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A brief history of VPs trying (and mostly failing) to be president

Vice President Joe Biden is now saying he won't run for president. And though some thought he had a shot, the history of vice presidents seeking the White House isn't as clear-cut as you'd think.

I looked at the presidential fates of America's 47 vice presidents, trying to test the theory that the vice presidency is a stepping stone to the White House. But the numbers show it's not a well-trod path.

There have been 17 bids for the presidency launched after a vice presidents' term. Five vice presidents tried and failed to get their party's endorsement. An additional seven did get the endorsement, but went on to lose the general election.

At the end of the day, only five vice presidents claimed the White House through an election: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and, 144 years later, George H.W. Bush. One other vice president, Richard Nixon, was eventually elected eight years after he left office.

The more common route to the White House for a vice president has been when the president has died or resigned; that's how nine vice presidents became commander in chief.

(Historical side note: I’m counting Aaron Burr as having participated in the 1800 general election. Before 1803, the electoral college used to cast two votes — one for president and one for vice president — but those votes did not specify which person they wanted in which office. Instead, the candidate who finished second became vice president. Burr ran in the 1800 election with the intent of becoming president but finished second, which made him vice president to the winner, Thomas Jefferson.)

The past 50 years have been especially cruel to vice presidents' campaigns, with George H.W. Bush as the only officeholder to ascend to the presidency. Hubert Humphrey lost to Nixon; Walter Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan; Al Gore lost to George W. Bush. As for the others:

  • Spiro Agnew resigned in the midst of a scandal.
  • Nelson Rockefeller was replaced on the ticket when Gerald Ford sought reelection; Ford lost.
  • George H.W. Bush lost reelection, taking his vice president, Dan Quayle, with him.
  • Dick Cheney did not run after Bush’s second term. That’s not stopping one Republican pundit from pushing for Cheney 2016.