Putting the Harris Selection in Historical Context



— Joe Biden’s vice presidential search was the longest in modern history, and it involved an unusually large and diverse list of contenders.

— Yet Biden’s eventual choice was also conventional in that he selected a sitting senator — common for modern Democrats — and that he ignored swing state considerations in his selection.

— The VP selection transitions Biden more fully from being the supporting part of the Obama-Biden ticket to the leader of the Biden-Harris ticket — and the Democratic Party as a whole.

The Harris pick in context

Vice President Joe Biden’s selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate concludes one of the most unique and historic vice presidential selection processes in American history.

Biden’s selection process is the first time in American history that a major party presidential candidate committed at the outset to choose a woman as his running mate.

It was only the second vice presidential selection process in which a major party presidential candidate made a point of considering multiple members of minority groups as his or her running mate — the first, of course, being Walter F. Mondale’s 1984 process which produced Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination.

Although Harris is only the third woman ever selected as a major party vice presidential nominee, she is the first selected by a presidential candidate leading in the polls and perceived to have better than a 50% chance of election.

If elected vice president, it would be the first time, in our 59th presidential election, that a woman is elected to national office.

She also is the first woman of color to be a major party national candidate.

Although Biden’s selection process adopted a much more intensive version of the vetting process that Jimmy Carter and to a lesser extent President Gerald R. Ford began in 1976 and which has been greatly expanded since then, Biden’s process was affected by the extraordinary constraints the COVID-19 pandemic imposed which prevented normal in-person campaigning as part of the audition and inhibited other in-person sessions.

Finally, Biden’s vice presidential selection process occurred amidst two extraordinary events that dramatically changed the American political context. Those events were, of course, the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day and other incidents that have focused attention on racial injustice which continues to permeate American society.

Something Old, Something New: Every first-time vice presidential selection involves the intersection of familiar patterns and practices with the totally unique and novel circumstance of a selector who has never previously chosen a running mate picking from a distinctive pool in a unique context. And every selector must strike some balance between the short-term interest in winning the election, the long-term interest in finding a governing partner, and the remote contingency of choosing a presidential successor, although political and governing considerations may often coincide. Of course, governing depends on electoral success. The impact of the vice presidential candidate on the outcome is likely to be felt only at the margins, and the impact is complicated and resists precise measurement. Significant unique factors included Biden’s deep understanding of the vice presidency from his successful service in it for two terms, his age — which makes seeking a second term subject to more doubt than with most presidential candidates — his decision to limit the pool to women, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and rising focus on racial justice issues on the political context.

Biden’s pool was distinctive in that all were women and a larger percentage than ever before were persons of color. The 11 apparent finalists were Sens. Harris, Tammy Baldwin, Tammy Duckworth, and Elizabeth Warren; former National Security Adviser Susan Rice; Reps. Karen Bass and Val Demings; Govs. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Gretchen Whitmer; Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; and 2018 Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams. All but Bottoms and Abrams held one of the traditional feeder positions that every vice presidential candidate since 1940 has held — past or current senator, governor, high federal executive official, or member of the House of Representatives. As such, those in the pool carried titles similar to the pools of males considered in past searches of both parties.

The Nature of the Search: Biden’s search was among the longest in modern history. Biden’s nomination became apparent when he followed his victory in South Carolina on Feb. 29 with a stunning showing three days later on Super Tuesday and another on March 10 that closed the door on Sen. Bernie Sanders. With the presidential nomination assured, focus turned to the vice presidential nomination during the 11th debate in mid-March when Biden committed to select a woman as his running mate. The five-month period from mid-March until Aug. 11, 2020 provided the longest vice presidential vetting period.

The process was relatively transparent regarding those under consideration, which gave opportunity for those favoring or opposing various candidates to express themselves. Biden chose a slightly larger and a demographically representative committee to screen those under consideration, consisting of former Sen. Christopher Dodd, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and former Biden counsel Cynthia Hogan. Three members were past or current elected officials. Committee members had worked in both houses of Congress, the executive branch, local government, and the private sector. The committee included an equal number of men and women. It included two white members, a black member, and a Mexican-American member. They ranged in age from 49 (Garcetti) to 76 (Dodd), with Rochester in her late 50s and Hogan in her early 60s.

