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Race for the White House 2024: The Campaign of Four Vice Presidencies


— As Joe Biden seeks a second presidential term, his time as vice president shows how the office can be a springboard to the presidency.

— Former Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, is learning that the vice presidency may not be an advantage in seeking a presidential nomination in the anomalous circumstances he experiences.

— Biden dumping Vice President Kamala Harris never was a realistic possibility, and despite Biden’s age, the electoral impact of some voters’ misgivings regarding Harris as a possible president has probably been overstated, and her presence may benefit the Democratic ticket.

— There may be factors that limit the appeal of the person in the no. 2 slot on the GOP side, whether Donald Trump is renominated or not.

The 2024 campaign’s vice presidential angles

Like all its predecessors, the 2024 presidential campaign will focus primarily on the competing choices for president. It is already distinctive in that regard, involving, as it does, two announced candidates who are sitting or former presidents, each of whom is a strong contender to win his party’s presidential nomination and advance to the general election. The last time both a sitting president and former president were so involved in a single campaign was 1912, when former President (and former Vice President) Theodore Roosevelt challenged the renomination and reelection of his former protégé, President William Howard Taft, setting up a three-way general election won by Woodrow Wilson.

Yet it is already clear that the 2024 campaign promises to involve the vice presidency in unique and prominent ways, some of which have not yet been publicly discussed. This brief discussion sketches four intersections between vice presidential studies and the 2024 presidential campaign, one each dealing with the presidential and vice presidential selections on each ticket.

1. The vice presidency as springboard: Biden

Let’s start with President Joe Biden. The 46th president was previously the 47th vice president, and is 1 of only 15 people in American history to have held both national offices, 1 of only 10 ever elected to both positions, and 1 of only 6 who initially assumed each position through election.[1] Although one can never be certain how counterfactuals would have turned out, it seems unlikely that Biden would have been elected president had he not been Barack Obama’s vice president. After all, Biden had run unsuccessful presidential campaigns in 1988 and 2008 before his vice presidency allowed him to emerge as the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020.

Biden was not, of course, the first modern figure to benefit from the vice presidency’s springboard effect. Hubert Humphrey (1968), Walter F. Mondale (1984), George H.W. Bush (1988), and Al Gore (2000) all won presidential nominations after unsuccessful attempts before becoming vice president: Bush won the presidency, Gore won the popular vote, and Humphrey ran a close race. And Richard M. Nixon leveraged his two terms as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president to presidential nominations in 1960 and 1968 and election in the latter (and 1972) and almost in the former.

Biden’s vice presidency made his presidency possible in several ways. Biden had a highly successful vice presidency in which he conspicuously and skillfully discharged important assignments. Obama recognized Biden’s contributions in visible ways. Biden emerged from his vice presidency as a popular and respected figure with a 61% favorability rating for a president who himself left office with a 58% favorability rating and who remained popular with the Democratic base. And Biden won support from many party leaders that helped sustain his campaign until he won the South Carolina primary after some early setbacks. He secured the 2020 nomination shortly thereafter.

Should Biden win renomination, as seems highly likely, he will join two vice presidential predecessors, John Adams (1788, 1792, 1796, 1800) and George H.W. Bush (1980, 1984, 1988, 1992), as having participated as a national, major party nominee (or equivalent) in four elections, trailing only Franklin D. Roosevelt (1920, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944) and Nixon (1952, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1972), each of whom ran in five national campaigns. Of Biden’s five vice presidential predecessors who initially became president through election, two were reelected president (Jefferson and Nixon). Perhaps significantly, they, like Biden, were seeking a second consecutive term for their party whereas the three who were not reelected (Adams, Van Buren, and Bush) were seeking a fourth consecutive term for their party.

2. The broken springboard: Mike Pence

The vice presidency seems likely to provide much less bounce for Biden’s vice presidential successor, Mike Pence. Pence’s selection as Donald Trump’s running mate raised his profile as a presidential prospect. The nature of Pence’s support for Trump during their term gave sycophancy new prominence until Jan. 6, 2021 when Pence refused to abuse the narrow limits of his role as President of the Senate during the electoral vote count as Trump insisted. No other president in history had ever called on his vice president to send some of his opponent’s electoral votes back to the certifying state for review. Angry mobs of Trump supporters invaded the Capitol building, with some threatening Pence by word or action.

Pence’s vice presidential springboard has been flattened by two anomalous factors. First, if Pence announces a presidential candidacy — as seems likely — he will be the first former vice president in modern times to run against the president under whom he served for the party’s nomination. To be sure, Vice President John Nance Garner opposed a third term for FDR in 1940 and was nominated for president as an alternative but they were both in office at the time. Garner received 61 votes to FDR’s 946 at the 1940 Democratic convention. Theodore Roosevelt and Charles Fairbanks, who served together from 1905-1909, both received early ballot support at the 1916 Republican convention. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson faced off in the 1800 presidential race, but they represented opposite parties and served together only because before the 12th Amendment (1804), the vice president was the presidential runner up, a system that also meant that in 1800 the ultimate choice was between Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican running mate, Aaron Burr, each of whom received 73 electoral votes, requiring the House of Representatives to choose a president through the contingent system. Other than Adams-Jefferson[2] and FDR-Garner, no sitting presidents and vice presidents have opposed each other. Since the 22nd Amendment (1951) prohibited anyone elected president twice from being elected a third time, recent presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama were precluded from a third election and those who retired (Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson) or were defeated (Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush) did not run again. Even members of unsuccessful presidential tickets almost never opposed each other in later cycles. Humphrey and Edmund Muskie (1968) were an exception in 1972, as were Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge (1960) only if one includes their serious write-in candidacies in some 1964 Republican primaries.

