If History Is Any Indicator — Joe Biden Will Win The Nomination
Caveat: This column isn’t an endorsement of Biden — it is a piece of historical analysis. I’m currently most impressed by Elizabeth Warren. Nonetheless, I believe Biden would be a fine nominee and president. Vote blue no matter who in 2020!
Since former Vice President Joe Biden announced for president on May 20, he has held a consistent lead in the national polls over his Democratic rivals. At the same time, Biden has maintained an 8 to 10 point lead over Trump in head to head polling. Biden has maintained his lead despite a series of minor controversies and gaffes. Nothing has seemed to stick.
I was initially surprised at Joe Biden’s early and consistent lead but then I began to reflect on the history of modern presidential elections. If you look at history beginning during the 1960 election cycle, Biden’s lead shouldn’t come as a surprise. That history teaches us that a vice president for a popular and successful president tends to win the presidential nomination.
A big part of the job description for a vice president is that they are required to campaign heavily for the president all over the country and raise money for their party’s candidates. By the time somebody has served as vice president for eight years, they have accumulated a pretty impressive rolodex of friends, supporters and contributors. Let’s take a look at the history, shall we?
By 1960, Dwight Eisenhower was completing the second term of a largely successful presidency. Eisenhower was popular and could have won a third term in the absence of the 22nd Amendment. As it turned out, Nixon coasted to the 1960 GOP nomination without any opposition. In the fall campaign, Nixon lost one of the closest general elections in U.S. history.
After his loss to John F. Kennedy in 1960, Nixon ran and lost a race for governor of California in 1962 to Pat Brown — Jerry Brown’s father. Nixon’s losses in 1960 and 1962 gave him the aura of a loser. Despite the stench of those defeats, Nixon won the GOP presidential nomination with relative ease in 1968. Nixon went on to defeat incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey in November 1968 by a very narrow margin.
Despite Lyndon Johnson’s relative unpopularity caused by the Vietnam War, a fractured Democratic Party gave Humphrey the nomination on the first ballot. The only real threat to Humphrey’s nomination was Robert F. Kennedy. Even though Humphrey had been a loyal supporter of Johnson’s Vietnam policies, he still managed to win the Democratic nomination — and nearly won the general election.
Another vice president from Minnesota made a run for the presidency in 1984. Walter Mondale narrowly won the Democratic nomination that year, prevailing over Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson. Unfortunately, Mondale was burdened with being the vice president for Jimmy Carter — who was unpopular when he left office in 1980. (Carter was the first elected president who failed to be re-elected since Herbert Hoover in 1932.) As a result, Mondale was routed by Ronald Reagan in 1984.
The next vice president to make a run for president was George H.W. Bush in 1988. At the time, incumbent President Ronald Reagan enjoyed an approval rating of anywhere between 55% to 60%. Bush’s main rival for the nomination was Kansas Senator Bob Dole. The turning point in the fight was when Bush ran a series of deceptive TV ads in New Hampshire that misrepresented Dole’s record on taxes. Bush wrapped up the nomination as early as March when he won most of the Super Tuesday primaries.
The 2000 cycle both vindicated this historical pattern and provided the only exception. Al Gore easily won the Democratic nominee after eight years of peace and prosperity under President Bill Clinton. At the same time, Dan Quayle’s quest for the GOP nomination never really gained any traction as George W. Bush wrapped up the nomination by the spring of 2000. Quayle’s bid fell far short because Quayle was (correctly) perceived as a lightweight and Bush41 at the time was considered to be a failed president by the right wing of the GOP. (Bush41 committed heresy when he raised taxes on the rich in 1990.)
In the current cycle, Biden is running as the vice president of Barack Obama — one the greatest presidents in U.S. history. When Obama left office in January 2017, he had a 60% approval rating. That is a remarkable finding in light of our current polarization and a radicalized GOP. Obama is a (justifiably) beloved figure in the Democratic party who enjoys a 97% approval rating within the party. Obama awarded Biden the Medal of Freedom and has described him as both his “brother” and the “greatest vice president in history.”
In light of that history, it is no wonder that Joe Biden is the Democratic front runner. There is (justifiably) a lot of Barack Obama nostalgia. Biden isn’t my first choice for president but I do believe he would a strong nominee and a good president. I could say the same thing about all of our leading candidates for president. If history is any precedent, Joe Biden will probably win the nomination. I would expect him to select a highly qualified female running mate such as Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris or Amy Klobuchar.
At the end of the day, all Democrats must support the nominee. Period. A second Trump term would be a disaster for the country — and the planet. Trump would continue to pack the federal courts with right wing activists and could resume a nuclear arms race with Russia. Moreover, we would fall further behind in the battle to reverse climate change. We can’t afford a Trump second term. It needs to be all hands on deck in 2020!