The Veepstakes: Handicapping Biden’s Choices

Harris, Demings leads our list of contenders; Biden is wise to wait on making his pick

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KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— Joe Biden should not be in a rush to name his vice presidential pick. Circumstances may change his list of contenders — and probably already have.

— A predictable name leads our list, but a not-so predictable name is second.

— Biden has many plausible options, but no perfect one.

The Klobuchar hypothetical — and why it’s smart for Biden to wait

If you ever wonder why it takes so long for presumptive presidential nominees to name their running mates, even those who effectively wrap up their nominations relatively early in the nominating season, consider this hypothetical:

What if, two weeks ago, Joe Biden determined that he wanted to make a splash and had announced his vice presidential choice early?

Already struggling to break through the news cycle, Biden reasoned that picking his running mate would give him an important new surrogate to help make the case for his candidacy.

In making his choice in this hypothetical situation, Biden prioritized three major factors: proven success in an electorally important region; high-level experience to assist him as a governing partner in the White House; and a pedigree that would reassure voters the vice president could take over as president if necessary and/or become the next Democratic presidential nominee four or eight years from now.

His choice in this hypothetical scenario? Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

Biden picked Klobuchar despite the objections of some black leaders, reasoning that Klobuchar, a three-term senator with a strong electoral track record from the Midwest, would be electorally helpful, a useful governing partner, and a plausible future president.

Mere days after rolling out the Biden-Klobuchar ticket, the killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, while in the custody of Minneapolis police sparked protests around the country — and immediately put Biden on the defensive given Klobuchar’s “tough on crime” history as Hennepin County Attorney and the history of the officer indicted for killing Floyd, Derek Chauvin.

Back in the real world, Biden is apparently going to wait at least a couple of more months before naming his running mate. As impatient as we all are to know his running mate, waiting makes some sense. For one thing, it gives the campaign the maximum amount of time to vet the candidates; for another, it allows more of the sand in 2020’s hourglass to pass, thus making it less likely that events conspire to spoil the eventual choice.

This is also why presidential candidates hardly ever pick their running mate in the heat of the primary campaign — such a decision only exacerbates the timing risks we just mentioned, and it can be a sign of desperation (as it was when Ted Cruz picked Carly Fiorina in advance of the fateful Indiana primary that ended his campaign four years ago).

Still, in the hectic hours after the South Carolina primary this year and in advance of Super Tuesday, it seemed possible that Biden might have traded the vice presidential nomination to Klobuchar for her exit from the race and endorsement — which is why our ears perked up when Klobuchar said back in March that she was proud to join Biden’s “ticket” at a Michigan campaign event before quickly correcting herself.

As it stands, Biden said recently that he will make his choice around Aug. 1. If the choice comes on that specific date, Biden’s VP choice would come 16 days before the Democratic National Convention is scheduled to open in Milwaukee (the DNC was originally scheduled to start a month earlier). A Biden selection on or by Aug. 1 would actually be relatively early by historical standards: FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich found that the earliest vice presidential announcement by a presumptive nominee in the modern presidential selection era (dating back to 1972) was John Kerry’s selection of John Edwards 20 days before the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Another early pick was Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan 16 days before the 2012 Republican National Convention.

Klobuchar herself may still be a contender for the vice presidential nod, but certainly one would think that the events of the past couple of weeks have significantly reduced her chances of being selected. Some black leaders were skeptical of Klobuchar even before the killing of George Floyd. Since it happened, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D, SC-6), whose endorsement of Biden days before the South Carolina primary will feature prominently in histories of the 2020 campaign, stated the obvious about Klobuchar’s VP odds: “This is very tough timing for her.”

This has been an exceptionally hard year for African-Americans in the United States. It is already difficult being black in America, and the black community has been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus epidemic. The killing of George Floyd, and other instances of police brutality, has refocused attention on a long-festering American problem: the reality that blacks have more reason to be fearful of interactions with police officers than whites do. Biden naming a black running mate would not, on its own, address these problems, but it would carry symbolic and, perhaps, electoral significance.

As friend of the Crystal Ball Ted Johnson wrote earlier this year, there is persuasive evidence that suggests Biden would benefit electorally from picking a black running mate, which could redound in Democrats’ favor as a way to “to increase enthusiasm, voter participation and chances of victory.” Johnson discussed this in a recent UVA Center for Politics panel on the VP search — while also noting that the black community is more cohesive in the United States than other broad groups of nonwhites (such as Hispanics or Asian Americans), meaning that, hypothetically, picking a black running mate might help Biden more with black performance and turnout than picking someone from a different nonwhite group would help him with that nonwhite voting bloc. That said, this is all hypothetical at this point — while there has been a black president, Barack Obama, every major party vice presidential nominee has been white, and only two have been women (Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin).

