The Biden VP Calculus

The choice matters; more than one factor will go into it; and it's too soon to predict the pick



— As Joe Biden zeroes in on his VP options, there are some myths about the choice that are worth exploring.

— The pick does in fact matter, or at least it has historically, and whoever is chosen won’t be picked for just one reason, but rather for several.

— Biden himself probably doesn’t even know who his pick will be, so we can’t make truly reliable and informed predictions about who the pick will be as of yet.

Biden’s VP calculus

When former Vice President Joe Biden effectively secured the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination in March, political conversation turned to who should and would be his running mate. Biden’s mid-March announcement that he will select a woman was doubly historic. It represented the first time a presidential candidate had publicly narrowed the pool so early and presented the first time when a woman vice presidential nominee will have a significant chance of election since the prior two women running mates, Rep. Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008, were largely “Hail Mary” additions to tickets far behind in the polls. Biden’s running mate will stand a good chance of being the first woman elected to one of the two top national offices after 116 men won the first 58 elections.

Yet much of the discussion reflects recurring, and to some extent inconsistent, misconceptions about vice presidential selection.

The first, and pervasive myth, is that the vice presidential choice doesn’t matter, that no one votes for the vice presidential candidate. It does matter.

The second misconception which animates many columns recommending different prospective candidates is that outsiders can determine Biden’s best choice based on the characteristics or groups to whom his different options most appeal. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

The final myth is that truly reliable and informed predictions can be made regarding who Biden is likely to choose more than a month before he’s said he’ll make the decision. They can’t.

This article seeks to address these three myths.

1. The vice presidential selection doesn’t matter myth

The conventional wisdom, we’re reminded every vice presidential selection season, is that the running mate choice doesn’t matter because no one votes for a vice presidential candidate. If correct, that claim has significant implications. It would support a variety of conclusions including that vice presidential election is undemocratic, that presidential candidates are totally free to choose based on governance or more frivolous considerations, and that presidential candidates and their teams are essentially clueless because they devote huge amounts of time and resources to a vice presidential selection process that doesn’t matter.

To some extent, the impact of vice presidential choice is mitigated because presidential candidates generally do a pretty good job of choosing running mates who reachable voters view as plausible presidents. When both vice presidential candidates are very able figures who conduct themselves capably on the campaign trail, the choice loses some significance and attention focuses on the competing presidential candidates and the themes of their campaigns.

The perpetuation of the “it doesn’t matter” myth also stems from how we define what it means to matter. To be sure, the choice of vice presidential candidates won’t shift massive blocs of popular votes but that reality doesn’t distinguish vice presidential choice from many other decisions campaigns make and it doesn’t mean the choice doesn’t matter. The choice can make a difference at the margins where many presidential elections are decided. Since 1960, six (1960, 1968, 1976, 2000, 2004, and 2016) of the 15 elections have been close to dead heats where incremental influences can decisively affect which candidate wins crucial blocs of electoral votes. Few, if any, voters will support a ticket because they love the running mate even though they can’t stand the presidential candidate. But vice presidential selection can help shape perceptions of the presidential candidate, and a running mate who performs campaign roles effectively can help make the ticket’s case.

Finally, it is not clear what is meant by whether a vice presidential choice affects the outcome. One possibility is that such an effect occurs when a presidential candidate does better or worse with a vice presidential candidate than alone. A second measure would rest on the conclusion that one ticket’s vice presidential choice adds more than does the competing vice presidential candidate. Finally, the relevant comparison could be between the person chosen and other alternatives. All three approaches present problems. The first is artificial because the presidential candidate doesn’t really have the option of running alone. The second is misleading because the two vice presidential candidates aren’t really competing with each other. Even though one candidate may be stronger than the cross-party rival, the weaker candidate may represent the best choice available to his or her party and accordingly strengthen the party’s ticket relative to other available options. And it’s impossible to measure the impact of the candidate actually chosen against a counterfactual choice especially given the uncertainty of campaign events and performance and the disparity in public recognition between the person chosen and the unselected alternatives.

