In 1961, the charismatic John Fitzgerald Kennedy offered the vice-presidential nod to Senate Majority Leader and career establishment figure, Lyndon Johnson. They had no real personal relationship, and Johnson feared the vice-presidency would be ceremonial: the possibility he would exert less power as Kennedy’s number two than as the Democratic Leader in the Senate was real. Johnson was aware of the job’s limited authority and bad reputation, which was summed up a few years prior by FDR’s long time Vice President John Nance Garner when he likened the office to “a warm bucket of piss.”
But there is one redeeming quality to the job: it leaves you within touching distance of the presidency. So, Johnson got his staff to compile statistics on how many vice presidents have ascended to the presidency. Once they reported back to him with the odds, a female staffer asked him what he made of them.
“I’m a gambling man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.”
The odds of the next vice presidential pick to ascend to the Oval Office will be even better than Johnson’s were.
Joe Biden, should he win, will be 8 years older than the oldest President ever inaugurated. He hasn’t ruled out running for a single term, and has already stated that he sees himself as a “transition president.”
Joe Biden’s fond memories of his warm and trusting relationship with President Obama, and his insight into what he brought to that ticket, make Joe Biden’s search for a running mate special for him. He has consulted widely with Obama about the search, and hopes to emulate the dynamic they had together.
Whoever he chooses will be thrust as the next de-facto leader of the Democratic Party, and as next-in-line for a shot at the presidency, whether they get elected or not. The vice-presidential nod also has a historic element to it this time: pursuant to Joe Biden’s promise to choose a woman, the nod could potentially be a historic ticket to be the first woman president.
So, with the stakes so high, both personally and politically, and the speculation so frenzy, this is your guide to who, how, and why Joe Biden will choose his running mate.
Will Biden’s choice of running mate influence the election outcome?
No. Decades of political science literature has shown that the fabled ‘home state advantage,’ whereby a vice-presidential candidate can deliver their home state, is largely a myth. They argue that this only works in case the running mate is extremely popular or extremely polarizing. There is also mounting evidence that suggests that voters don’t take the choice of running mates into account: polling records have shown that since 1988, overwhelming majorities of voters have stated that a candidate’s running mate “has no effect” on their vote.
Instead, the vice-presidential pick will play a symbolic role in executing Joe Biden’s campaign strategy: should the campaign focus on winning back white working class Obama-Trump voters from the Rust Belt, or should the campaign seek to turbocharge minority turnout around the country? The identity of the running mate will be crucial in this sense. Choosing Midwestern, centrist politicians like Sen. Amy Klobuchar or Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would signal an attempt at the first strategy; choosing Kamala Harris or Stacey Abrams would signal the latter.
Whoever Joe picks will also have a more delicate role to play, which will be to shield and defend Biden from the sexual assault allegations he is facing from Tara Reade, especially given the Trump campaign and Fox News seem intent on instrumentalizing the allegation. Nevertheless, with 86% of voters declaring themselves to be aware of the allegations in a new poll, Joe Biden’s credibility is in play, and his running mate will have the unenviable job of being his number one public defender. Given the role most of his prospective vice presidents played in opposing Brett Kavanaugh for similar allegations, this will be an awkward and unfortunately crucial balancing act for them.
What is he looking for in a running mate?
Joe Biden has been very public about what he is looking for in a running mate.
He has stated that he wants an experienced candidate, “someone who, the day after they’re picked, is prepared to be president of the United States of America if something happened.” In addition, he is looking for someone with whom he can build a rapport, as he did with President Obama, and he has hinted that it would be easier to do with someone who shares his worldview. He has also promised his running mate would be younger than he is, to honour his promise of “transitioning” power to the next generation of Democrats.
Another consideration Joe Biden will have to take into consideration is the push from some of his closest allies for an African-American vice president. Given the role black voters played in Biden’s primary win, and the institutional support Biden has received from black politicians, key advisors from campaign chair (and former CBC chair) Cedric Richmond, to the second-highest-ranking House Democrat Jim Clyburn, have stated their preferences for a black woman running mate.
So, if the criteria are a younger, experienced, “simpatico,” and ideologically compatible candidate, who is Joe Biden considering?
Who are the main contenders?
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA)
There is no doubt that Kamala Harris is currently the favourite for the vice-presidential nod. She fits most of the criteria Biden has set out. As the former attorney general of California, she ran the country’s second-largest Department of Justice, and as a high-profile senator she has gained a reputation as a hard-hitting, and progressive legislator. While her own presidential run was disappointing, it hasn’t harmed her reputation.
Her positive relationship with Joe Biden, who is effusive and admiring at joint fundraising appearances, coupled with the support she has received from Biden allies who favour a black running mate, means that she has consolidated a large portion of support from the Party. Her unbeaten electoral record in California, coupled with some impressive debate performances during her presidential run, have made some Democrats salivate at the prospect of her debating Vice President Pence.
Despite the seemingly limitless upsides of choosing Kamala, there are two points that play against her selection. First, her rocky relationship with the progressive wing of the Party, which has been weary of her record as a prosecutor, doesn’t necessarily strengthen Biden’s ongoing progressive outreach operation. Secondly, her tough attacks on Biden’s busing record in the Democratic Debates seems to have created some wariness in the Biden camp, reportedly including Jill Biden.