Remember, too, that heading into Memorial Day weekend, Biden made news for telling progressive black radio host Charlamagne tha God that black people who don’t back Biden “ain’t black.” There have also been some indications that Biden is not quite as strong with black voters, particularly younger black voters, as perhaps he could be.

Our own rankings of the Democrats likeliest to be selected as Biden’s running mate, in Table 1, is a diverse list, both in terms of ethnicity but also of experience and background. What we think we know about what Biden values in his pick informs the list. First of all, and most obviously, Biden has said he will select a woman, and there is no reason to suggest he will not follow through on that promise. He has also said that he sees his own candidacy as a “bridge” to the future of the Democratic Party, a nod both to his advanced age and to those in the party who preferred candidates who, to put it bluntly, were not elderly white men who have spent their long careers in government in the mainstream of the Democratic Party.

Biden’s age is a factor. At 78 by Inauguration Day next January, he would not just be the oldest first-time president, but the oldest person, period, to ever hold the job at any point. If Trump is reelected, he would turn 78 his last year in office; Ronald Reagan, the oldest-ever White House occupant, left office at 77. It’s an open question as to whether Biden would seek a second term, meaning that the person he selects as his running mate could be the Democratic presidential nominee as soon as four years from now. So this is an important choice, although all vice presidential choices are, even if their electoral impact likely is minimal.

With all that in mind, here’s our list of who we think Biden is likeliest to pick:

Table 1: Crystal Ball Democratic vice presidential rankings

Candidate Key VP Advantages Key VP Disadvantages
Kamala Harris
Senator, CA
•Often seen as Obama 2.0
•Had some strong debate moments in primary
•Plausible future president
•Experience on big stage
•Too inevitable?
•Time as local DA, state AG may turn off liberals, who already may be wary of Biden on criminal justice reform
•Disappointing presidential campaign
•CA not a swing state
Val Demings
Congresswoman, FL
•Police background may help defuse Trump’s “law and order” message
•May be perfectly suited for the moment
•Record of overperforming in elections
•From electorally vital Orlando area
•Untested on national stage, not much elected experience
•Little-known nationally
•Does she have baggage from time as police chief?
•May not carry FL for the ticket, probably is not well known statewide
Tammy Duckworth
Senator, IL
•Inspiring life story as double amputee
•Military background could give her crossover appeal
•Succession in the Senate not an issue
•Safe pick
•Has kept a low profile in the Senate
•Biden won’t need help carrying IL
•Safe pick
Elizabeth Warren
Senator, MA
•Focus on economic inequality may be timely
•Olive branch to progressives
•Could help with youth enthusiasm
•High name recognition
• Hardcore Sanders supporters don’t trust her
•May not do much to energize minorities
•May pull ticket too far left
Tammy Baldwin
Senator, WI
•Led her state ticket in 2018
•Broadly acceptable to all wings of party
•First openly LGBT senator
•WI arguably a must-win state for Trump
•Her successor would be chosen in a 2021 special election
•Very liberal record in Congress
Gina Raimondo
Governor, RI
•Competent record as governor
•Would be 49 on Inauguration Day, so could be a Biden successor
•No-nonsense approach, centrism may appeal to suburban women
•Some of her reforms were criticized by the left
•Won’t excite minority voters
•Private equity work may be suspect
•No federal experience
Michelle Lujan Grisham
Governor, NM
•May energize Hispanic voters in states beyond NM
•Brings geographic diversity
•Wouldn’t pull the ticket too far left
•Criticized as too cozy with big pharma
•Never won an especially tough general election
•Though Trump is targeting it, NM is not central to Electoral College
Gretchen Whitmer
Governor,
MI
•Popular governor from vital state
•Only 48 but has nearly 20 years of elected experience
•Pandemic has given her a higher profile and good approval ratings
•Optics of tapping a governor from a state struggling with the pandemic
•May have baggage from handling of crisis
•Has held executive office less than two years
•No federal experience
Maggie Hassan
Senator, NH
•Strong electoral record
•Known for work on disability, opioid issues
•May lock down Romney/Clinton voters
•Does nothing for minority turnout
•Would cost Democrats a Senate seat
•NH competitive but not a huge electoral prize
Stacey Abrams
former Georgia House Minority Leader, GA
•May help minority turnout in states like GA, NC, and beyond
•Young, dynamic on the stump
•Emphasis on voting rights
•No experience in traditional VP feeder positions (governor or Congress)
•May be too much of a lightning rod after failing to concede narrow 2018 loss
•Too overt in wanting the job?

