Another VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us?

By Garry South

May 21, 2019

The Hill

If the most recent polls are to be believed, Joe Biden has jumped into a commanding lead in the brigade-sized Democratic field, after his long delayed, almost Hamlet-esque entry into the race.

The former two-term vice president has zoomed into an impressive double-digit lead not only nationally, but in the key early primary states of New Hampshire and South Carolina. He is also currently even leading Sen. Kamala Harris in her home state of California.

But polling is fickle. At this point in 2007, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was way ahead in the Republican race, and Hillary Clinton was leading Barack Obama by double digits. In the 2012 GOP race, the assortment of one-time poll front runners included, at various times, Newt GingrichRick Perry, and even Herman Cain.

Before Trump took charge in the 2015-16 GOP race, frontrunners-of-the-week in that race had included the likes of Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson.

So perhaps a more instructive way to assess Biden’s prospects at this point might be to take a look back at the history of vice presidents who became president — and those who didn’t.


In all of U.S. history, only 14 vice presidents have acceded to the role of commander in chief. But eight of those got there because of the death of the president under which they served, and one — Gerald Ford — due to the resignation of his boss. So that leaves only five who were elected in their own right, the last being George H.W. Bush, 31 years ago.

Alas, this has not been for lack of trying. Sitting Vice Pres. Richard Nixon ran for president and lost in 1960. Incumbent Vice Pres. Hubert Humphrey ran and lost in 1968, as did Al Gore in 2000. So three of the last four sitting vice presidents who ran for president failed.

Only Bush 41 broke that pattern, but let’s not forget that his 1988 win to replace Ronald Reagan was an historical anomaly: The last time an incumbent vice president had been elected to succeed the president under which he served was 152 years before, when Martin Van Buren replaced Andrew Jackson.

But to fully paint the picture, we need to add two other vice presidents to the mix. Former Vice Pres. Walter Mondale won the Democratic nomination in 1984, but was demolished by Pres. Ronald Reagan, losing every state but his own Minnesota.

And let’s not forget ex-Vice Pres. Dan Quayle, beaten badly along with Bush in 1992 by Bill Clinton. Quayle laid low for a while, but reappeared in 1999 and announced he would seek the 2000 GOP nomination. His attempted comeback didn’t end well. After finishing eighth — yes, eighth — in the Iowa straw poll, he withdrew from the race a month later, before a single vote had been cast, claiming he couldn’t raise the money to compete.

Speaking of Mondale, Quayle and Biden, it is also interesting to note that Richard Nixon in 1968 became still the only former vice president ever to be elected president after an interregnum between his service as vice president and his election as president. In Biden’s favor, unlike Mondale and Quayle, he wasn’t part of a ticket unceremoniously ejected from office after one term.

None of this history is determinative or even predictive, of course. In 2008, America elected its first African American, then eight years later elected the first-ever president who had never served either in elective office or the military.

I could enthusiastically support Biden as the Democratic nominee for president next year. He is a good guy, a regular joe who has overcome unspeakable personal tragedies to stay involved in public life. But as a student of American history, a healthy pinch of skepticism is to be excused when assessing his capacity as a former No. 2 to pull off a presidential win.

Garry South is a veteran Democratic political strategist based in California, who managed Gray Davis’s successful gubernatorial campaigns in 1998 and 2002, and played a central role in Al Gore’s 2000 presidential winning primary and general election campaigns in California.