Most Democrats believe it would be logistically difficult to form an organization to compete with Clinton at this point; she has the backing of most of the party establishment and donors. “It’s likely too late for a meaningful operation,” particularly in Iowa, one unaligned strategist told me. But Biden backers point to Barack Obama as precedent for passion and personality beating supposed inevitability; more than one told me of a flood of calls and emails from potential Biden backers, many of them nominally committed to Clinton.

“A lot of former staffers have held back, hoping this would happen,” Ronni Council, a Nevada Democratic operative who directed Biden’s campaign in the early-voting state in 2008, told me. (Biden, who dropped out after a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses, never made it to the Nevada contest, and Council went on to work for Clinton.) On the other hand, Bob Osterhaus, a former state representative in Anamosa, Iowa, who endorsed Obama in 2008 but has not committed to a candidate for 2016, told me he could not detect any buzz for Biden on the ground there.

But if what Democrats need is a backup plan for a possible Clinton collapse—someone to turn to if things get worse, not better, for the frontrunner’s joyless juggernaut—is Biden really the man for the job? The ideal Clinton alternative might be a fresh-faced liberal from outside the Beltway; Biden is an aging establishmentarian. Despite a buzzed-about recent meeting with liberal darling Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator, Biden established a reputation during his decades in the Senate as a pragmatist, not a crusader. “His heart is very much in it,” another former Biden aide told me, “but the rest of it is very hard to figure out.”