Ask voters today who they’d like to run for president and you’ll hear the familiar names of people who have already run.
But when they make choices on Election Day, they’re more likely to pick someone who hasn’t.
This is perhaps the major challenge facing someone like Joe Biden, the former vice president who now has his sights set on a third run for the top job, although he hasn’t officially launched a campaign.
“I’ll be as straight with you as I can. I think I’m the most qualified person in the country to be president,” Biden said at an appearance Monday at the University of Montana. “The issues that we face as a country today are the issues that have been in my wheelhouse, that I’ve worked on my whole life.”
But that experience can ultimately be a hindrance. Turns out most US presidents in the past hundred years (and every one since Bill Clinton) have been elected on their first tries.
It’s important to note first-time winners didn’t just come out of nowhere like a rocket. They were on the big stage related to a national ticket for years before they got elected president.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the unsuccessful vice presidential nominee in 1920.
- Both parties wanted Dwight D. Eisenhower to run in 1948.
- John F. Kennedy aggressively tried to be the VP nominee in 1956.
- Clinton openly thought about running in 1988.
- Donald Trump opened a Reform Party exploratory committee in 2000 and then dabbled again with running in 2012.
Current polling (which is so premature as to be almost laughable) favors Biden. When CNN asked Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters in a poll conducted by SSRS in October which candidates Americans would most like to see run, Biden got 33% support. Next closest was Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, with 13%.
They were the only two candidates with more than 10% support. They’re also the only two to have presidential runs under their belts.
Democrats are going to be falling over each other for the nomination, and if history is any guide, that process is going to start shortly. Like now.
One plus for Biden is that a number of vice presidents have vaulted into the White House.
But no vice president has voluntarily left politics, taken a break and then come back. Richard Nixon was forced into a sort of political exile when he lost the 1960 election after two terms as vice president and then also lost a bid to be California governor. He came back with a fury in 1968 and won.
Nixon’s path was interspersed with Ronald Reagan, who mounted some kind of campaign two times and sat two elections out before he won.
Voters don’t often reward repeat runners, unless their names are Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan.
In the last 18 general elections, the major party loser on Election Day was a repeat candidate (from either the nominating process or a general election) in 11 of the contests.
Biden would have to overcome the recent history of an advantage for first-time candidates. He mounted his first campaign in 1988 and withdrew during a plagiarism scandal. He ran again and lost the primary in a crowded field to Barack Obama in 2008. After two terms as vice president and then stepping aside to make way for Hillary Clinton, he’s had more presidential campaign experience than just about anybody in American politics.
John Kerry is another former candidate who has teased a potential run recently. If he ran, he’d be trying to become the first failed major party nominee to come back and win a nomination again since Nixon.
Sanders was the only primary opponent who really challenged Hillary Clinton in 2016. This would be his second run if he steps into the fray.
All of this is completely academic at the moment, with no officially declared candidates other than Trump, who declared his intention to run for re-election as he was moving into the White House.
Also, there’s a good chance the public hasn’t met the likely nominee yet — Trump was not listed as even a possible candidate at this point in 2014.
The official Point 2020 power rankings (updated monthly!) in November had Biden in third place and Sanders in sixth, behind first-time senator Kamala Harris of California, who currently holds the top spot. Biden and Sanders are the only possible candidates on the list with previous presidential campaign experience.