Will he or will he not? Joe Biden is keeping the world guessing whether he will enter the 2016 US presidential race. It would be his third attempt to become commander-in-chief, after 1988 and 2008.
Not a day goes by without reporters and pundits predicting that the vice president is “close to a decision to run”, citing “sources” inside Biden’s personal orbit.
The trouble is: they have been doing this for months, and Biden remains silent on the issue.
Not surprisingly, the week started with fresh rumors that an announcement will be made “within the next 48 hours”. But the vice president might have missed his moment, as the Biden hype of the last few weeks has turned a little into Biden fatigue.
Democrats are divided, and a majority among them now says that he should stay out of the race. According to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, released on Tuesday, 38 percent prefer him not to run versus 30 percent who say he should. Remarkably, 31 percent do not have an opinion and do not care.
These latest numbers come a week after Hillary Clinton’s stellar performance in the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas on October 14.
Her strong presence in Sin City has failed to quiet speculation that Biden will enter the race, but it has certainly strengthened her base and all those who had privately voiced worries that she was in trouble.
Pollster John Zogby thinks Biden’s time may have come and gone. “Clinton was just commanding”, he wrote after the debate. “Biden has to decide now and not kick the can down the road because of deadlines. I don’t see how he chooses to run now.”
A worse time for Biden to join the field would be when Clinton is ascendant, when polls show that Democrats are increasingly comfortable with her as their nominee and less interested in a Biden candidacy. In other words, a worse time is right now.
Since the debate, Clinton has gained almost four points, while Biden has stayed flat, according to surveys by the Washington Post. But the Clinton renaissance preceded that debate. Since October 1, she is up over six points in the newspaper’s polling average. Biden is down almost three.
If Biden does decide to run, it is not clear whether President Barack Obama will explicitly back him, although in the past his superlatives for Biden have been much more enthusiastic than his comments about Clinton.
Certainly he would appreciate Biden’s help on issues such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, on which Clinton flipped-flopped and currently opposes.
It is also uncertain whether Biden will do what Senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s surprisingly strong rival, refuses to do, namely make the race in part about Clinton’s ethical deficiencies.
During the debate, he vigorously closed ranks with her over Clinton’s email controversy. A position that makes it impossible for him to criticize her on that issue going forward.
So what is Joe Biden up to? Is he agonizing over the decision? What is he waiting for?
The longer the vice president waits, the more he is drawing closer to very real deadlines, explains Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a liberal Washington think tank.
Biden “can miss a debate, he can take some time raising money because he has quite a platform, but the fact is these are the drop-dead dates,” Kamarck told CBS News. “Everything else you can kind of work around – you can’t work around these.”
The first filing deadline for appearing on a 2016 primary ballot is November 6 in Alabama. By December 1, Democrats run up against deadlines in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Tennessee and likely New Hampshire. With each deadline passed, a candidate gives up more potential delegates.
If Biden is still mulling a run by the end of January, Kamarck has noted, he will have effectively forefeited 2232 delegates – enough to secure the nomination when the delegates vote for the party nominee at the Democratic National Convention in July.
Kamarck’s verdict: “He’s basically got to get in before Christmas.”
If Biden decided late in the game that he wanted to compete for the nomination, he could theoretically try to win primary votes in a couple of different ways, even without having his name on the ballot.
He could mount a write-in campaign, or he could convey to voters that a vote for “uncommitted” on the primary ballot would count as a vote for him. However, it’s not a given that the “uncommitted” delegates would actually back Biden.