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Nobody Votes for a Vice President

The most important electoral aspect of Joe Biden’s upcoming decision will be what it tells us about the candidate himself.
[additional-authors]
July 1, 2020
DETROIT, MICHIGAN – MARCH 09: Sen. Kamala Harris (L) (D-CA), Sen. Cory Booker (R)(D-NJ), and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer join Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden on stage at a campaign rally at Renaissance High School on March 09, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. Michigan will hold its primary election tomorrow. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In the 60 years since John F. Kennedy’s choice of Lyndon Johnson helped him carry Johnson’s home state of Texas, there is little historical evidence of a running mate doing much to change the trajectory of a presidential campaign. Because most of us don’t consider the qualifications of a vice-presidential selection before voting, the most important electoral aspect of Joe Biden’s upcoming decision will be what it tells us about the candidate himself. More specifically, the most important personnel choice a presidential nominee makes reveals a great deal about that individual’s judgment and priorities.

Hillary Clinton’s selection of Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine four years ago reminded us of her tendency to be overly cautious. When John McCain named Sarah Palin back in 2008, it reinforced the maverick’s penchant for unpredictability and rashness. Dick Cheney, Mike Pence and Biden himself all got their jobs to reassure voters that their party’s less-seasoned presidential nominees would recognize the importance of experience and stability in their administrations.

Biden already has made it clear that he sees himself as a bridge to the next generation of leaders, and by casting himself in that transitional role, he elevates the importance of his running mate to a greater degree than normal. By pledging to nominate a woman and by doing nothing to discourage the conventional wisdom that he will select a woman of color, Biden is attempting to convince us that his election would bring about fundamental change to reflect the rapidly diversifying electorate and transformed political landscape. In other words, he wants his vice presidential pick to tell us that a career politician who has held elective office for more than 40 years is not a prisoner of the past. Almost any woman he chooses for that role will deliver that message for him, but some will deliver it more effectively than others.

That’s why he is unlikely to go with either Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts  or Rep. Karen Bass of California, although either would send a powerful signal to the Democratic Party base. But both the 71-year-old Warren and 66-year-old Bass would undermine the efforts of Biden — who would be in his 80s by the time he finished his first term in office — to present himself as an agent of generational change.

Joe Biden already has made it clear that he sees himself as a bridge to the next generation of leaders.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico and Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois appear to be the most well-regarded Latina and Asian-Pacific candidates, but events of the past month seem to have prompted Biden to focus most closely on a Black running mate.

Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and former National Security Advisor Susan Rice seem like longshots as well. Biden’s promise to select a running mate who is immediately prepared to be president if necessary does not bode well for Abrams, whose highest elected position in the Georgia state legislature may not meet that threshold. Rice would bring extensive foreign policy and national security background to the position but she has never run for public office at any level, and the intense scrutiny she would face could make her somewhat of a risky choice as well.

The necessity for a running mate with the experience to lead has led to the common assumption that California Sen. Kamala Harris, despite her underwhelming presidential campaign and a reputation for being overly cautious, is the odds-on favorite. But Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has impressed many observers with the way she has conducted herself during the unrest in her city, while Florida Rep. Val Demings also is reported to be a strong contender. Neither has held elective office at Harris’ level, though, which will raise inevitable questions about their readiness for the job.

There is no perfect option for Biden. But his selection represents his best opportunity to demonstrate to voters how he approaches the decisions that can and will shape his presidency — and our future.


Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the L.A. World Affairs Council Town Hall.

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