Seemingly every day, I read a story that makes it seem like Joe Biden is on the verge of entering the presidential race, accompanied by another story that makes me skeptical that he ever will. I'm not going to speculate, although I would note that if the vice president waits another month to enter, it would seem nearly impossible to catch up with the fundraising of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. (I would also say that the plain words of Biden's recent statements make it seem doubtful that he runs, while the actions of some around him make it appear that there are still many who hope he will.) The historical precedents for such a late entry aren't encouraging, either.
So who benefits from the endless speculation?
The media. Duh. Speculating about a Biden entry is a lot more fun than contemplating the prospect of an easy Hillary Clinton nomination. (Now that Bernie Sanders has gained some strength, journalists are finally turning their attention to an actual candidate). Including Biden in polls also makes the race look closer than it actually is. It doesn't hurt that Biden has a reputation for accessibility to reporters and for generally being a "good guy."
Democratic operatives and donors. The people behind the Draft Biden Super PAC face a win-win situation. If he does enter, they have jobs on a presidential campaign. If not, they will still have had a gig for a few months that gained them some publicity. Every Democratic operative in Iowa, New Hampshire, and especially South Carolina must be enjoying some extra attention these days. The same could be said for the bundlers and megadonors of Manhattan, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood.
Un-committed Democratic officeholders. Hillary Clinton already has the support of most top Democrats, but there are still plenty who haven't made a decision yet. Biden's announced supporters so far mostly are limited to fellow Delawareans and folks who backed him in 2008 (not an encouraging precedent). He seems to have some backers in South Carolina, so I guess that's something. But those Democratic insiders who haven't endorsed probably get their phone calls returned faster these days.
Democratic "policy demanders." "Policy demander" is just political science talk for any group or faction that's active in party politics in large part because they want candidates to back their positions on issues. The National Rifle Association is a policy demander within the GOP; the Sierra Club is a policy demander within the Democratic Party. Policy demanders benefit from a contested presidential nomination, especially among Democrats, generally the more diverse and group-oriented party, since candidates will compete for their support. The combination of a putative Biden run with the very real bid by a self-described democratic socialist gives Democratic policy demanders (generally a left-leaning lot) much more leverage. Several labor unions are holding back on their endorsements, perhaps to leverage the competition among three Democratic contenders with strong labor ties. Already, Hillary Clinton has announced her support for ending the Cadillac Tax on more generous health plans, a particular bete noire of Big Labor. Meanwhile, she has also announced her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, pleasing environmentalists but also putting herself on the wrong side of public opinion.
Joe Biden's image. It's worth remembering that for most of his vice presidency, Joe Biden hasn't been particularly popular. Indeed, a plurality of Americans have had an unfavorable image of him for almost the entire Obama administration. (He was usually much more unpopular than Hillary Clinton). But his personal ratings began climbing just about the time of his son's tragic death in May. They have continued to rise as he has received rapturous coverage of a possible presidential race. (There are probably many Republicans who like him now as an anti-Hillary — presumably reacting to the conservative press's love affair with a Biden run. A year or two ago, the same folks probably praised Hillary as an anti-Obama.) By contrast, Clinton, never a press darling, has received day after day of criticism over her emails and mockery over her sagging polls. These factors have combined to drive up Biden's poll numbers and depress Clinton's. This warm bath of public sympathy and media adulation would drain quickly if Biden actually entered the presidential race. He would quickly become just another candidate, subject to scrutiny of goofs, gaffes, and his long, long record.
Joe Biden's ego. It's nice to have lots of people saying pleasant things about you.
Bernie Sanders. Poll after poll shows most Biden supporters backing Hillary Clinton in a two-person race, i.e., the one that is actually occurring right now. If national polls showed her leading Sanders by 30 points rather than by 15 or 20, or neck and neck in New Hampshire rather than down by double digits, I think Bernie's media attention and fundraising might be substantially different.
Who is hurt by the Bidening? Clinton, most obviously. Press reports suggest that her fundraising has been depressed by big donors still waiting to see what Biden will do. She has to court unions that will probably back her anyway. Her supporters get freaked out by polls showing her losing support to someone who might never run. It might be bad ultimately for Biden's historical image if he becomes a byword for indecision. But perhaps he is really just planning to be Clinton's understudy in case something unthinkable (but not unimaginable) happens to her.