Veepstakes II: The Biden Choice
As of April 8th, 2020, with the suspension of the campaign of his last major opponent, Joe Biden is now the presumptive Democratic nominee. Who could — and should — he pick as a running mate?
This is a question with a simple good answer: The person who is best qualified to fulfill the duties of vice president.
You’ve probably seen other articles that talk about symbolic meaning, base voters, swing voters, political debts, fundraising ability, charisma, and a lot of other malarkey. This is not only malarkey, but dangerous malarkey. Eight out of thirty-nine elected presidents have died in office, and Biden ain’t exactly a spring chicken, nosirree.
The qualifications for vice president
I have previously argued at length that the main qualifications for a running mate, especially for an older nominee, are that the running mate will be a good vice president. Politically strategic choices aimed at appeasing a rival political faction or winning a few extra votes in a key city, state, or region have little electoral impact and come with huge drawbacks.
History supplies numerous cautionary examples involving dead presidents and poorly chosen successors, including every single 19th century vice president who succeeded to power when the president died.
This happened four times. At least once, the choice of running mate contributed to the early demise of the president.
President James Garfield chose a running mate from the rival Stalwart faction (Chester A. Arthur). Garfield was assassinated by a man who declared his loyalty to the Stalwarts and announced that Arthur would be president. (And so he was.)
What qualifies a vice president?
In the most general terms, a vice president has three duties:
- Serve as a faithful surrogate for the president. This includes the constitutionally required service in case of death or incapacity of the president. Less formally, it usually includes appearing on the president’s behalf at events ranging from press conferences to high-stakes closed-door political negotiations.
- Preside over the Senate. Recent vice presidents have been lax in performing this duty except on ceremonial occasions or when their tie-breaking vote might be decisive, but it is right there in the Constitution.
- Advise the president and other members of the administration. This is not a formally required duty, but tends to be particularly important for presidents who arrive in the White House with less experience or expertise.
A vice presidential nominee should be chosen based on their ability to fulfill the duties of office. It’s worth noting that picking the best person for the job is very likely to have electoral benefits. Voters want to know that a prospective vice president will be qualified to pick up the mantle of office — and that they can be trusted to faithfully carry out the president’s agenda.
The weakness of other electoral arguments
I’ve seen many arguments for picking vice presidents based on other electoral characteristics (politically strategic rather than pragmatic). Most share the same basic flaw: Failing to consider both positive and negative effects. I’m not saying that voters only evaluate running mates as vice presidents, but responses will usually be mixed.
Take Elizabeth Warren as one example. There are people who like Warren more than Biden. Some of them will be more likely to vote for Biden with Warren as a running mate.
However, there are also people who like Biden more than Warren. Some of them would be less likely to vote for Biden with Warren as a running mate. This group is a larger share of voters, too, so it’s particularly hard to see how Warren would be expected to help Biden in electoral terms.
When it comes to the national vote, the same is true of almost every possible vice presidential nominee. There is some evidence for a home state effect, though it is weak and unreliable. For example, John Edwards did not carry his home state of North Carolina in 2004, even though the next Democratic ticket did so in 2008. Paul Ryan, similarly, didn’t carry his home state of Wisconsin in 2012, even though the next Republican ticket did so in 2016.
Let me repeat that point. The home state effect is one of the strongest measurable electoral effects of running mates —but in absolute terms, it’s still quite weak. Home state effects related to running mate choices haven’t been potentially electorally decisive since 1976. (Gerald Ford snubbed Nelson Rockefeller and then lost Rockefeller’s critical home state of New York by a relatively small margin.)
The pool of obvious possibilities
Presidential and vice presidential candidates usually have resumes that include having been a governor, member of the Cabinet or Congress, or a decorated general.
They must be a born citizen over the age of 35 at the time they assume the office. While there is no official upper age limit, an elderly vice president would compound the age-related risks of a Biden presidency.
The most obvious choices are rival presidential candidates, governors, and members of Congress (particularly senators). Biden has committed to choosing a woman as a running mate, which narrows the field of obvious choices further.
Rival presidential candidates
The 2020 Democratic field was of unprecedented size and scope, including a wide range of highly qualified candidates. Out of that field, there were five or six women who qualified as notable contenders for the Democratic nomination in 2020. However, only one or two of those candidates could make a credible proxy for Biden.
