The Democratic Vice Presidential Derby: Look Beyond the 2020 Contenders

History suggests broad guidelines for the kinds of candidates who will be considered



— The history of vice presidential selection suggests some overarching trends that will guide the eventual Democratic nominee’s selection.

— One piece of history stands out: Presidential nominees often, though not always, opt for a running mate who was not a candidate for the nomination.

— Vice presidential candidates tend to have extensive experience in certain feeder positions, and they typically are not chosen to win a key swing state.

The battle for the Democrats’ second slot

It’s of course entirely premature to speculate on the 2020 Democratic vice presidential candidate. Vice presidential selection depends heavily on which presidential candidate makes the choice, the options available, and the political context in June or July of a presidential election year when the decision is made. The selection is relational as well as contextual; each selector has different perceived needs, values, and judgment, and those factors shape the choices made. We won’t know for some months who will choose from what pool and in what circumstances.

That obstacle hasn’t stopped others from launching the names of prospective running mates into cyberspace, however, so it may be useful to recall some historical generalizations regarding vice presidential selection (in addition to those suggested above). In drawing on history, however, two principles are worth remembering.

First, recent history is more relevant than lessons from the 19th and early 20th centuries, given the dramatic changes that have occurred in the presidency, vice presidency, presidential nominations, and vice presidential selection.

Second, historical patterns are not permanent and are subject to modification or even dramatic change. Just remember that until 2008, all major party presidential nominees were white men. Until 2016, all presidential nominees were men, and all presidents had previously served in some public elected, appointed, or military office. Barack Obama broke the color barrier in 2008, Hillary Clinton overcame the gender bar, and Donald J. Trump is the first president never to have served before in a public capacity. American presidential politics is changing, and vice presidential selection is likely to feel some effects.

With that, here are some basic rules of vice presidential selection, and why some of those rules may be under some stress.

1) Vice presidential candidates must survive an intense vetting screen and be plausible presidents.

Although presidential candidates weigh a range of factors in selecting a running mate, the two fundamental requirements, other than those the Constitution imposes, are that a rigorous vetting screen not reveal any disabling history associated with the prospective candidate, and that he or she is sufficiently competent to be deemed a plausible president by persuadable voters. (This is explored in more depth in my book, The White House Vice Presidency, on pages 202-09.) Sure, some past nominees have fallen short of the plausible president standard, but most recent running mates have measured up based on their governmental service and prior or subsequent record as a presidential candidate. And the Sarah Palin debacle will likely serve as a cautionary tale for a presidential nominee tempted to value flash over presidential quality. Some seemingly attractive running mates will, however, be eliminated, either by themselves or the presidential candidate based on something in their or a family member’s past.

2) The running mate probably will not be one of the unsuccessful presidential candidates.

It’s likely that some candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination may really be running for the second spot (or a Cabinet position or heightened visibility) or are at least interested in preserving those options in case they don’t become the presidential nominee. Yet historically the odds of the running mate coming from the pool of unsuccessful presidential candidates are small.

Unsuccessful candidates are rarely chosen as the running mate. Lyndon B. Johnson (1960), George H.W. Bush (1980), John Edwards (2004), and Joe Biden (2008) are the only defeated rivals in the last 60 years chosen for the second spot. During this period, major party presidential candidates chose 24 first-time running mates, so only one-sixth were unsuccessful presidential candidates in the same cycle they were first selected as a running mate.

Three of the four chosen — Johnson, Bush, and Edwards — were essentially the runners-up, whereas Biden withdrew early. It’s not surprising that a candidate who does well is more likely to be tapped than an also-ran. John F. Kennedy picked Johnson and Ronald Reagan chose Bush to unify the party, to demonstrate openness to other points of view, and, in Kennedy’s case with Johnson, to help in the South. There’s also a risk of offending the runner-up and his or her supporters by choosing someone who ran but fared less well.

The number of Democratic candidates for president this year might increase the odds that the running mate comes from the pool of unsuccessful candidates. Yet even presidential candidates who emerged from past crowded fields tended to choose someone who was not one of their competitors. More than a dozen serious Democratic candidates ran in 1976, yet Jimmy Carter chose Walter Mondale, who had considered, but rejected, a candidacy that year. At least 16 serious Republican candidates sought the nomination in 2016, yet Trump chose a non-candidate, Mike Pence, and only shortlisted one of his rivals, Chris Christie. However, he might have considered other rivals if prospective running mates like John Kasich and Marco Rubio, among others, had not disclaimed any interest in the second spot on Trump’s ticket.

