Should Joe Biden run for president? Polls tell us only so much.

Vice President Joe Biden's 'candidacy' for president is just a hypothetical, for now. His favorability numbers tell us more than the horserace numbers.

Darren Ornitz/Reuters
US Vice President Joe Biden speaks after receiving the Athenagoras Human Rights Award from The Order of St. Andrew, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in New York on Saturday.

Another day, another breathless report that Vice President Joe Biden is about to announce whether he’s running for president.

The latest, from NBC News, has “two sources” saying that Mr. Biden will let us know by Wednesday morning. But we’ve heard this before – 11 times, in fact, and still no decision. So don’t hold your breath. Sooner or later, though, Biden will end the suspense.

Some signs point to a run. CNN reports that Biden associates are “setting up interviews for potential staff positions” on a presidential campaign. Biden is also reportedly meeting with top political advisers Monday night.

The latest poll on the Democratic primary race, by CNN/ORC, shows Biden at 18 percent, well below Hillary Clinton (45 percent) and Bernie Sanders (29 percent).

One can look Biden’s share two ways: Either he’s doing well for someone who hasn’t announced or, obviously, campaigned. Or he’s doing not so well – third place, for the sitting vice president.

“I’m not sure if a hypothetical number like that really tells you much,” says Karlyn Bowman, an expert on polling at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

As a noncandidate, Biden hasn’t made the case for himself as the next president. But he also hasn’t gone through the gauntlet of a campaign – the attacks, the dredging up of the past, the close media scrutiny.

“When someone becomes a real-life candidate, things really change,” Ms. Bowman said. “Will we hear stories about his ability to connect with white males, something that Hillary has struggled with? Will there be a sympathy factor” over the death of his son?

Other poll metrics may give Biden more clues to his viability as a potential candidate, such as his favorability scores. Biden is the best-liked of the Democratic candidates, with 51 percent of Americans seeing him positively versus 37 percent negative. Clinton scores 46 percent positive, 50 percent negative. Sanders is 41-29.

In head-to-head matchups against Republican front-runners, Biden does the best of any Democratic candidate. He beats Donald Trump by 10 percentage points, while Clinton beats him by only 5 points and Sanders by 9. Against Ben Carson, Biden also does best: The vice president beats the retired neurosurgeon by 8 points, while Clinton and Sanders are in a virtual tie with the doctor. (Clinton scores 47 percent to Dr. Carson’s 48; Sanders gets 46 percent to Carson’s 48.)

But again, these matchups are hypothetical. There’s nothing like being a declared candidate that really tests a man (or a woman) seeking the highest office. You’re never more popular than the day before you announce and the day after you get out of the race, the saying goes.

Biden wins kudos now for his “authenticity,” that quality of genuineness, of “Joe being Joe,” that makes him appealing to many Democrats. But the moment he announces, if he does, the media will be on “gaffe watch,” looking for anything he says or does that is out-of-step with Obama administration policy or polite discourse.

It may, in fact, already be too late. As Biden himself declared in August 2003, after deciding not to run in the 2004 race, “You just can’t parachute into a presidential campaign.”

But even with that in mind, Biden confidant Ted Kaufman is telling former staffers to stay in close contact, according to an e-mail obtained by the Associated Press.

"If he runs, he will run because of his burning conviction that we need to fundamentally change the balance in our economy and the political structure to restore the ability of the middle class to get ahead," said Mr. Kaufman. 

Another sign that there may be room for Biden to get in comes from an analysis of Clinton’s donors. Fewer than 10 percent of the 833 people who raised money for the 2012 Obama-Biden campaign have signed on to “bundle” donations for Clinton, according to USA Today.

Ultimately, Biden’s decision could come down to his gut. As he has said many times, he’s not sure he has the emotional energy to run. Soon we will get his final answer.

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