Unsurprisingly, our list is led by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), who has long seemed like a top VP contender.

When we compiled this list, the three of us each did separate rankings independently of one another, which we then used as the basis for our collective list. While the lists differed substantially in many ways, all three of us had Harris listed in the top position.

Harris brings some obvious attributes to the table. She would bring racial and regional balance to the ticket, and she also would be broadly acceptable within the Democratic Party: Some on the left do not like her, but we suspect that none of Biden’s most plausible vice presidential picks would satisfy Bernie Sanders’ most hardcore supporters. Of all the candidates, she also seems like the best future Democratic presidential nominee among the contenders, although that may just be because she is still on the younger side (55) and because we just saw her in action as a presidential contender. But she does make sense as a candidate of both the present and the future — in other words, the manifestation of Biden’s “bridge” to the future.

Harris’ background as a prosecutor — she was California’s attorney general for six years and San Francisco’s district attorney before that — could be both a positive and a negative. Reformers may be skeptical of her background, which could compound suspicions of Biden, a supporter of the now-discredited 1994 crime bill, which the Trump campaign used to sow doubts about Hillary Clinton among black voters and surely will use against Biden too.

On the other hand, a Biden-Harris ticket could navigate the treacherous waters of protest politics, allowing them to sympathize with the plight of the protesters without seeming to defend the excesses of rioters. Democrats are always wary of Republican “law and order” messaging, and it’s been impossible in recent days not to think of Donald Trump as a redux of 1968’s Richard Nixon and George Wallace, who both campaigned as opponents of social unrest in an explosive year. That said, there are major differences: For one thing, Trump is the incumbent (Lyndon Johnson was the retiring incumbent in 1968); for another, early numbers don’t suggest Trump is benefiting politically from the disorder and his attempts to capitalize on it, although that of course could change.

Harris has other downsides: While she did run for president, her campaign was something of a bust, and her big debate moment was an attack on Biden, so bad blood could still linger. While she has a long history in government, her resume is a little light on the top-level experience that VP picks usually have (she has spent less than four years in the Senate). Additionally, as our resident VP expert Joel Goldstein has argued, nominees often bypass their rivals from the nominating season, although there are notable exceptions, such as Barack Obama’s choice of Biden and other famous, successful picks, like the John F. Kennedy-Lyndon B. Johnson ticket in 1960 and Ronald Reagan-George H.W. Bush in 1980.

After Harris, our next leading candidate may be somewhat surprising: Rep. Val Demings (D, FL-10). Demings, a former Orlando police chief, has emerged as one of the brighter stars in the Democratic House caucus, even though she was just elected in 2016. Like Harris, her background in law enforcement may bring both positives and negatives to her candidacy, and the Biden team will have to vet her carefully, both because she is relatively new to the national scene and and because there is some history from her past as the chief of police that could be damaging (the Tampa Bay Times had a good rundown). It remains to be seen if she has enough high-level experience to strike the broader public as being supremely qualified for the job, but her background may also be the right fit for the moment.

Just as an aside, because this pertains to both Harris and Demings: We think it would be harder to paint an African-American candidate, be it Harris or Demings, as unsympathetic to the criminal justice concerns of African Americans than it would be to paint a white candidate as such, even if there weren’t substantive differences between the law enforcement backgrounds of the black candidate compared to the white candidate. This is part of the reason why Klobuchar, whom we once saw as a leading candidate, isn’t even in our top 10 now, although her proximity to the troubles in the Twin Cities is uniquely problematic.

Demings, unlike Harris, comes from an important swing state, Florida, and her district is based in Orlando, part of the electorally important I-4 corridor (which runs west to east from Tampa to Orlando). She is one of 27 House members from Florida, though, so while she may be decently known in Orlando, her name ID in Miami might not be any better than it is in Milwaukee. Speaking of Milwaukee, the last time a member of the House was on a ticket, Paul Ryan in 2012, it didn’t really help Romney all that much in Wisconsin. In fact, down the ballot, Ryan also was a candidate for reelection that year, and he won by the smallest margin of his career.

Next on our list is a trio of senators, Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). From a strict electoral standpoint, Baldwin may bring the most to the table: Wisconsin is arguably the state likeliest to vote for the winning presidential candidate, and it appears to also be very competitive. If vice presidential picks are worth even a point or two in their home states, as some studies indicate, Baldwin’s place on the ticket could be electorally vital.