Former rivals rarely even make shortlists. Unsuccessful rivals who were considered as running mates included Hubert H. Humphrey and Edmund S. Muskie in 1972, Frank Church in 1976, Al Gore in 1988, Richard Gephardt in 1988 and 2004, Bob Dole and Jack Kemp in 1988, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney in 2008, and Christie in 2016, but most nominees look elsewhere.

Vice presidential candidates generally have come from those who did not seek the presidency that year. Occasionally, the running mate sought the presidential nomination previously. Since 1960, vice presidential nominees who had sought the presidency in prior years were Humphrey (who ran unsuccessfully in 1960 and was chosen for the second spot in 1964), Lloyd Bentsen (1976; 1988), Gore (1988; 1992), Kemp (1988; 1996); and Biden (1988; 2008).

Yet even when one adds the four rivals and four prior-rans (four, not five, to avoid counting Biden twice), only eight of the 24 first-time vice presidential candidates since 1960 had previously run for president. So two-thirds of those chosen had not previously sought their party’s presidential nomination.

Although Biden as well as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) would seem unlikely running mates if they don’t secure the presidential nomination, some other presidential candidates, like Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, former Gov. Deval Patrick (D-MA), or former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro might make a vice presidential shortlist.

If any of these presidential candidates are targeting the second spot — and they’ll deny it, of course — they have their work cut out for them. It’s hard to run for president and vice president simultaneously. Someone intent on getting the presidential nomination is likely to mix it up or draw contrasts with the front-runners, a strategy that may create bad feelings or embarrassing soundbites. Thus, in 1980, George H.W. Bush campaign manager James Baker realized that once Ronald Reagan’s nomination was inevitable, Bush would hurt his chances of being his running mate by remaining in the race. Bush withdrew and adopted a supportive, rather than aggressive, attitude towards Reagan, and when Reagan and former President Gerald R. Ford concluded that a “dream ticket” was impossible, Bush became Reagan’s running mate.

Moreover, a poor performance in the presidential primaries can diminish vice-presidential prospects. On paper, Bob Graham seemed an attractive running mate in 2004. Yet the failure of his presidential candidacy to catch fire caused him to withdraw before the primaries and lessened his appeal for the second spot. Some of this year’s presidential aspirants may have hurt their vice presidential prospects by poor performances.

3) Vice presidential candidates tend to have extensive experience in certain feeder positions.

Presidential candidates tend to choose running mates with considerable experience as senators, governors, in high national executive office (including as national party chair), or in the House of Representatives. Since 1976, the 16 first-time vice presidential candidates averaged about 14 years of service in those offices. Only three selectees — Geraldine Ferraro (six), Edwards (six), and Palin (two) — had six years or less in those positions. The last vice presidential nominee who had not served in any of those categories prior to selection was Frank Knox, Alf Landon’s running mate in 1936. Knox was a journalist and newspaper publisher who later became Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Navy when it was a Cabinet position during World War II.

Democratic running mates tend to be senators. Since 1940, when presidential candidates began generally choosing their own running mates, 15 of the 18 first-time Democratic running mates have been current senators, the exceptions being Henry Wallace (1940), Sargent Shriver (1972), and Ferraro (1984). Republicans do not choose senators nearly as often, accounting for only four of the 15 first-time selections over that period. Looking at nominees from both parties over the same period, 19 of the 33 have been sitting senators, six had last served in high national executive office, five (all Republicans) were governors, and three were members of the House. No mayors have been selected and very few were shortlisted, most by Mondale in 1984 when he considered Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, Henry Cisneros of San Antonio, Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco, and Wilson Goode of Philadelphia. Not coincidentally, Mondale made a real effort to open the process to women, blacks, and Hispanics, and few from those groups then served in the traditional feeder positions.

These patterns would tend to exclude some prominently-mentioned Democratic possibilities. Stacey Abrams, for instance, served for about 10.5 years in the Georgia House of Representatives, including six and a half years as minority leader, and ran an impressive but unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2018. But she has never held any of the feeder offices. Buttigieg also has never served in those positions.

On the other hand, it may be that service in such feeder positions will be less important than in the past. Experience is primarily a surrogate for competence and presidential readiness, and because many view government institutions as dysfunctional, decision-makers and citizens may use other measures to determine who is presidential timber. Thus, potential candidates like Abrams, Buttigieg, and others might demonstrate through media appearances, other work, or the presidential campaign that they are plausible choices, although that is a challenging task.