Among rival presidential candidates, Amy Klobuchar stands out as a clear logical choice of running mate. She was the only one who also ran as a moderate, and is well-qualified to act as a substitute Biden in case of an emergency. When it comes to the key duty of wrangling senators, Klobuchar has been one of the most effective Democrats in the Senate in recent years. The other three senators in this group have struggled in a Republican-dominated Senate.
In Minnesota elections, her performance has been a genuine positive outlier as well. Based on its recent election results and regional trends, Minnesota is a potential battleground state, and is located near several key battleground states. This means Klobuchar is the only member of this group that can plausibly claim an electoral edge based on state or regional popularity.
Next is Tulsi Gabbard. Gabbard vigorously defended Biden while other candidates attacked him, standing by him more conspicuously than any other rival candidate. Based on their presidential campaigns, Gabbard makes a less reliable substitute for Biden than Klobuchar, although her voting record in Congress puts her relatively close to Biden politically. A serious potential disqualifier: She’s attracted a lot of bad press and has enemies within the party.
That said, Gabbard has two unique selling points: First, among the Democratic politicians who backed Biden over Sanders in 2020, she is the only one who endorsed Sanders over Clinton in 2016, making her uniquely qualified as a bridge between Biden and Sanders camps. Second, she has a unique and unusual appeal outside of the Democratic party, thanks to her criticism of Hillary Clinton and the DNC.
Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris both ran as progressives, highlighting their political differences with Biden. Both went out of their way to attack him as well, attempting to paint him as out of touch with modern values on issues related to racism and sexism. Their attacks, while loudly applauded on Twitter, were not well received by the general population.
The similarities do not end there. Both faced criticism as faux progressives due to their records in prior public office. Both dropped out relatively early in the process before any primary had begun, but waited a long time to endorse Biden. There is no reason to believe either is a good proxy for Biden; they’re significantly less qualified than Tulsi Gabbard for that role, even in terms of overall political similarity.
There is one major difference between Harris and Gillibrand: Electoral performance. The short of it is that for a Democrat in California, Kamala Harris has done poorly (almost losing to a Republican once in a year where no other statewide race was close), while for a Democrat in New York, Gillibrand has performed strongly.
In addition to her lackluster electoral performance in California, Harris’s head to head polling numbers against Trump (both in various key states and nationally) were pretty bad. Elizabeth Warren is in the same boat, with below-average electoral performance and polling numbers. It is unlikely Harris or Warren would help Biden gain even a small number of votes; by the numbers, they seem more likely to cause Biden to lose votes.
As with the other progressive senators, Warren does not make a convincing proxy for Biden. Additionally, while younger than Biden, she is over 70 years old, compounding the age-related risks that come with a Biden presidency. She also is a sitting senator in a state with a Republican governor.
Finally, Marianne Williamson has not, to my knowledge, endorsed Biden; nor is she conventionally qualified for the office of president; nor does she make a credible proxy for Biden. Arguably, she was not even a major candidate, although she did qualify for some of the early debates.
Aside from the president and vice president, governors are the highest ranked elected executives in the country, making them uniquely well qualified to serve as president. There are six current or former Democratic women governors under the age of 70 who were born in the United States. One of those women, Maggie Hassan, is a sitting senator in a swing state with a Republican governor —meaning she is both amply qualified and indispensable.
On paper, Janet Napolitano is the most obviously qualified choice, with Cabinet experience. She was one of the first major political figures to endorse Biden. This positive regard goes both ways: Biden has suggested that she should be on the Supreme Court, which is rather different from the vice presidency (and arguably more important, most of the time).
This leaves the four currently serving governors. Given current events, governors’ handling of COVID-19 has been a key test of their competence — and also is likely to influence voters’ perceptions of their competence.
First among these is Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico. She served in the House of Representatives as chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus prior to becoming governor. Based on her voting record in Congress, she looks like a credible political proxy for Biden. COVID-19 has not hit New Mexico very hard yet. Unusually, it appears she has not yet endorsed Biden, though several presidential campaigns actively sought her endorsement.
The next two on the list are Gina Raimondo and Gretchen Whitmer, both of whom endorsed Biden on Super Tuesday. Raimondo had originally endorsed moderate (and former Republican) Michael Bloomberg, but endorsed Biden as soon as Bloomberg dropped out.
A little less than a year ago, Raimondo was arguably the least popular governor in the country, at least among her own constituents. Today, she appears to be one of the most popular governors, largely as a result of her highly effective response to COVID-19. While Rhode Island has been hit hard, it is a densely populated state in the middle of the hardest-hit region in the country — and, so far, has done much better than its neighbors at testing, tracing, and controlling the rate of infection.