Pence’s second problem has been that Trump retains the loyalty of much of the Republican Party and he and his supporters appear to dislike Pence, largely because of Pence’s behavior on Jan. 6, 2021. Unlike other vice presidents who inherit the support of the presidents under whom they served, Pence has been met with animosity among this group. Accordingly, he measures around 5% in many polls of Republican 2024 preferences, far behind Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

It’s a long way to the Republican Convention in Milwaukee in mid-July 2024, but, as of now, Pence’s prospects seem more remote than any former vice president/presidential candidate since Dan Quayle in 1996 and 2000 and, before that, Alben Barkley in 1952.

3. Vice President Harris and 2024

Vice President Kamala Harris figures to play a more conspicuous role in the 2024 campaign than most of her predecessors. She is, after all, a historic figure, as the first woman ever elected to national office in addition to her identification with other minority demographic groups that have not generally provided nominees for national office. And she is running with the oldest president in our history. But that doesn’t validate the common storyline that Biden’s age and concerns regarding presidential succession will make her a campaign liability, a narrative that is at least premature and overlooks ways she is likely to help Biden’s prospects.

Like many of her predecessors, including Nixon, Johnson, Spiro T. Agnew, Quayle, Dick Cheney and Biden, Harris has had occasion to read opinion columns predicting or advocating her removal from her president’s re-election ticket. Such speculation is inevitable, yet vice presidents are almost never dumped. No vice president has been dropped for almost one-half century since Nelson A. Rockefeller was asked to remove himself from the 1976 Republican ticket in November 1975 because he presented an obstacle to Ford’s nomination. The only other two 20th century dumpees were Garner and Henry Wallace in 1940 and 1944, both by FDR, after the former openly broke with the president and after the latter antagonized party leaders. None of these factors applied to Harris, who seems popular with Democratic constituent groups and in step with Biden. And a president who has made inclusivity a prominent theme of his administration seemed highly unlikely to replace the first woman elected to national office who is also a person of color and who has been an effective public spokesperson on important issues to the administration and its supporters. Indeed, the administration has described itself as the Biden-Harris administration, giving Harris a more visible association than her predecessors.

Now that Biden has confirmed the obvious fact that Harris would be on his ticket, pundits have suggested that Biden’s age will cause voters to focus more heavily on Harris as a successor than is normally the case. That could occur. It is plausible that vice presidential candidates become more salient when voters have reason to focus on succession issues. There’s no precise historical parallel. After Eisenhower had a serious heart attack in September 1955, Nixon’s presence on the 1956 ticket became a subject of some controversy. Although Eisenhower seemed disposed to move Nixon to another position, Nixon’s popularity with the Republican Party dissuaded him. Eisenhower had intestinal surgery in June 1956. During the 1956 campaign, the Democratic candidate, Adlai E. Stevenson (who had also been the Democratic nominee in 1952), argued that a Republican victory would likely mean Nixon would succeed to the presidency before the term ended. Eisenhower won in a landslide, and the prediction proved wrong. Although Eisenhower sustained a stroke in 1957, he completed his term and lived to see Nixon inaugurated as president in 1969 before dying later that year, outliving both Stevenson’s running mate, Estes Kefauver, and Stevenson himself (each of whom died in 1963 and 1965, respectively). Of course, Biden has had none of the health issues Eisenhower had as president, even as some voters have concerns about Biden’s age and health. Presidential age became an issue in 1984 after Reagan’s disastrous performance in the first debate raised questions about his fitness to serve a second term. He answered those to the public’s satisfaction with a well-delivered quip in the second debate, securing a landslide reelection.

Although Democrats will surely benefit the more voters view Harris as presidential, the narrative regarding Harris as a potential drag on Biden’s ticket ignores several important factors. First, Harris appears to be popular with Democratic constituency groups. She has been the administration’s most visible and frequent spokesperson on issues of importance to the Democratic base and to other reachable voters like reproductive rights, inclusivity, climate change, and so forth, and it is possible that Harris’s presence and such activities will help energize the Democratic base to vote and appeal to voters who share the views of the Biden-Harris administration.

If Trump is the Republican nominee, the age issue will at least be mitigated. Although Biden is 80, Trump will be 77 in mid-June. Accordingly, whatever succession concerns relating to age apply to the Democratic ticket should also apply to a Trump-led Republican ticket unless prospective Democratic voters care more about presidential age and the presidential successor than do reachable Republican voters. One very recent poll suggests respondents have greater concerns regarding Biden’s age and health. Trump’s candidacy may prompt unique non-age succession concerns because he was twice impeached, and his behavior reportedly prompted some senior members of his administration to consider transferring presidential powers from him on the grounds he was unable. Although Biden’s running mate will be Harris, we don’t know who would be on Trump’s ticket and how he or she would be viewed as a presidential successor.