It’s impossible to measure vice presidential impact precisely, but there’s considerable circumstantial evidence that vice presidential choice has made a difference in some close, and not so close, elections. In 1960, for instance, John F. Kennedy’s small Electoral College victory included narrow wins in southern, western, and border states where Lyndon Johnson spent much of his time or was thought popular. In addition to Texas’s 24 electoral votes, which the Democrats won by 2% and 46,000 votes, the Democrats won Missouri (13 electoral votes; .52 percentage points; 9,980 votes), New Mexico (4; .74; 2,294), North Carolina (14; 4.22; 57,716), and South Carolina (8; 2.48; 9,571). In an election in which Kennedy-Johnson won 12 (and lost four) states by 2.50 points or less, many variables could have been decisive. Yet it’s hard to imagine that voters in Texas, New Mexico, North Carolina, and South Carolina would have viewed Kennedy as positively if he had chosen one of Kennedy’s other possible running mates, liberals Orville Freeman, Hubert H. Humphrey, Henry Jackson, or W. Stuart Symington, Jr., that the party machinery in those states would have been as energized to produce for Kennedy had Johnson not been on the ticket, or that Kennedy’s alternatives would have as effectively sold Kennedy in those states as Johnson did. And had Kennedy chosen a northern liberal, Richard M. Nixon might have played for the South by selecting Kentucky Sen. Thruston Morton as his running mate instead of Henry Cabot Lodge, whose promise that Nixon would appoint an African American to his Cabinet also probably hurt Nixon in the South.

Contrary to conventional treatment, it wasn’t just LBJ in 1960 who made a difference. There’s a lot of reason to believe that Walter F. Mondale helped propel Jimmy Carter to victory in 1976. Carter’s campaign manager, Hamilton Jordan, said that Mondale’s presence added 3% to Carter’s vote, and Carter emphasized Mondale as a reason voters should support him especially during the closing weeks of the campaign after the vice presidential debate. Mondale spent time in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, where he was perceived to be popular. Carter won those states by .27, 1.68, and 2.66 points, respectively, thereby contributing 63 electoral votes, a decisive amount because Carter exceeded the 270 needed by only 27 votes.

There’s reason to think other choices helped shape the way certain presidential candidates were perceived. Bill Clinton’s selection of Al Gore emphasized his theme of change by doubling down on their shared identities as Southern Baby Boomer centrists. Clinton’s campaign took off once he selected Gore, and their joint campaigning reflected their strategists’ recognition that together they sent a more powerful message than Clinton alone. George W. Bush’s choice of Dick Cheney probably helped persuade some voters that Bush would be a prudent leader who would surround himself with experienced figures.

Vice presidential candidates can make a difference in the outcome of presidential elections even if their impact is small. They can make a difference not simply or primarily by serving as the reason a few voters support (or not) a ticket but by sending messages about the presidential candidate that helps shape perceptions of him or her. They can matter based on their ability to articulate campaign messages in a compelling way. It’s even possible for both vice presidential candidates to help their respective tickets if the less effective candidate represents his or her party’s best option. Or neither may make a difference.

2. The single factor selection myth

Almost every day some thoughtful person writes a commentary piece explaining why Biden should pick one of the able people apparently under consideration. Many of those opining on Biden’s optimal vice presidential selection share the premise that the vice presidential selection may matter, both politically as well as in terms of governing. That’s why they advance a particular choice as the way to optimize Biden’s prospects. Yet many such articles oversimplify Biden’s political calculation.

The discussions tend to suggest that Biden should choose Candidate X because she will help him with a particular ethnic/generational/geographic/ideological/racial or other targeted constituency. Yet any choice Biden makes will send messages that will please some reachable voters and disappoint others. At a minimum, a meaningful discussion must weigh the anticipated costs as well as the benefits of choosing vice presidential Candidate X, the votes lost as well as gained.

In making that calculation, it’s also important to remember that not all gains and losses are equal. It may be more difficult for a vice presidential choice to induce voters to switch from President Donald J. Trump to Biden than it is to encourage nonvoters to turn out but switched votes are twice as valuable as the latter. Whereas a switched vote both reduces Trump’s total by one and increases Biden’s by one, a turnout vote simply adds one vote to Biden’s total. The political bang from a vice presidential choice who motivates switching is accordingly twice that of one who induces turnout. Of course, that basic point doesn’t mean that Biden should favor candidates whose selection would seem most likely to encourage switches in his direction. It might be that a turn out orientation would still be most productive.