Whitmer has featured more prominently in national news. The reason for this is simple: Michigan has been hit hard by COVID-19, with likely the fourth or fifth highest death toll so far. No other Midwestern state has been hit as hard; Whitmer’s response was less timely than that of DeWine in neighboring Ohio. While most Michiganders approve of Whitmer’s efforts, Michigan’s lockdown measures have also been at the epicenter of the anti-lockdown backlash.
Kate Brown of Oregon waited to endorse Biden until after he was the presumptive nominee. Before COVID-19, she was in close competition for Raimondo for the position of least popular governor, but Oregon has held out well so far in the pandemic. One of her main claims to fame is that she is the first openly bisexual person to be elected governor.
Members of Congress
First things first: It’s worth noting there are many traditionally qualified women who have served in Congress as representatives — too many for me to talk about individually. While usually less prominent than senators (they are more numerous and have a shorter term in office), representatives have similarly valuable experience as federal legislators.
Senators, however, are the obvious (and historically popular) choice of running mate. In addition to those discussed previously, there are ten Democratic women who are (A) current and former senators, (B) born 1951 or later, and (C) not currently serving in a state with a Republican governor.
DW-NOMINATE can help identify which senators are ideologically closer to Biden and therefore likely to be credible proxies for him. The DW-NOMINATE score clusters voting records by similarity along two dimensions, the first of which correlates with the political left / right spectrum that dominates political policy. This very quickly shows us which current and former senators are politically similar to Biden.
The four former senators — Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, Claire McCaskill, and Heidi Heitkamp — were all decisively to the right of Biden while in office. None comes from a battleground state, either.
Current Wisconsin senator Tammy Baldwin is, by a similar margin, decisively to the left of Biden. From a battleground state, she might provide a real electoral benefit; but Wisconsin requires replacement via special election with no gubernatorial appointment.
Tina Smith of Minnesota endorsed Biden after Super Tuesday, having previously endorsed fellow Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. She’s subsequently recommended Klobuchar as Biden’s running mate. In that light, choosing her over Klobuchar does not make much sense.
Of the remaining three, the first to endorse Joe Biden was Tammy Duckworth of Illinois (just before Super Tuesday). Politically, she’s not very far from Biden. For now, we’ll just say that she’s a Asian-American veteran who was disabled in combat, subsquently earned a doctorate, went into politics, and became the first sitting senator to give birth.
Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada waited until April 30th to endorse Biden; her fellow Nevada senator, Jacky Rosen, has not yet done so. Neither has any obvious disqualifying attributes; both have a minority identity (Cortez-Masto is a Latina; Rosen is Jewish) that could be politically symbolic.
Other possibilities & concluding notes
As a point of historical reference, there have only been six presidents who did not either serve in Congress or as governors. Four of those presidents had been generals at the highest levels of command in a major war — respectively, the Revolutionary War (Washington), the Mexican-American War (Taylor), the Civil War (Grant), and World War II (Eisenhower).
The remaining two exceptions are Herbert Hoover and Donald Trump. It is not clear to me that either Hoover or Trump was well-qualified for the presidency when they took office. (For those readers who require a refresher, the Hoover administration was most notable for including the first three years of the Great Depression.)
Someone without the traditional qualifications for the presidency might be competent in the role, and someone with those traditional qualifications might not be. It’s just more likely that someone who is traditionally qualified is ready for the job.
For those concerned with electoral strategy, I will repeat myself: No electoral factor related to running mates is more important than convincing voters that the running mate is qualified for the job of vice president.
Biden needs to select someone who will be immediately ready for the presidency if the worst should happen. Pragmatically, this is likely. Between natural death, assassination, and other age-related incapacities (notably dementia), Biden has about a 1 in 3 chance of being unable to complete his first term in office.
Many voters are aware of Biden’s significant risk of death or incapacity. (They may not have calculated the magnitude of that risk, as I have; but they are aware). More keenly than usual, we should expect voters to judge Biden’s choice at the ballot box as the choice of a likely 47th president who will step into his shoes at a moment of national crisis.
If we presume that Biden still plans to try to put Janet Napolitano on the Supreme Court and that Tulsi’s explosive relationship with party loyalists has effectively disqualified her, that leaves eight obvious good choices — four governors and four senators.