Not only was there a longer period to discuss a contracted pool, but the intensifying COVID-19 pandemic and intensified focus on structural racism in America transformed the context in which the decision was made. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, initially considered to be among the most likely vice presidential options, withdrew amidst criticism of her record as a prosecutor for not prosecuting alleged police brutality prior to her time in the Senate and calls for Biden to select a woman of color. The process allowed input, and Harris was among the most popular choices.

The Messages Sent: Presidential candidates use the vice presidential selection to send messages about their values. The selection of Harris fit with Biden’s campaign theme of running to restore “the soul of our nation.” As the first Black and Indian-American candidate for vice president, as a woman and child of immigrants, her selection sent a message of inclusion, a theme much in evidence in the rollout on Aug. 12. Biden also presented her as a fighter for the middle class and those aspiring to reach it, rekindling a theme of his vice presidency, when he chaired President Obama’s Middle Class Task Force.

Harris also provides a running mate who has demonstrated herself to be an effective cross-examiner of Trump administration officials and nominees and critic of its performance and policies. She is expected to be an able campaigner who can persuasively make the case against Trump. Importantly, her selection helps keep Trump and his record the campaign focus.

Biden’s public promise that Harris would assume the “last person in the room” status he had enjoyed with President Barack Obama signaled that as vice president, she will be engaged in decision-making. His request that she tell him when he is wrong confirms that promise but also draws a distinction with Trump’s operating style, which is widely perceived to invite sycophancy.

Compatibility: Some had speculated that Biden would not choose Harris because she had attacked him during an earlier debate for opposing busing and working with Senate segregationists earlier in his career in the Senate. Campaign bitterness has deterred other presidential candidates from choosing certain rivals. Jimmy Carter did not consider Rep. Morris Udall as a vice presidential candidate in 1976. George H.W. Bush chose Dan Quayle instead of Bob Dole or Jack Kemp in 1988. Obama did not select Hillary Clinton in 2008.

On the other hand, other political leaders have put such incidents behind them. Bush’s dismissal of Ronald Reagan’s economic ideas as “voodoo economics” did not preclude his selection as Reagan’s running mate in 1980. Dole chose Kemp in 1996 notwithstanding a history of acrimony between them. Kemp had endorsed Dole rival Steve Forbes when Dole’s nomination was assured; Dole disparaged Kemp as “the quarterback.” Reagan and Bush and Dole and Kemp went on to establish friendly relations.

Biden apparently falls in the latter group. He stated that he does not hold grudges, and his selection of Harris seems to confirm that. Indeed, Biden has been known for his ability to put himself in the position of others to better understand their behavior and to work harmoniously with a range of different people.

An Also Ran Selected: Harris’ selection provides the fifth time since 1960 that a presidential candidate has selected someone who ran against him or her in the primaries and caucuses. Harris, like Biden in 2008, was not the runner up, a characteristic that Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush, and John Edwards had shared. Although Harris’ candidacy was unsuccessful, her exposure to a national campaign, as well as her success in California statewide politics, was thought to better prepare her for a national campaign.

The First Democratic Californian: Harris is the third major party vice presidential candidate from California (after Earl Warren in 1948 and Richard M. Nixon in both 1952, 1956) but the first national party candidate from California on the Democratic ticket. Californians Nixon and Reagan of course ran for president on the Republican ticket.

The Democratic Senator’s Vice Presidential Advantage: Harris’ selection also represents the 16th time in the last 19 Democratic selections that the running mate has been a senator. The near-monopoly is more striking when one considers that two of the three exceptions presented extraordinary circumstances. Sargent Shriver’s selection in 1972 was, of course, the second Democratic selection that year and one that occurred only after a number of senators declined George McGovern’s invitation, and Geraldine Ferraro’s selection in 1984 at a time when no Democratic women served in the Senate. Many of those who were prominently mentioned in the process were Harris’ senatorial colleagues including Sens. Baldwin, Duckworth, Klobuchar, and Warren. The senatorial advantage in Democratic vice presidential politics probably traces to the greater name recognition senators have as compared to others, their prominence in presidential politics (Harris, Klobuchar, and Warren had all been presidential candidates), the perception that they have foreign policy experience, and the ability to sustain public exposure even when their party is out of office, something that is more difficult for former Cabinet members.