Assuming such calculations can be made, the states in which the prospective options can help matters. Biden doesn’t need help in reliable blue states or hopeless red states. A selection that will swell the Democratic vote in California, New York, Illinois, or Massachusetts may benefit down-ballot candidates and perhaps produce more Democratic officeholders who will help Biden in governing, but it won’t help Biden win 270 electoral votes. For the vice presidential choice to help elect Biden, it must contribute in some competitive states such as Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and perhaps a few others.

Of course, making these calculations is difficult. The political context is ever changing. Polling regarding different prospective candidates has limited value because so little is known about most of Biden’s options, and impressions of them are subject to change. Voters will know much more about Biden’s pick shortly after she is announced than they know about any of the prospective choices now, and their attitudes towards her will be shaped based on what they learn about her from multiple sources, including hostile ones, after her selection is announced and by how she conducts her campaign.

Pundits making their projections lack the vetting information Biden’s team is collecting but that data can matter a great deal. For various reasons, cross-party opponents will attack with information that a co-partisan won’t use. A prospective running mate may have an association or have taken a position that is not problematic within the party but has a different significance in a general election campaign. Moreover, forming a sense of how a prospective running mate will perform is an essential component of a vice presidential choice. A campaign may want to use vice presidential selection to target a particular constituency, but to make reachable voters more disposed to support Biden, there must be an attractive option who will be perceived as appealing when announced and who will be able to sustain and enhance that appeal during the three months of the campaign. A candidate who does not appear ready to be president will hurt Biden’s brand just as the selection of Palin compromised the credibility of John McCain’s themes of putting America first and emphasizing experience. And a running mate who is unable or unwilling to embrace vice presidential campaign roles will present at least a missed opportunity.

Whether a particular option helps Biden will depend on how able she is to perform immediately and over the three months following her selection at a high level under the intense scrutiny of a national campaign. There is no time for spring training or to ease into the role. A new vice presidential candidate must possess the political skill to function effectively and harmoniously with Biden immediately and to help motivate persuadable voters especially in competitive states to support the Biden-X ticket. Her ability to do so will depend on the messages her selection sends about Biden, her skill and appeal as a national candidate, and the absence of negative vetting information that will deter otherwise persuadable voters. In other words, Biden’s choice must be ready to excel in an enduring way under the intense scrutiny of a national campaign in a way that helps his campaign succeed in the competitive states which will decide the election.

Identifying that candidate is well beyond the pay grade of most of us. That’s in part because we lack the vetting information and because we haven’t seen the various options perform in contexts similar to a protracted presidential campaign. And the limited information generally available can be misleading. Walter Mondale decided not to run for president in 1976 because his early efforts weren’t generating a positive response. Mondale’s decision caused Jimmy Carter to question whether Mondale had the necessary drive for a national campaign. When the two met for Mondale’s vice presidential interview, Carter was impressed and persuaded, and Mondale ran an effective vice presidential campaign. Al Gore wasn’t a particularly effective presidential candidate in 1988, but four years later he was a terrific running mate for Clinton. Presumably Gore had learned from the experience and upped his game.

3. It’s too soon to predict

Worthwhile comments can certainly be made about vice presidential selection generally and it is useful for all of us to learn about the qualities of prospective running mates. Imagining who Biden’s options are and canvassing their publicly-known strengths and weaknesses can provide some sense of the choice as it appears to the presidential candidate who must make his or her selection. Yet  much of the Fantasy Vice Presidential Selection predictions now underway has limited value and is premature.

Vice presidential selection is a function of the selector, the pool of candidates and the context. Biden has stated his criteria: a woman who is younger than he is, who is ready to be president on day one, and who is compatible with him. Biden has never before made a vice presidential choice, and we don’t know how he will judge the various options available to him against those standards. We don’t know who he will consider most ready to be president or vice president or how compatible he will feel with various options. And based on his ability to get along with a wide assortment of public figures, Biden may have a high view of his ability to establish good working relationships with a broad range of people. There seemed little reason to expect Bob Dole to select Jack Kemp in 1996. The two had been antagonists, Kemp had endorsed Dole’s rival, Steve Forbes, when Dole’s nomination seemed certain, and Kemp was not even among those on a list Dole’s selection team generated for further vetting. Yet Dole decided Kemp was his best choice and the two developed a good relationship.

