Joe Biden's in New Hampshire! But would a 2016 bid be doomed?

Biden said he was in New Hampshire to promote White House economic policies, not a 2016 candidacy. Right. History suggests, however, that as VP for a two-term president, he has an uphill battle.

Jim Cole/AP
Vice President Joe Biden and New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan visit the New Hampshire Works center, March 25, in Manchester, N.H. Biden is making the rounds in this key political state, critical to the Democrats' hopes of holding onto the Senate majority – and perhaps to Biden's own presidential ambitions in 2016.

Vice President Joe Biden was in New Hampshire Tuesday, not running for president. At least that’s how he described his day.

Mr. Biden said he was in the Granite State to promote White House efforts to boost the economy instead of his own electoral fortunes. It was simply a coincidence that he was doing this in the state that holds the first US primary of the presidential season.

“I’m here about jobs, not mine,” said Biden while touring a business in Manchester.

Yes, and we’re Superman blogging from the Fortress of Solitude.

When a US politician presumed to have interest in a presidential bid travels to New Hampshire during the so-called “invisible primary” season, when candidates court donors and gauge support among the rank-and-file, it’s OK to assume that a big part of the visit is about the glimmer of the White House in the distance. Biden kissed a 101-year old grandmother Tuesday, for goodness sake – that’s politicking at an advanced level. He’s raising money for New Hampshire Democratic candidates. Usually that gets a politician at least a modicum of support in return.

But is Biden doomed before he starts? We ask this due to the fact that it’s rare for vice presidents to run for the top job and win. (Yes, he’s getting crushed by Hillary Clinton in early polls, but that’s not our point at the moment. Clinton might not run, after all.)

Look at the numbers. Fourteen former VPs have risen to the nation’s top job, but of those, nine assumed the presidency upon the death or resignation of the incumbent. In the modern era, only one VP has won election to replace the man under whom he served. That was George H. W. Bush, who succeeded Ronald Reagan.

The last Veep to pull that off before Mr. Bush was Martin Van Buren, in 1836.

The problem with being VP is you’re tied to the old regime. Voters are often tired of an administration, particularly after eight years, and may respond better to fresher candidates.

“It is relatively easy for an opponent – like John F. Kennedy in 1960 when he beat Vice President Richard Nixon – to present himself as the fresh voice in politics, in contrast to a tired and potentially worn-out face,” writes Princeton historian Julian Zelizer in a CNN op-ed titled “Why Biden won’t win.”

But maybe we’re looking at the historical record too narrowly. That’s what Joel K. Goldstein, a vice presidential scholar and law professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law, argues in any case.

Since 1953, each of the four sitting vice presidents who sought the presidency upon the retirement of the incumbent either won the office (Bush) or won the nomination and ran close races against formidable opponents, writes Goldstein in “Sabato’s Crystal Ball,” a journal of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Nixon almost beat JFK in 1960. Hubert Humphrey, LBJ’s VP, almost beat Nixon in 1968. Al Gore, Bill Clinton’s VP, beat George W. Bush in the popular vote in 2000, but lost in the Electoral College after the infamous Florida recount.

Humphrey, Walter Mondale (Jimmy Carter’s VP), H.W. Bush and Gore had all tried to run for president before gaining the vice presidency as part of a winning ticket. All lost, in some cases badly – then won the presidential nomination after their VP service.

That’s a trend Biden, who’s already run for president twice, might believe in.

“Biden’s presidential prospects are exponentially greater after his vice presidential service than they previously were,” writes Goldstein.

Well, maybe. And if they’re not, there’s always another job he can try for. There’s no constitutional barrier to serving three terms as vice president, after all.

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