4) Vice presidential candidates are not chosen to carry a large, competitive state.

One of the persistent myths of vice presidential selection is that vice presidential candidates are chosen to carry a swing state. Although some academics and journalists continue to emphasize this criteria, presidential candidates have largely ignored it for a long time. Nearly eight years ago in this space, I debunked the myth. Presidential candidates generally choose running mates who are plausible presidents or to send messages about their values and decision-making ability. They have generally been concerned with how the choice will perform nationally, not whether they’re from Pennsylvania or Michigan or Florida. Pennsylvania last provided the VP candidate in 1844, and Michigan and Florida have never been so honored. Instead, recent running mates often have come from small (e.g. Wyoming, Delaware, Alaska, Connecticut) and/or safe (e.g. Kansas, Indiana) states. Most presidential candidates recognize that it’s bad politics to choose someone from a competitive state unless he or she is presidential. A decision that ignores a candidate’s competence reflects poorly on the selector’s values and is likely to create campaign problems. When the running mate comes from a large swing state, it generally is due to another reason. The selections since I wrote in 2012, of Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, and Tim Kaine, were not designed primarily to carry a competitive state. Kaine was a presidential figure and a risk-averse choice. Ryan helped appeal to conservatives wary of Mitt Romney. Pence had the least baggage of Trump’s shallow pool and appealed to social conservatives.

As the electoral battleground shrinks, however, some presidential candidates may give renewed attention to geography in certain circumstances. A running mate who could help marginally in a potentially competitive state like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, or Texas might have appeal, but only if he or she is otherwise a plausible national candidate and his/her selection sent appropriate messages about the presidential candidate. That important state consideration might increase the chance that the presidential nominee will seriously consider someone like Klobuchar or Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), for instance, although Brown is hurt by the reality that Gov. Mike DeWine (R-OH) would appoint a Republican to replace him in the Senate, costing the Democrats a precious seat in what should be a closely-divided upper chamber.

Historically, most presidential candidates have treated achieving gender and racial diversity as relatively minor criteria in vice presidential selection. All but three presidential tickets have paired two men, and virtually all have involved two whites. Mondale’s 1984 selection process, which resulted in the first woman being selected amidst a focus on considering qualified women and minority candidates, is an outlier in that regard.

That pattern seems likely to change on the Democratic side at least due to two factors. First, the number of women and racial minorities holding traditional feeder positions has proliferated. When Mondale chose Ferraro, there were no women Democratic senators and only one, newly-elected, woman Democratic governor, Martha Layne Collins of Kentucky. Now 17 of the 25 women in the Senate are Democrats, two of whom (Klobuchar and Warren) are running for president and two others of whom (Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris) were. Six of the 24 Democratic state governors are women. The Hawaii delegation constituted the Democratic racial diversity in the Senate in 1984; now the United States Senate website lists six Democratic senators as providing “ethnic diversity,” and two, Booker and Harris, are or were presidential candidates. Moreover, women and people of color make up a big part of the Democratic coalition.

The Democrats have not run a ticket of two white males since 2004, and the factors mentioned above would seem to reduce the likelihood of such a pairing in 2020. The most recent Democratic tickets have, of course, involved presidential candidates who were firsts — Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — achieving racial or gender balance by choosing Biden and Kaine respectively, although those were not the principal reason either was selected. The pool of Democrats who are past or current occupants of the traditional feeder positions remains disproportionately white and male. Still, it would not be surprising if many or even most of those shortlisted by a presidential nominee who is a white man are women and minorities or if most of those seriously considered by a woman or minority presidential nominee are males or whites respectively.

The possibility of gender or racial balance on the 2020 Democratic ticket makes it more obvious that identifying the most likely vice presidential candidates must await the determination of the presidential candidate. In addition to other factors, in seeking a presidential caliber running mate, Biden, Buttigieg, or Sanders will have different demographic considerations than Warren, Klobuchar, Booker, or Patrick.

This idea, that the running mate shortlist pool depends on the presidential candidate, is not new. Vice presidential selection has long been relational, depending not simply on compatibility and the presidential candidate’s values and priorities but also on factors like geography, ideology, age, religion, and experience. Some of those factors remain relevant for at least some presidential nominees; others less so. As American politics, especially on the Democratic side, has become more open to previously excluded groups, gender and race/ethnicity have now emerged as increasingly relevant considerations. In vice presidential selection politics, as elsewhere, historical patterns are buffeted by the winds of change.

Joel K. Goldstein is the author of The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden (2016)