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The Parameters of Joe Biden’s Search for a Running Mate

Joe Biden’s running mate would be second in line to assume the office of the US presidency should he win, so the selection process is vital. In this context, the George Floyd Protests and COVID-19 have reshaped the field of VP candidates in favor of a woman of color.
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Joe Biden announced that his running mate would be a woman during the primary elections. After all but securing the nomination of the Democratic Party, which will officially occur in mid-August 2020 at the Democratic National Convention, a lively debate has begun around who this female running mate could and should be. The selection of a running mate is generally regarded as a purely political act aimed to garner more votes, as vice presidents do not have a defined active role in presidential administrations. But this time the situation is different because, if elected, at 78 years old Biden would be the oldest person ever to take the Oval Office. He might leave office after just one term or, more dramatically, pass away during his term. Accordingly, he declared that his running mate should be ready to assume the presidency from day one. This means his running mate may be the next presidential candidate in 2024 if she has already assumed the presidency. This situation makes the selection even more critical.

The George Floyd Protests and the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped perceptions of the field of vice presidential (VP) candidates. First, the widespread protests against racism and problems in US policing made it riskier to select a running mate with a law enforcement background and “tough on crime” record. Indeed, these developments have caused the once-frontrunner Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar to withdraw from the process due to her record as an attorney at Hennepin County in Minnesota, the exact locality where George Floyd was killed by police thereby sparking the nationwide protests.

Second, while Biden initially avoided committing to a woman of color, the George Floyd Protests increase the likelihood that his campaign will select an African American running mate. California Senator Kamala Harris, as an experienced African American woman stands out among the contenders. Various other African American leaders have garnered national media coverage throughout the dual COVID-19/George Floyd crisis. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, as a woman of color, has become a contender as a result of her strong leadership during the George Floyd Protests. Florida Representative Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief, has also become a national figure. She has earned respect from both Democrats and Republicans with her balanced approach.

Third, increased attention to the fight against COVID-19 and the need to respond to the coming economic difficulties have granted the spotlight to experienced governors. Here, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has become a national figure because of her strong performance during the COVID-19 crisis, and she has also won popularity among democrats due to her several confrontations with President Trump. The same could also be said of New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. In addition to her strong leadership in the face of COVID-19, she is the US’s first Democratic Latina governor. Biden may prefer her to secure Latino voters who preferred Bernie Sanders in the primary elections.

Theoretical Approaches to VP Candidate Selection

Complementary theories based on long-term data analysis make conclusive predictions about vice presidential nominee selections. Two prominent ones are the balancing theory and the home state advantage (HSA) theory. The balancing theory suggests that presidential candidates pick a running mate that balances his/her qualities with regard to age, status as a Washington insider/outsider, and ideological standing as moderate or left/right wing. Thus, the candidate selects a VP nominee that has the opposite qualities of him/herself in order to create a balanced ticket. The home state advantage theory, on the other hand, refers to the preference of selecting a running mate from a state that is crucial to winning the election. The assumption here is that the electorate that already voted and connected with the (home state) running mate will vote for them as a VP, and thus a battleground state can be secured. 

In the case of Joe Biden, the balancing theory predicts that the VP nominee will be young, (considering Biden’s age), an outsider (considering Biden’s 36-year position as a senator), and progressive (considering Biden’s moderate stance). In terms of these variables, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren can be regarded as the best match to balance the ticket. While not technically young at age 70, she is a vigorous, progressive Washington outsider who stands for change. Many suggest that in order to unite the Democratic Party, Biden should pick Warren, who has the highest appeal among Bernie Sanders’ supporters. But the problem with Warren is that her ultra-progressive positions may hurt Biden’s image as a moderate. More importantly, picking Warren would result in the loss of a Democrat in the Senate. The vacancy Warren would leave could be filled by Massachusetts’ Republican Governor Charlie Baker, and given the tight races for Senate, every seat will count.

A recent study proved that running mates can make a significant contribution to the ticket in battleground states, strengthening the case for the HSA theory. Heersink and Peterson demonstrate that running mates can add 2.6 percentage points to any given ticket. Moreover, their study concludes that if running mates had been chosen based on the HSA theory, the result of four presidential elections would have been different since 1960. In this respect, Michigan Governor Whitmer and Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin may be able to carry the important battleground states of Wisconsin and Michigan respectively. Representative Demings, with her spouse being Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, could help Biden win the important swing state of Florida. 

Above all, Biden has said several times that he and his running mate should have a simpatico relationship. He wants a partner that will not hesitate to tell him the truth but also someone who is loyal should political differences arise. Other than being an experienced African American senator, Harris was also a close friend of his son Beau Biden and knew the Biden family personally, which may be to her advantage. Whitmer has a home state advantage and passes both the compatibility and loyalty tests. Warren is probably the most prepared to be president, but she might not be the most compatible with Biden politically. Bottoms would balance the ticket with her young age, political compatibility, and loyalty but has an obvious lack of experience. Demings has the home state advantage in Florida. While less so than Bottoms, she is also not so experienced. Considering all these criteria, Harris and Whitmer stand as the most advantageous candidates. In the end, all possible running mates have their pros and cons, and it will ultimately be up to Joe Biden to choose which qualities he prioritizes.

 

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