Joe Biden and the Perils of the Late Summer Campaign

Credit: Twitter user @redsteeze
August 3, 2015

Will Joe Biden run for president? He's expected to announce his decision later this month, after a family vacation, but the political class is already excited at the prospect. I'd enjoy a third Biden presidential bid—he's far more watchable than Hillary Clinton—and I doubt I'm alone. He's a great political actor, a ham. Imagine him winning the nomination and debating Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. The dueling hair would make it a spectacular encounter.

As he deliberates, though, Biden must be worrying about recent history. The last three presidential cycles all had contestants who announced their candidacy in the summer prior to the Iowa caucus. And all three failed. Biden would be in a similar situation.

Rick Perry announced his campaign in August of 2011, but despite good polls and grassroots enthusiasm, an impressive record and personal charm, collapsed in a matter of months. Perry now says he rushed into the primary, that he wasn't ready, that he hadn't recovered from back surgery. He spent the subsequent years building an organization, a national reputation, policy chops, and buying a pair of glasses. His announcement this year came in June—the culmination of years of preparation.

For months in 2007, Fred Thompson liked to tease his fans with the idea of his running for president, but his organizational efforts were nil, and his announcement didn't come until September 5, 2007. Like many late entries he seems to have become convinced of his own necessity in the race, of the idea that he alone could solve the problems of his party, appeal in just the right way to all the parts of the Republican coalition. He was gone by the end of January 2008, after placing third in South Carolina.

The curse of the late entry afflicts Democrats too. The first story I covered for the Weekly Standard was the presidential candidacy of General Wesley Clark, who announced his campaign for the Democratic nomination on September 17, 2003. Clark was considered a stalking horse for the Clintons, who were said to be unhappy with the Democratic field. Clark came in third in New Hampshire—he was building some momentum there before John Kerry's famous comeback—and went on to win the Oklahoma primary. But the nomination was a dream, and when the Democrats gathered in Boston in 2004, it was John Kerry who reported for duty.

That the summer soldiers have lost in recent years shows just how much work goes into a presidential campaign, how much of a disadvantage starting late can be. It's not just the money. It's staff, scheduling, precinct volunteers, the accumulation of local contacts and supporters in early states, the building of an infrastructure that could be—the candidate hopes, will be—expanded to cover the nation by the spring of next year.

Biden has none of these things at the moment. What he has instead is an analysis of the Democratic race: Hillary Clinton is a terrible candidate whom voters don't trust, and the main alternative to her is a socialist from Vermont. The incumbent vice president, Biden is well suited to run as the heir to the Obama presidency, and a liberal crusader who was ahead of the president on the issue of gay marriage. Why couldn't he take the nomination from Clinton?

The story might be appealing, but it only gets you so far. In the real world of space and time, Clinton remains popular among Democratic voters (if not with liberal media elites) and leads Bernie Sanders by large margins. She has the money, the endorsements, a huge campaign staff, organizers in Iowa, and the de facto endorsement of the president. It is not Biden but Clinton who is running as the incumbent. It's hard to see how he would convince Democrats to switch their affections.

But he may run. Biden might not have a campaign, but like many of the late entrants he has advisers and supplicants who are urging him to go for the presidency, who are telling him he's in the best possible position. Why not run—it beats working. If Biden announces in September, we can look forward to tumult and controversy in both the Democratic and Republican primaries. That's something to hope for. And hope will be pretty much all that Biden has. When the campaign is over he's likely to have wished that he'd made up his mind sooner. Tardiness hurt Perry, Thompson, and Clark. It will hurt Joe Biden too.