Joe Biden's Perpetual Trial Balloon

Auditioning for the role of Hillary Clinton's understudy.

Is she still there?

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

What's Vice President Joe Biden up to? He appears to be inventing a new form of presidential campaigning: The perpetual trial balloon. And it's exactly the right response to his highly unusual situation.

Biden has consistently declined to say whether he's running or not. The deadline for his decision is always vaguely off in the future, long after other candidates (in both parties) have officially announced or dropped out of the running. The vice president has declined to do the things that candidates do: He has no staff in Iowa or New Hampshire. On the other hand, stories keep leaking about a possible late bid for the presidency.

Now, it's possible that what Biden says -- that he hasn't decided -- is all there is to it. It's also possible that Biden has no intention of running, but others are trying to push him along. Every successful politician has true believers who think he or she can beat enormous odds. Besides, campaign professionals would love to find a campaign to work for.

It's more likely, however, that Biden has been running all along, but for a slightly different position -- Hillary Clinton's understudy.

As most potential candidates have realized, the former secretary of state occupies a commanding position. Early on, she wrapped up the support of an overwhelming share of the politicians, campaign and governing professionals, party officials and staff, activists and donors, and party-aligned interest groups that exercise the strongest influence on the nomination process.

Most likely, nothing will shake Clinton's hold on the nomination. But there's always a chance that something could -- scandal, health or some unforeseeable circumstance. 1

In that event, someone has to be the Democratic candidate. As Nate Silver pointed out weeks ago, Biden is doing what he can to make himself the obvious fallback.

How? Not by running a full-fledged campaign. That would antagonize Clinton and her allies (which, again, is most of the party at this point). And given that Democrats have never shown much interest in putting Biden in the Oval Office, an active campaign would more likely diminish Biden than feature him as a safe alternative in case of emergency.

On the other hand, Shermanesque denials of interest would drop Biden's name from news coverage, and even from conversations among party actors.

So instead, Biden appears to be doing just enough -- suggesting he's mapping out a potential bid -- to remind Democrats that he's available, just in case. 2  Given Biden's unusual circumstances, a perpetual trial balloon seems like a good way to fly.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. No, not the current e-mail flap. At least to date, there's nothing to indicate that the party is particularly worried about it, at least not to the point of seriously considering dropping their presumptive nominee. Watch the high-profile politicians who have endorsed her; as long as none expresses major doubts, the nomination politics isn't changing.

  2. This strategy would never have worked back in the 1970s, when the primaries and caucuses really decided nominations, and so building a relationship with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire was the only sensible strategy. But now, the party determines nominations, and the primaries are mainly important for how undecided party actors interpret them. 

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at

To contact the editor on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at

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