Regardless, Kamala is a frontrunner for the job, and would represent a historic and eminently qualified pick.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)
Amy Klobuchar has emerged as a contender for the job when she dropped her own presidential bid before Super Tuesday and endorsed Joe Biden, greatly contributing to his victory over Bernie Sanders. A former prosecutor and long-time senator, she is one of the most effective, experienced, and bipartisan members in the Senate, and has an impressive electoral record in her home state of Minnesota.
Her politics are near-identical to Joe Biden’s, and her admiration for him has always been clear – her loyalty for him has made Jill Biden a supporter of Klobuchar. Her Midwestern centrism and humour would make her appealing to the Obama-Trump voters crucial to victory, and her deal-making history would reinforce the ticket’s ability to capture the votes of disenchanted Republicans.
However, her inability to attract support from black voters during her presidential run stands as a concern. She would also deprive the ticket of ideological diversity, which might weaken turnout among progressives and young people, this remains her biggest weakness as a vice-presidential candidate.
Amy Klobuchar is a well-suited and extremely capable candidate for the job, and would represent a solid and sensible pick.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)
The progressive icon has recently began a public lobbying campaign pushing for the job, and new polling has shown she is the most popular choice among Democrats for the job. A fierce senator who has just off a strong presidential campaign of her own, picking her would represent a “party unity” ticket and would signal a governing-first approach to the coronavirus crisis.
Indeed, Warren has been very present during the pandemic, introducing ambitious plans to counter the coronavirus (the first of which she presented in January), in what is arguably a public audition for the job. These unquestionable policy chops seem even more important in the context of the pandemic, and they have gained attention and plaudits from Barack Obama. Her fundraising abilities and strong digital would also help strengthen the Biden campaign, which is weak in these two areas. Crucially, she could unite both the progressive and moderate wings of the party and is an extremely powerful advocate and messenger. Plus, her debating skills would help make her a formidable running mate.
Yet, Warren still faces an uphill battle for the vice-presidential spot. Her willingness to challenge the Obama administration and outspoken progressivism would make for an awkward ticket, given the gulf between her positions and Joe Biden’s. She doesn’t exactly fulfil the “youth” requirement (she is 70 years old), nor does she have any proven ability to attract much minority support.
Elizabeth Warren undoubtedly has the experience and qualifications for the job, and would make an exciting vice-presidential pick, but the circumstances and the requirements Joe Biden has set out seem to make her selection unlikely.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI)
A long-time state legislator and native Michigander, Gretchen Whitmer has been the Governor of Michigan since 2018. A charismatic pragmatist, she has shone during her handling of the coronavirus crisis in one the pandemic’s national epicentres.
Gretchen Whitmer has sky-high approval ratings in a crucial swing state and has made national news for her ability to slow and respond to the coronavirus crisis in a time when the same is not happening at the federal level. She is young, compelling, and Biden-compatible, and it seems like she was made for the moment. Her response to the SOTU was widely praised, and as a campaign co-chair, she has gotten to know Joe Biden through joint-appearances and campaign stops.
Nevertheless, it might be difficult for her to campaign for the job while remaining in charge of Michigan in crisis. While her profile has been raised recently, Whitmer is still a relative newcomer to national politics, and an unknown to most. Moreover, her first year in office was difficult, and marked by a standstill with the Republican-controlled state legislature.
A dark horse, but a compelling candidate, Gretchen Whitmer would shine by her charisma and competence, but seems an unlikely choice this time around.
Stacey Abrams (D-GA)
Stacey Abrams has recently rewritten the playbook on campaigning for vice president, embarking on a remarkably public and candid campaign for the job. A former state house minority leader, Abrams came tantalizingly close to winning the Georgia gubernatorial election in 2018, becoming a sensation and Democratic favourite ever since.
Stacey Abrams is a favourite of the base, and has received support from African-American figures like Al Sharpton who also prefer an African-American running mate. Her charisma and the enthusiasm she fosters among voters that Biden is weaker with (young voters especially) would make her an astute choice.
But the fact remains that Stacey Abrams’ lack of national political experience is a major roadblock to her prospects. While she does run a major voting rights non-profit, it seems unlikely she could be elevated from ex-state legislator to vice-presidential nominee.
Stacey Abrams, despite her lobbying campaign, would be an unlikely pick for Joe Biden: her lack of experience seems to be disqualifying, and despite early enthusiasm for her, she is not the best pick available to Biden.
This selection process has been marked by a media frenzy which has unusually been fed by both Joe Biden stoking speculation through his public musings, and the very public jockeying the contenders have been engaging in for the job. While normally a more quiet affair, this process has shown a key trait in Joe Biden: a willingness to elevate new voices and a new generation in the Democratic Party.
The search for a vice president has included several dark-horse candidates who are women of colour (Rep. Val Demings, Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Amb. Susan Rice, Sen. Tammy Duckworth) whose national profile has been elevated by the process. By praising and elevating the voices of a diverse, new class of elected Democrats, Joe Biden is building something critics thought his nomination would prevent: a renewal of the Party. Joe Biden’s collective spirit and commitment to the Party stand in contrast with Barack Obama’s own efforts: arguably, the only Democrat he elevated and sought to install in the Party and national landscape more durably was Hillary Clinton.
The frenzy of speculation will finally come to an end in June when Joe Biden announces his running mate. And his decision might even be more historic than we know: she might even “shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling” one day.