Biden’s commitment to choose a woman limits the pool but not necessarily to those on the lists being circulated. The fact that someone is being vetted is a positive sign and the converse is also suggestive, but even if these lists and reports are reasonably accurate we shouldn’t view them as final. There have been multiple instances of serious prospective options entering the pool near the end for late vetting (Kemp, Cheney, and Palin) or even no vetting (Gerald Ford in 1980).

And the political context will develop between now and August and Biden will make his decision then, not now. Context can change quickly. On May 24, George Floyd was an unknown human being, not a symbol of deep problems and events in American life. How will the pandemic have changed America by August, and how will the future appear? What else will happen between now and August that will affect the landscape?

Biden and his advisers will learn a lot about his prospective running mates and how they fit into his campaign and governing strategy between now and then. And Biden will make judgments that will affect his decision. How does he imagine his vice president’s role and who does he think would be effective in it? Who does he think he can work most effectively with? How does he perceive his political needs and his best path to 270 electoral votes? Who would best fit within that strategy? The answer to those, or some of those, questions will likely affect his selection but we can’t know those answers.

And Biden probably doesn’t know the answer to those questions yet either. That’s not unusual. Not surprisingly,  the ultimate choice is rarely known by mid-June of the selection year. For instance, in 1976 Carter chose Mondale after at different times being inclined to Sens. Frank Church, John Glenn, and Edmund S. Muskie. Only after Carter interviewed Mondale in early July a few days before the Democratic convention began were his  misgivings addressed and did he incline to a decision that led to the creation of the White House vice presidency and that he later praised effusively. Similarly, Gerald Ford’s selection of Bob Dole occurred at the convention after Ford secured the nomination; after he spoke to his leading rival, Ronald Reagan, and heard him bless Dole’s choice; after he met for hours with advisers; and after he slept on it.

Four years later, Reagan tried to persuade Ford to be his running mate in discussions at the Republican convention. George H.W. Bush spoke to the convention after being told Ford was Reagan’s choice, only to later receive a call from Reagan inviting him onto the ticket.

Mondale’s 1984 selection of Geraldine Ferraro occurred a few days before the convention after leaked reports downplayed her chances and after he seemed more likely to select Dianne Feinstein, then the mayor of San Francisco. Four years later, Bush’s selection of Dan Quayle surprised the team chosen to manage the vice presidential candidate. Bush’s surprised campaign advisers had to hustle to find biographies of Quayle and were unprepared to respond to questions about him.

Kemp was not even among those Dole’s vetting team included as a prospective running mate in 1996 but emerged late in discussions between Dole and his closest advisers, many of whom were not part of the formal, announced vetting operation. Dick Cheney ran George W. Bush’s 2000 vice presidential process, so he wasn’t an apparent contender that year. His selection received serious public discussion only shortly before it was announced in mid-July 2000. John Edwards was a leading vice presidential contender in 2004, but the outcome of John Kerry’s process was sufficiently unpredictable that the day Edwards was announced the New York Post famously ran a front page headline and story that Kerry had chosen Richard Gephardt. Palin was belatedly added to McCain’s long-list and short list only days before her selection, and flown to Arizona for a lightening round of vetting interviews and to speak to McCain before being chosen and announced in short order in 2008. Trump’s selection of Mike Pence developed in the days before the mid-July 2016 announcement and apparently involved some second thoughts even after Pence had traveled east for the rollout.

Even when presidential candidates have a strong advance inclination regarding their choice they often still don’t decide until the last minute. In early April, 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey told associates that if free to pick a running mate, he would choose Sen. Edmund S. Muskie. Yet Humphrey later pursued Sen. Edward M. Kennedy as a possible running mate. After Kennedy declined, he explored a cross-party ticket with New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller. He continued to weigh Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma on the last day of the convention before settling on Muskie, who proceeded to conduct one of the best, though unsuccessful, vice presidential campaigns in modern times.

This history suggests that the vice presidential decision is generally made not long before it’s announced. If history is a guide, Biden doesn’t now know who he will choose and won’t for some time. There’s still a lot of information to gather and thinking to do. The context in which Biden will select has not yet been set. Some pundits who are opining on Biden’s best choice may guess the correct answer, but June uncertainties make a right answer now pretty serendipitous. The veepstakes remains fluid.


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.