If Vice President Joe Biden doesn’t want to make any news yet, the media will just have to make some news for him. Because the media really, really, really wants Biden to transform the Democratic primary into what it’s currently not: a highly clickable three-way donnybrook in which Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders claw each other to death for public amusement.
To wit: Politico’s Mike Allen published a genuinely hilarious report Monday marketed as containing two pieces of in-demand information: that Biden is expected to make a decision on his candidacy this weekend and that he is supposedly leaning toward entering. Allen’s report doesn’t actually confirm either of those nuggets, though. It is sourced entirely to anonymous “friends,” though sometimes they double as “confidants” and other times as mere “visitors”—idle swells who call on the Bidens during lazy Sunday afternoons in the Delaware countryside. “The confidants,” Allen writes, “say the most likely scenario for a decision is a family council next weekend.” Unless … that is not at all true? “But these sources,” he cautions, “note that the timing will be driven completely by Biden, and he has proved to be ever-unpredictable as he contemplated a race.” While Allen writes at the top of the piece that several “people who have visited Biden recently said he seems to be leaning ‘yes,’ ” a few paragraphs later we hear from other “friends” and “visitors” who disagree.
One longtime friend said the long windup — and the fact that no staff has been hired — tells its own story.
“If you’re going to run, you run,” the friend said. “Every time he pushes back a decision, that’s the ultimate tell.”
A third recent Biden visitor said: “I can’t see how he can wake up one morning and think some big tidal wave sweeps him in. The raw politics just aren’t there.”
Allen could have conducted a survey of random patrons at his corner liquor store and come away with just as much information. He effectively ends his story about two-thirds of the way in—“After describing their hunches, friends and advisers almost universally added that they remain unsure which way he’ll go”—but nevertheless spends three more paragraphs rhapsodizing about all the nothingness he has to share. It is not a very good story, and everyone should read it.
All of that said, it’s interesting to consider what might happen to the Democratic race should Biden make his decision soon, one way or the other. Polls of Democratic voters have shown that he would be welcomed to the race, but they don’t feel that he needs to get in. Clinton and Sanders are both popular among Democrats and have natural constituencies within the party from which to draw their support. It’s just the political media, represented ignominiously and accurately by a salivating Mike Allen, that needs Biden to run. If this primary is going to be as entertainingly vicious and unpredictable as the Republican side—or even in the same ballpark, or within a few miles of the ballpark—it’s up to Biden to deliver that.
Biden would make the race interesting because Clinton’s natural constituency—mainstream Democrats—is also his, and this is the largest slice of the pie. Split up that vote while Sanders maintains his natural constituency—the party’s left flank—and you have the beginnings of a three-way race.
A Public Policy Polling survey released Tuesday is the latest to demonstrate that Biden supporters are more likely to flock to Clinton than they are to Sanders should the vice president opt out. Clinton leads PPP’s national poll with 42 percent to Sanders’ 24 and Biden’s 20. “Among Biden voters,” though, “44% say Clinton would be their second choice to only 21% who say Sanders would be.” If Biden chooses not to run and you move his backers to their second choice, PPP reports, Clinton leads Sanders 51 percent to 28. Clinton obviously has a sizable lead either way. But without Biden, she would find herself holding a majority of the party. And with Biden, she would have to prevent more mainstream Democrats from migrating his way following a presumed announcement bump. As New York magazine reports, this would get ugly.
A pass from Biden would also offer Clinton perhaps her only chance to salvage a victory in New Hampshire. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of New Hampshire Democrats showed Sanders firmly in the lead with 42 percent to Clinton’s 28 and Biden’s 18. Again, though, Clinton is the second choice for more Biden voters than Sanders is. Without Biden, Sanders’ lead would be trimmed to a 9-point point margin, 48 to 39. That’s still comfortable for Sanders, but it might entice a Clinton campaign that’s reportedly beginning to feel despondent about its New Hampshire prospects. And a come-from-behind Clinton victory in New Hampshire against Sanders—“the perfect candidate for New Hampshire,” as an anonymous Clinton ally put it in a Tuesday story from Politico—could mark an earlier-than-expected knockout blow to her challenger from the left.
A Biden candidacy would turn a race that’s still largely in Hillary Clinton’s pocket, even though Sanders has proven surprisingly feisty, into a potentially competitive one between three popular figures within the Democratic Party. Mike Allen and others like him will be sacrificing goats to the God of Media each night, praying that Biden chooses to enter the race and provide yet more riveting, #snackable content. But if he doesn’t enter, actual Democrats are fine with that. Though they would welcome him to the race, they don’t demand it. “[F]or the most part,” PPP found in its poll released Tuesday, “Democrats are content with nominating Clinton next year.” That may not be fun or exotic for those of us who type about these things for a living. But as the Donald Trump spectacle on the Republican side has shown, stressing WWE-style combat above all else isn’t the healthiest way for a party to go about selecting its presidential nominee.