Monday's dead heat in the Iowa Democratic caucus has renewed political buzz about Vice President Joe Biden's becoming a late entry into his party's race for the White House.
For Democrats, late entries in previous years have proved quite formidable - none more so than Robert F. Kennedy, who made a spirited late run in 1968 until he was felled by an assassin's bullet on the night of his greatest triumph.
On caucus night Monday and into the next morning, Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were locked in a dead heat, both hovering at just under 50 percent of the allocation of delegates to Iowa's state convention.
Because of various caucus irregularities, the race remained too close to call. President Barack Obama's chief campaign architect, David Axelrod, tweeted out Monday night that “it's not clear we'll ever know with absolute certainty who actually finished first among Democrats in Iowa, and not sure it matters.”
Given the high turnout numbers, Clinton “may have done well to escape with a tie,” Axelrod added, although she did insist on declaring victory anyway. Several precincts were literally decided by a coin toss, all in her favor.
Iowa has been a hard state for Clinton before. In her 2008 contest for the nomination, the wheels of her campaign started to come off when she unexpectedly finished third there, behind Obama and John Edwards.
In that year, she managed a surprise come-from-behind victory in the New Hampshire primaries to turn it into a real contest. That will be hard to repeat this year:
The Granite State is in Sanders' own New England backyard and the
Vermont senator enjoys a commanding lead. He was beating her by 18 points in the Real Clear Politics polling averages there before he unexpectedly tied her in Iowa.
Clinton currently leads Sanders by almost 30 percent in the next contest, in South Carolina, but Sanders is surging and Clinton sputtering. Multiple losses have a tendency to drive down support, turnout and campaign cash.
That could be awful news for the Democrats' chances of holding the White House, a wide variety of observers agree, and not just in America.
In Britain last year, the Labour Party elected as its new leader Jeremy Corbyn, a leftist politician of the same mold as Sanders. It did not go well for Labour, which now finds itself fighting for relevance.
And on this side of the pond? “Sure, Sanders seems a more likable fellow than Corbyn, who is unspeakably grim. He's also less radical,” Freddy Gray, deputy editor of the London Spectator, told AMI Newswire Tuesday. “Nevertheless, a Democratic Party led by him could find itself marginalized by the GOP and the political center – just as Corbyn's Labour seems to have been,” Gray predicted.
The Democrats may not let it come to that. Biden decided last year not to run for the nomination, but could still throw in if Clinton stumbles. In so doing, he would be following in the politically opportunistic footsteps of Kennedy, the U.S. Senator from New York and former attorney general for his brother, President John F. Kennedy.
In 1968, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy challenged President Lyndon Johnson in the Democratic primaries over the Vietnam War and almost beat him in New Hampshire. This drew RFK into the race. Rather than take on Kennedy, Johnson quit the campaign entirely. Kennedy then went on to push McCarthy aside. When he won the high-stakes California primary, the nomination seemed his for the taking - but he was shot to death in the kitchen of a Los Angeles hotel just after his victory speech.
Even then, yet another late entrant, Hubert Humphrey, the vice-president to Johnson, won the nomination ahead of McCarthy and other challengers.
Because Democrats award 713 delegate spots (about 14 percent of the total) to technically free-agent party officials (known as superdelegates), a late entrant backed by the party elites could still cobble together a convention majority even after sitting out the first few state contests.
Could something similar shape up this year? Biden clearly regrets not running and has talked up Sanders and trash-talked Clinton publicly. Plenty of thinly sourced stories swirl around Washington that claim he wants to get into the race.
Jeremy Mayer, a political scientist for George Mason University, places little credence in the idea of Biden pulling an RFK. He called the idea “much discussed but highly unlikely" and pointed out that that 1968 election “was prior to all major campaign finance laws and the primary system."
"RFK entered because he had a path to victory. If Biden enters, he would have to attack Hillary in a devastating way to have a chance,” Mayer told AMI Newswire. Bottom line: “Unindicted, Hillary beats Biden.”
However, campaign finance laws have changed again with the Supreme Court's Citizen United verdict, making it easier for rich donors to get a lot of money into the political system quick if they see a cause worth backing.
For David Carlin, former Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island state senate, a Biden entry into the race would all come down to South Carolina.
“If Sanders does well with the black voters there, even if he does not actually win the state, a demand will arise for Biden to enter the race,” Carlin told AMI Newswire. “My guess is that Sanders will do much, much better than expected in South Carolina.”
Carlin added: “If Biden enters, I would not be surprised if he promptly announces that Elizabeth Warren will be his running mate,” thereby undercutting one of the great selling points of the Clinton campaign.