the Democrats could nominate a woman as the head of their ticket, and a credible contender for that honor earns some points with voters.
None of this is groundbreaking stuff: Hillary Clinton is a very strong Democratic candidate on paper, and everyone knows it.
Meanwhile, we have one other important piece of evidence about how strong a candidate Hillary Clinton is: Joe Biden–who has wanted to be president for the last four decades, if Richard Ben Cramer’s What it Takes is to be believed–did not declare for the nomination back in the spring. It seems likely that Biden examined the situation, saw that his odds were incredibly slim, and opted not to go for the gold. This is particularly significant, because this is probably Biden’s last shot at the big prize, based on his age, and is certainly his last shot if Hillary wins the general election. Starting late is almost certainly a disadvantage in this context: lots of potential donors and staffers have already signed on with Clinton, and peeling them away from Clinton will be more difficult than locking them down in the first place.
And yet now we’re consistently hearing that Joe Biden might run as a late entry, even in the face of these massive structural headwinds. Maybe he lacks the “emotional fuel,” but evidently, he wants people to think he is considering a run.
We might be able to write off a standard late entrance into a race as merely opportunistic: after all, someone, somewhere, told Fred Thompson and Rick Perry that the Republican fields in their respective years were weak, and that the nomination was there for the taking without much work. Obviously, it didn’t play out that way.
But Joe Biden is not Fred Thompson and not Rick Perry: he’s the sitting vice president, and a very active one, in the Obama administration. He is personally closer to the president than is Hillary Clinton, even if Obama chooses not to endorse a candidate this time around.
You can point to Bernie Sanders as a surprise, certainly, and Clinton’s poll numbers are probably weaker than people would have predicted, but really, very little has changed about Hillary Clinton’s structural advantages in seeking the presidency. Nothing has changed the fact that the 1990s were a good time for most Americans, the Democrats would love to nominate a woman, Sanders is struggling to attract black voters, and Hillary must know the delegate apportionment rules this time around.
But there is one thing that might have changed the playing field: the ongoing email scandal.
No potential candidate is in a better position to know the particulars about it–and the risks surrounding it–than the sitting vice president. Will there be indictments? Prosecutions? Incriminating information released? Embarrassing information leaked? Presumably, the Obama White House has some idea of what they’re dealing with, considering that Clinton was serving as Obama’s Secretary of State as the potential malfeasance unfolded.
Essentially, we are dealing with asymmetric information. Biden probably knows more about Hillary Clinton’s emails than we do. Considering that the email situation is the only thing that has really changed about Hillary Clinton’s strength as a candidate, if Biden runs, we should assume that Biden thinks that the emails have substantially changed the calculus, so much so that he will run with the disadvantage of the late start.
There are other ways to read the tea leaves here: if he runs, it may be an indication that Biden just thinks that Clinton has underperformed and left him an opening. But I am inclined to think that a seasoned politician like Biden is unlikely to get caught up in the twists and turns of the “silly season.” Clinton is still an overwhelming favorite, and Biden is not on paper a good challenger for her.
Which means that if Biden decides to run, it doesn’t mean anything good for Clinton.