On the other hand, Wisconsin has no provision for a gubernatorial appointment to replace her in the Senate — there would be a special election in 2021 to fill her seat. That would be a very competitive contest, and special elections often break toward the party out of the White House, particularly in midterm election cycles (as was the case in 2017-2018). So there are major Senate control risks with Baldwin.

Duckworth, an Asian-American and disabled veteran with House and Senate experience, would, to us, be a safe choice. Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D-IL) would be able to appoint a replacement to her seat, and there wouldn’t even be a special election, as her seat is regularly scheduled to be on the ballot in 2022. In her 2016 Senate election, Duckworth won a substantial chunk of Trump voters in downstate Illinois — perhaps that appeal could boost Biden in other Midwestern states. (One aside: Our understanding is that Duckworth is constitutionally eligible to be president even though she was born in Thailand because her father was an American citizen.)

Warren, meanwhile, seems like an obvious contender, too. She could give Biden more credibility with the left, and she is very policy-focused, making her a strong potential governing partner for Biden.

However, we also see a lot of downsides with Warren.

Even though she’s probably the most liberal of any of the top contenders on our list, the most hardcore Sanders backers don’t seem to like her very much, owing to the belief of some that she splintered the progressive vote (we don’t really think this was the case). When she was a presidential contender, she often seemed to be weaker in polling than Biden or Sanders, and she doesn’t have any special appeal to nonwhite voters or white voters without a four-year degree (her strongest support in the primary seemed to come from highly-educated white liberals, a group Biden probably doesn’t need much help with). She and Biden might also butt heads in the White House, because they may not be on the same ideological wavelength. Finally, Warren’s age — she’ll be 71 later this month — makes her a less compelling “bridge” candidate than many others on this list.

Current Massachusetts law would give Gov. Charlie Baker (R-MA) the right to appoint a Republican placeholder to Warren’s seat, giving Republicans at least temporary control of the seat, although Democrats hold a supermajority in the Massachusetts legislature, so they could change the law to protect Democratic control of the seat.

And even then, don’t forget that Republicans won Senate seats as recently as 2010 in both Massachusetts and aforementioned Illinois, so things sometimes can go haywire even in seats that seem safe. One other senator, Maggie Hassan (D-NH), is included near the bottom of the list: She is reportedly being vetted for the job, and would make some sense as a pick, but if she became vice president, Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH) would appoint a Republican to fill the final two years of her term, so long as he is reelected this November. That is probably a dealbreaker for the Biden campaign.

Three governors, and a prominent former gubernatorial candidate, round out the list. Gov. Gina Raimondo (D-RI) has governed the Ocean State as something of a centrist. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) would bring diversity to the ticket, and she has federal experience as a member of the U.S. House. She is also now the one major Hispanic candidate, as Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) dropped out (Cortez Masto would have ranked highly on our list if she wanted the job). Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) has achieved a significant amount of national prominence because of coronavirus, although she suffered a bad headline recently when her husband seemed to try to use her position to retrieve their family boat (in the VP search, everything matters). And finally, former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-GA) became a major national figure during and following her narrow gubernatorial loss, and she has not been shy about wanting the job. But her lack of experience in any of the traditional VP feeder positions (governor, senator, or U.S. House representative) significantly hurts her position in our eyes.

There are several other possibilities who didn’t make our top 10 but could merit strong consideration. We already mentioned Klobuchar. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and Rep. Terri Sewell (D, AL-7) are other possible black contenders, although for various reasons we didn’t think they merited inclusion in the top 10. Other wild card possibilities include former Gov. Janet Napolitano (D-AZ), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and others. We’ll update these rankings as we get closer to Biden’s selection, unless he surprises us with an announcement earlier than he has suggested.

One overall takeaway is that a male presidential candidate’s promise to select a woman running mate would have significantly limited his options in the past. For Biden, it really doesn’t, thanks to the growing number of women in major leadership roles within the Democratic Party. He has a lot of options, but none of them is perfect — which makes his choice hard to handicap even as most have zeroed in on Harris as the clear leading contender.

That Harris seems like such an obvious choice to so many people means that it’s quite possible someone else will get the nod instead, although sometimes the VP pick doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone: Hillary Clinton’s selection of Tim Kaine is a recent example. At this point, only Biden and his closest advisers know which way their campaign might be leaning, if they are leaning to any candidate at all.

They shouldn’t feel pressure to act quickly.

To borrow Orson Welles’ old line from Paul Masson wine commercials, “some things can’t be rushed.” Wine is one — and a VP pick is another. Recent events have already changed the vice presidential calculus, and additional twists and turns could change it again.