Moreover, there is reason to doubt that any such concerns regarding Harris would play much of a factor or would favor Republicans. Vice presidential candidates generally have at most a marginal impact on presidential elections Such concerns about Harris would only hurt Biden if significant blocs of voters in competitive states voted based on an unlikely mix of attitudes such as being indifferent between Biden and Trump (or some other alternative Republican nominee) yet preferring Trump (or the Republican alternative) and his/her running mate to Harris. It seems unlikely in our polarized environment that many voters who otherwise might support Biden would prefer Trump (or any Republican presidential candidate) to Harris or that her presence would cause them not to vote or to support a third party candidate. And, for reasons stated in the next section, aside from his own judgment, Trump may face unique challenges in attracting an able running mate, as may alternative Republican candidates.

4. Some early speculations regarding 2024 Republican vice presidential choice

The Republican presidential nominee, whoever he or she is, will need to choose a running mate. No major party has chosen a cross-party running mate since the mid-19th century, so history suggests that the Republican vice presidential candidate will be a Republican, and the increased polarization of the parties makes a cross-party selection even more unlikely. With very rare exceptions, like Frank Knox in 1936, those chosen are invariably past or current officeholders, usually those who are or who have been senators, governors, members of the U.S. House of Representatives, or who have otherwise held high federal executive office. In recent cycles, presidential candidates have looked for running mates who reachable voters would view as presidential and who could pass a vetting screen. The vice presidential choice ultimately will depend heavily on the identity, strengths, weaknesses, and dispositions of the presidential candidate and the context in which the choice is made, variables that are presently unknown and will remain so for many months, perhaps a year or more. Accordingly, even the best political crystal balls regarding the Republican running mate now allow only very speculative predictions.

With that huge caveat, there is reason to think that the Republican vice presidential choice may be constrained in 2024 in ways that are unusual in modern times. Three plausible dynamics might prevent the Republican Party from producing a running mate who would be an appealing alternative to Harris for any voters who might be undecided between the competing presidential candidates. First, in an increasingly polarized political climate, Republican voters may be more willing to accept vice presidential candidates simply because they share their own policy preferences even absent other evidence of presidential qualifications. It is even possible that the Republican base will insist upon a running mate who satisfies litmus tests on questions where Republican positions are unpopular. Such a Republican running mate might offer an unappealing alternative to undecided voters.

Moreover, if Trump is the nominee, his pool of really viable national candidates may be limited. In 2016, figures like Govs. John Kasich and Nikki Haley and Sens. Rob Portman, Bob Corker, Joni Ernst, and Marco Rubio were among those who reportedly disclaimed interest. Although the 22nd Amendment would preclude Trump, if elected, from running again in 2028, thereby tempting some prospective running mates, some other prominent Republicans may view Pence’s experience before, on, and after Jan. 6 as a cautionary tale against associating with Trump or be deterred by the need to be his principal campaign defender on everything from his legal problems to his obsessive insistence on spreading the false claim that he won the 2020 election. And Trump’s feuds with Republicans who, like Pence, did not participate in his efforts to deny Biden his 2020 victory might eliminate some otherwise attractive nominees.

Any alternative Republican presidential nominee may find his or her choice constrained by the need to placate Trump and his supporters. Trump has not shown himself disposed to accept clear defeats and rally to preference his party’s goals over his personal grievances. Should someone else receive the nomination, Trump might at least link his support to concessions — including influencing the vice presidential selection — or the successful nominee might conclude he or she needs to choose someone associated with Trump to cater to him and his supporters. Trump has received the endorsement of a number of Republican senators and members of the House of Representatives, yet few of his endorsers have profiles that would make them plausible vice presidential candidates using past criteria.

Until the Republican presidential nominee and the political context are known, it is difficult to even speculate regarding the identity of Harris’s 2024 rival or the impact of Biden’s age or Harris’s standing on the 2024 election. Absent knowledge regarding the Republican ticket and the campaign context in fall 2024, discussions regarding the impact of Biden’s age and Harris are at least premature and at worst badly distorted for not considering the Republican side of the equation.

It does appear, however, that the story of the 2024 presidential campaign will include unique vice presidential angles.


[1] Sitting vice presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, and George H.W. Bush were elected president as were former vice presidents Richard M. Nixon and Joe Biden. In addition, four of the nine vice presidents who succeeded to the presidency following the deaths or in one case, the resignation of their predecessors also were subsequently elected to a new term as president, namely Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson. The four 19th century vice presidents who succeeded to the presidency (John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson and Chester A. Arthur) as well as Gerald R. Ford were not elected to their own terms as president or, in Ford’s case, as vice president.

[2] Technically, George Washington and Adams ran against each other in 1792 but since every Adams elector also voted for Washington, who was a unanimous choice of electors, it seems misleading to view them as competitors.

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.