My thumb tacked from left to right as I swiped mindlessly through Tinder. Then I saw him: His white teeth shone. His eyes sparkled. He was tall. He was distinguished.
He was former vice president Joe Biden.
As far as I know, Joe Biden is not on Tinder himself. But in typical Biden fashion, he is somehow always there. I’ve come across dozens of daters’ profiles where the former vice president makes an appearance — sometimes by embracing someone in a selfie or smiling under his signature aviators in a group shot.
The first time I came across a man’s dating app profile that showed him with Joe Biden, I laughed. The sixth time I found it mind-boggling, and by the 11th time, I had to find out what was going on.
If you have spent any time in the hellscape that is online dating, you are familiar with the profile tropes. As a straight woman, I have seen innumerable photos of men hoisting large fish by the mouth to show their grit, outdoorsiness and willingness to be a provider. I have seen them posing with dogs that are not theirs and wild cats they should not be posing with as if they were dogs. Meanwhile, men tell me that women are going hard with those Instagram and Snapchat flower crown filters.
Every now and then there are photos with celebrities — and in Washington, these often lean toward the political. You may find a smattering of D.C. native Bill Nye the Science Guy or Sen. Bernie Sanders. But Joe Biden’s omnipresence anoints him the hoisted fish of celebrity selfies.
At one point I assumed a dating app algorithm had somehow sensed my Irish Catholic guilt and started sending men who posed with Biden my way. But when I mentioned it to other D.C. women, they told me they were also being bombarded by Biden. After talking with a handful of daters, I’ve learned that the former vice president frequently pops up in gay men’s and straight women’s profiles, too.
As bizarre as this trend may seem, it makes perfect sense: While Joe Biden the man left public office in 2017, Joe Biden the meme has lived on in the public imagination — in Twitter memes and in dating app profiles. The former vice president makes for the perfect wingman: He’s smart yet approachable; a politician known more for his empathy than egomania; famous enough to get your attention but not so controversial as to be polarizing.
There’s also the simple fact that a photo with the vice president stands out on a dating app. When daters are swiping through profiles quickly, a picture with a politician can be shorthand for signaling a person’s values. Posing with Biden is more subtle than putting “Trump supporters, swipe left” in a bio, as some daters do. His centrist policies and bipartisan support nod to liberals without closing the door on conservative prospects. Like the ice cream he’s known to enjoy, Biden is pleasant and cool, if a little vanilla for some people’s tastes.
While a photo with Biden might have puzzled daters a decade ago, political signaling has emerged as another feature of online romance since the 2016 election, according to dating coaches.
“People’s identity has become very intertwined to politics and especially in D.C.,” said Jess McCann Ballagh, a relationship specialist. “Ten years ago with a different administration, you could talk to somebody about your politics, even if they were on the other side of the fence. Now, nobody wants to go out with anybody that’s on the other end of the spectrum.”
José Fontanez, a 22-year-old man in Washington, isn’t using Biden to avoid matching with Republicans. A Democrat whose best friend from college identifies as a staunch conservative, Fontanez is an equal-opportunity political junkie who has taken photos with Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Mike Pence and Donald Trump.
But in the race for a spot in Fontanez’s dating profile, the former senator from Delaware emerged from a crowded field as the winner. “When I put the Biden picture up, my mentality was: I’m a 22-year-old and I got to meet the vice president,” he said. “But I will date a Republican, I will date a liberal.”
Even with a political royal flush at his disposal, Fontanez said he laid down only the veep card because Biden is so likable.
“I think women do not want these guys that are just completely so serious,” he said. “That’s everything that Joe Biden exhibits: comical, fun to be around, a people person. Even in his role as vice president, he was making faces, winking and making everyone laugh. I think women are going more toward that.”
Matt, a gay 20-something in D.C. who, for professional privacy reasons, spoke on the condition that only his first name be used, says he features Biden in his profile because the vice president seems to bring out the best in him. “He’s really fun-loving — and in me, he brings out my natural smile,” he said. “I hope people find that attractive.”
What is the role of vice president, if not a political wingman? Need moral support when you unveil the Affordable Care Act? Joe Biden has your back and an obscenity to boot. Need to boost your presence on the campaign trail with a creepy-yet-harmless shoulder rub? Joe Biden’s hands are ready for you, biker lady. Need to visit Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, only to be embarrassed by an announcement on new settlements? Sounds like a job for Vice President Joe Biden.
One woman sent me a zip file filled with 23 men’s profiles she’d gathered from Tinder, Bumble and the League featuring Biden in all his various incarnations: the cozy selfie; the photo bomb; the official grip-and-grin set against a navy backdrop, flanked by American flags. One man’s profile read: “Trying to be the Bidenest I can be”; another espoused he was “Trying to be more Joe Bidenish every day.” Two separate men stood next to cardboard cutouts of Biden, including the standup of a leather-clad Biden from the Onion’s 2016 “Diamond Joe Biden”-themed White House correspondents’ dinner party.
The Onion blew up the real Biden’s candid demeanor into the perverse, jorts-wearing “Diamond Joe Biden,” whose conversation is peppered with an equal amount of curses and Spanish slang like cabrón. This is the Biden who would appear as a cardboard cutout and wind up back on the Internet in someone’s dating profile.
Andreas Elterich, a 23-year-old consultant in Washington, says he includes a young Biden photo in his dating-app profile because he is a Delaware native and has often been told he bears a resemblance to the young Biden. “It was a likable joke to have at the end there,” he said. “I’m not trying to trick people. It’s a conversation starter.”
I reached out to Biden’s spokesman, Bill Russo, to ask whether the former vice president knew he was acting as a digital wingman. Russo told me he was not aware of this phenomenon and couldn’t offer any comment on Biden’s behalf.
Regardless, here is my 2020 prediction: If Biden were to run, I could see him reaching that key 18-to-35-year-old demographic where they’re most vulnerable — in the dark abyss of online dating. Imagine swiping through another round of bros crouching next to catatonic tigers when you see the pride of Scranton, Pa., beaming back at you, his eyes a blue oasis in a desert of eligible men. Perhaps the next battle for the presidency will not be won by Russian trolls toiling in a Moscow computer lab, but by the Bidenistas on Bumble.
“I don’t recommend anyone else in your dating profile pictures, let alone someone famous,” said Erika Ettin, an online dating coach in Washington. “You’re going to be compared to someone in your picture. So while you might be great, maybe your friend is someone’s cup of tea.”
After all the profiles I have come across while swiping, I’ve never swiped right on someone with a Joe Biden picture. To me, those men violated the cardinal rule of dating apps: Never include a photo with someone who is hotter than you are.