early and often

How Late Can Joe Biden Enter the 2016 Campaign?

Biden, Leading Democrats Address Center for American Progress Annual Summit
Joe Biden addresses the 10th annual Make Progress National Summit on July 16, 2015 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The general consensus after Hillary Clinton’s polished performance in the first Democratic presidential debate is that Joe Biden squandered the excitement about his potential run, and would face a difficult political path if he disrupted what’s shaping up to be a strong Democratic primary. Biden’s already months behind in fundraising, and as FiveThirtyEight notes, candidates who make a late entry into the race don’t necessarily get a bounce in the polls. But politics aside, is it even technically possible for Biden to declare his candidacy at this point?

The vice-president has yet to miss any crucial deadlines, but within a few weeks, his path to the nomination will go from challenging to extremely implausible — and he knows it. His staff reportedly met with the Democratic National Committee last week to go over the complicated rules for entering each state’s primary, and last month Biden told the Catholic magazine America, “It’s just not there yet and it may not get there in time to make it feasible to be able to run and succeed, because there are certain windows that will close.” Here’s the time line Biden’s facing.

Missing the second Democratic debate on November 14 would send a bad message, but there are also several important filing deadlines next month. For those not up on the intricacies of the nominating process, basically the primaries determine how many delegates are allotted to each candidate. They’re awarded proportionally based on total votes by district, so a candidate can pick up delegates even if they don’t win the primary. About 4,800 delegates will vote at the Democratic convention in July, so a candidate will need around 2,400 delegates to secure the nomination.

In order to get on the ballot in Alabama, Biden must sign a statement of candidacy with the state party, gather 500 signatures, and pay a $2,500 fee by November 6, according to ABC News. Alabama only has about 60 delegates, so missing that primary wouldn’t be a huge blow. But several states have filing deadlines later that month, each with their own requirements: Arkansas (November 9), New Hampshire (November 20), and Florida (November 30). If Biden still hasn’t entered by the end of the month, he’ll have given up on nearly 400 delegates.

Eleven state deadlines fall in December, so if Biden doesn’t declare by the end of the year, he’ll have forfeited more than 1000 delegates. There is one far-fetched way that Biden could further delay his decision without giving up on states with early filing deadlines. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, tells ABC News that Biden could put his name on the ballot without officially declaring his candidacy. “He could sign the paperwork and say he’s doing it in case he decides to become a candidate,” Sabato said. “Who is going to challenge that, given his personal situation?” But Sabato described that scenario in September, and post-debate, prominent Democrats are already pushing Biden to make up his mind.

Assuming Biden hasn’t started filling out paperwork just in case, the major cutoff when it comes to filing deadlines is January, when another 15 states require candidates to register. According to an analysis by the Brookings Institution, by the middle of the month an undeclared candidate will have forfeited 2,232 delegates, or about the number needed to become the nominee.

The Iowa caucus is on February 1, and starting with the New Hampshire primary on February 9 the other candidates will start divvying up delegates. A few states don’t have filing deadlines, but they only total about 500 delegates. We should know who the Democratic nominee is well before June, when the last half-dozen states hold their primaries.

Couldn’t Biden rush up to Philadelphia on July 25 to fight for the nomination on the convention floor, or rescue a Democratic party hopelessly divided between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders? Theoretically, yes, but as Rasmussen explains, that’s extremely unlikely:

Now, in the event of a deadlocked convention, other candidates could emerge. The convention could hypothetically turn to a candidate who didn’t win the largest number of delegates — or who didn’t win delegates at all. But let’s not assume wild hypotheticals: Not since 1968 has either party picked a nominee who didn’t participate in the primaries (the last one was the Democrats’ Hubert H. Humphrey). Moreover, we haven’t seen any true convention drama since 1976 for the Republicans (the tight Gerald Ford-Ronald Reagan contest that went down to the wire) and 1980 for the Democrats, when a fiery Ted Kennedy tried to pry loose enough Jimmy Carter delegates to steal the nomination.

And what if Biden is just positioning himself as Clinton’s understudy, as some columnists have suggested? If Biden steps up to fill the void after Clinton is … let’s say hauled away in chains over her emails, that would put the vice-president in a more advantageous position. As Sabato explains, a party desperate to avoid nominating a socialist could come to the vice-president’s aid, helping him claim Clinton’s delegates and much of her campaign apparatus:

While he would be getting in very late, there might be some campaign infrastructure he could effectively inherit. Any Super PACs set up on Clinton’s behalf, such as Priorities USA Action, could decide to back Biden instead. Super PACs are legally required to keep their distance from formal campaigns, so a pro-Clinton Super PAC could morph into a pro-Biden one. The donors who have given to the Clinton Super PACs probably wouldn’t mind the changed course: In fact, many of them would likely donate to the new Biden campaign, too.

The remaining money in Clinton’s primary and general election accounts — which would be millions upon millions of dollars — could be reimbursed to donors with a strong suggestion that they re-donate the cash to the Biden campaign. The vendors and contractors with which Clinton is working could simply sign up with Biden — heck, so could many of the staffers.

But at this point we might as well be speculating about how Elizabeth Warren, Al Gore, or (on the Republican side) Mitt Romney could cinch the nomination at the last minute. People like talking about wild convention scenarios, but the 2016 convention will almost certainly be a week-long prime-time commercial for a candidate selected months in advance. Unless Biden plans on becoming the Democratic Donald Trump and sending his party into a tailspin, which doesn’t really seem like his style, he’ll announce his intentions in the next few weeks.