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Joe Biden Has History On His Side But Little Else If Hillary Clinton Runs

Ken Rudin collection

It's pretty much a truism in American political history: If the president is not running again and the vice president wants his party's nomination, it's his for the asking.

That was the case in 1960, with President Eisenhower term-limited and Vice President Richard Nixon's path to the GOP nomination unimpeded.

It was also true in 1968, when President Johnson decided not to run again and his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, won the Democratic nomination despite not having entered a single primary. The quests of Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy ended in assassination in Los Angeles and violence in Chicago, but considering the way things were back in '68, Humphrey may have had the nomination locked up from the beginning.

And while the situations were not exactly the same, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Al Gore in 2000 and Walter Mondale, a former vice president, in 1984 had built-in advantages within the party that helped them get their respective party's nominations.

Incumbent VPs Nixon, Humphrey, Bush and Gore (and ex-VP Mondale) all won their respective nominations.
/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection
Incumbent VPs Nixon, Humphrey, Bush and Gore (and ex-VP Mondale) all won their respective nominations.

Some vice presidents, for one reason or another, have decided they didn't want the career advancement. Dan Quayle, a former V.P., skipped the 1996 race entirely (though he did make an ultimately unsuccessful bid for 2000). Dick Cheney made it clear from the beginning that he had no desire to succeed George W. Bush in 2008. Spiro Agnew, of course, had legal distractions that kept him out of the 1976 campaign.

Three V.P.s who didn't move up: Agnew was a disgraced pol in '76, Quayle sat out '96 (though tried in '00), and Cheney didn't want the job in '08.
/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection
Three V.P.s who didn't move up: Agnew was a disgraced pol in '76, Quayle sat out '96 (though tried in '00), and Cheney didn't want the job in '08.
Vice President Barkley hoped lightning would strike at the 1952 Democratic convention.  It didn't.
/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection
Vice President Barkley hoped lightning would strike at the 1952 Democratic convention. It didn't.

The only vice president in recent history who wanted to get his party's nomination and succeed his retiring boss — but failed — was Alben Barkley. The number two under Harry Truman and a former Senate majority leader, Barkley made himself available for the nomination after Truman surprised the nation by taking himself out of the running in 1952, after losing the New Hampshire primary. But Barkley, who was 74 years old and in office for four decades, was dismissed as "too old" by many in the party, and that was the judgment from organized labor as well. The Democrats ultimately chose Adlai Stevenson.

By most accounts, Joe Biden would love to succeed Barack Obama. He of course has some of the problems that crippled Barkley; he will also be 74 years old in the next campaign. No one that old has ever been elected president. Ronald Reagan was 73 when he ran for a second term in 1984, a campaign where his age became a key issue. Bob Dole was 73 when he challenged President Clinton in 1996 and John McCain was 72 when he ran against Obama in 2008.

Biden has also run for president twice before, in the 1988 and 2008 cycles, and didn't exactly bowl anyone over in either attempt. The first time he didn't even survive 1987, and the second he was gone before New Hampshire.

Plus, he will have been in public office for 44 consecutive years. There are a lot of young(er) and ambitious Democrats mulling 2016, and while some may stay out should Hillary Clinton get in, there's no indication that any of them — Andrew Cuomo, Martin O'Malley? — would back away from taking on Biden.

Did I just mention Hillary Clinton? That may be Biden's biggest roadblock of all.

Just as the conventional wisdom says Biden wants to run in 2016, the same C.W. says Clinton is running as well. While handicapping a presidential race three years in advance is foolhardy, and while nobody wins the nomination because of conventional wisdom, by nearly every measure it seems like the Democratic nomination is hers for the taking. Yes, we did say the same thing two cycles ago, when she was the odds-on favorite for 2008 only to be overtaken by Obama in a classic battle that went down to the wire. But now, the argument goes, it's "her turn." She made the gallant attempt in '08 and served loyally as Obama's secretary of state for the next four years, and now it's time for her to be rewarded for her efforts. Her approval numbers are sky high, far better than they were in 2007-08, and are consistently higher than Biden's. As Obama broke a glass ceiling with his 2008 election, so would Clinton in 2016.

I just paused and checked the calendar — yes, it's only May of 2013 — and reminded myself that there is a silliness to all of this. Biden may not run. Clinton may not run. A lot may happen before we get to 2016 (ya think?). Heck, they may even cancel the election.

My only point is that yes, it is a rarity for a sitting vice president to be denied the nomination if he wants it. As incumbent V.P.s, Nixon, Humphrey, Bush Sr. and Gore all led their party into November. Now we are approaching the likelihood that another sitting vice president hopes to do the same. But this time the odds don't look good.

Sanford Surge in Carolina? Public Policy Polling, the Democratic-leaning firm that showed Elizabeth Colbert Busch up nine points over Mark Sanford two weeks ago, now shows the special election in South Carolina's First Congressional District "too close to call." But PPP's findings clearly indicate Sanford with the momentum: the former Republican governor leads 47-46 percent.

"Sanford has gotten back into the race by nationalizing it and painting Colbert Busch as a liberal. A plurality of voters in the district- 47%- say they think Colbert Busch is a liberal compared to 43% who characterize her as ideologically 'about right.' Colbert Busch's favorability rating has dropped a net 19 points compared to 2 weeks ago, from +25 then at 56/31 to +6 now at 50/44. ...

If SC-1 voters went to the polls on Tuesday and voted for the candidate they personally liked better, Colbert Busch would be the definite winner. That's why Sanford's campaign has tried to shift the focus toward national Democrats who are unpopular in the district, and that's been a key in helping him to make this race competitive again. ...

The other key development in this race over the last two weeks is that Republicans are returning to the electorate. On our last poll, conducted right after the trespassing charges against Sanford became public, we found that the likely electorate had voted for Mitt Romney by only 5 points in a district that he actually won by 18. That suggested many Republican voters were depressed and planning to stay home. On our final poll we find an electorate that's Romney +13- that's still more Democratic than the turnout from last fall, but it's a lot better for Sanford than it was a couple weeks ago."

The election is today.

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week — some serious, some not — on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin.

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions and sparkling jokes. Last week's show, with guest host John Donvan, focused on the Sanford-Colbert Busch race in South Carolina. You can listen to the segment here:

May 1 Junkie segment on TOTN

Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," up every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner in crime, Ron Elving, and me.

And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can usually be found in this spot every Monday or Tuesday. A randomly selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. You still have time to submit your answer to last week's contest, which you can see here. Sure, there's incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets not only a TOTN T-shirt, but also a 3-1/2 inch Official No-Prize Button! Is this a great country or what??

Last week's winner: Dale Smith of Franklin, Tenn.


May 7 — Special election in S.C. 01.

May 21 — Los Angeles mayoral runoff. Also: Pittsburgh mayoral primary.

June 4 — Special election in Missouri's 8th CD to replace Jo Ann Emerson (R), who resigned. Also: New Jersey gov. primaries.

June 25 — Special Senate election in Massachusetts to replace John Kerry, who is now secretary of state.

June 26— Final "Political Junkie" segment on Talk of the Nation. TOTN ends on Thursday, June 27.

Aug. 6 — Seattle mayoral primary.

Sept. 10 — New York City mayoral primary.

/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

This day in campaign history: New York Gov. Herbert Lehman (D), in office nearly ten years, announces he will not seek a fifth term in November. As the state's lt. gov., he ran to succeed Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, when FDR left to run for president; Lehman won four terms, the last one a narrow victory over Manhattan District Attorney Thomas Dewey in 1938 (May 7, 1942). Dewey will win the election in November. New York had two-year gov. terms until '38, when it was increased to four years.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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