The Irrelevancy of Home and Swing States: The Harris selection provides further evidence that vice presidential selection gives little weight to choosing a running mate from a competitive large (or medium size or small) state. Although pundits often emphasize this criteria and political scientists devote more time to it than virtually any other topic regarding vice presidential selection and campaigns, as we have pointed out repeatedly since 2012 here, presidential candidates never choose running mates for that reason. Lyndon B. Johnson was chosen to help John F. Kennedy in the South, not just in Texas, and the home state of a vice presidential pick has not been the principal reason for any selection since then.

Biden’s process provides further confirmation of the marginal nature of this factor. Many who received most serious consideration were from safe Democratic states including Harris, Duckworth, Warren, and Bass. Rice’s strongest ties are to Washington, D.C., although she has a vacation home in Maine. Three candidates had past electoral statewide success in competitive states — Whitmer of Michigan, Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, and Baldwin of Wisconsin — but it is not clear that they got very close to the finish line, except perhaps Whitmer, although it seems unlikely that she would have been chosen. Three others — Bottoms, Abrams, and Demings — had not won statewide races and also were reportedly not among those in contention at the end.

Some Losers May Become Winners: The VP selection process invariably produces one winner (Harris) and numerous disappointed contenders. Yet looking at some who figured in recent Democratic vice presidential selection derbies suggests that inclusion on a vice presidential shortlist may be a sign of a promising future. In 1976, for instance, the runner up to Mondale, Edmund S. Muskie, later became Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State. Mondale chose Ferraro in 1984 over San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who has since been elected six times as senator from California; Henry Cisneros, later Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; and Gov. Michael Dukakis and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, who together constituted the 1988 Democratic ticket, with Bentsen later becoming Secretary of the Treasury.

Bentsen got the nod in 1988 over, among others, Al Gore, a future two-term vice president, popular vote winner, and Nobel Prize recipient, as well as Richard Gephardt, a future leader of the House Democratic caucus.

In 2000, Gore picked Joe Lieberman over other contenders including John Kerry and John Edwards, who would make up the Democratic ticket four years later. That year, 2004, Kerry picked Edwards instead of Gephardt, a two-time loser, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who went on to become Secretary of Agriculture and a two-time vice presidential loser in 2016.

Biden was chosen in 2008 over, among others, Hillary Clinton and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine. Clinton became Secretary of State, and she and Kaine became the 2016 ticket. And although Obama passed over Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in 2008, she served as his first Secretary of Health and Human Services.

If the past is prologue, some of those who Biden considered but did not choose will wind up as future presidential and vice presidential nominees and also rans, as well as legislative leaders or Cabinet members, perhaps in a Biden administration or a future Democratic administration. Being on a vice presidential selection short list is often a sign of opportunities to come.

Elevating Biden: Biden’s running mate selection is the seventh time in the last 60 years that a sitting or former vice president who was not president has selected a new running mate. The focus of the rollout is, of course, on the second candidate, especially since 1984, when candidates first perceived the advantage of making these announcements before the convention. Yet the vice presidential rollout also helps elevate those like Biden who have been perceived as a number two to the number one. Instead of the junior participant on the political union, the sitting or former vice president becomes the principal of a new one. The announcement of Harris as his running mate changes Biden’s primary identity from Obama-Biden to Biden-Harris. That transition underscores Biden’s elevation to the party’s leader. That reboot is probably most significant for sitting vice presidents like Nixon, Humphrey, Bush, or Gore who have labored in the large shadow of the president or to those who sacrifice their distinctive brand as vice president, something that has not befallen Biden. Biden and Harris will surely embrace their links to Obama, yet Biden’s selection of Harris is an important reminder that he, not President Bill or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or President Obama, is now the leader of the Democratic Party.


Joel K. Goldstein is the author of The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden (2016) and other works on the American vice presidency.