Predicting running-mates is notoriously difficult but he ticks the right boxes
US Vice Presidents have four main jobs.
Firstly, once elected, they are the president’s most senior dogsbody; picking up the jobs that the president might do were he interested or have time, but where is doesn’t or hasn’t. Usually that means attending state funerals but for the moment it also appears to encompass praying for salvation against pandemics.
Secondly if necessary – and it might well be next year – they hold and can use the casting vote in the Senate.
Thirdly they are the inner-most rank of the president’s constitutional Praetorian guard. While there’s been much talk of the 25th Amendment ever since Trump was elected, that all counted for nothing as long as Mike Pence was firmly within Trump’s orbit. To remove a president on health grounds requires the support of two-thirds of both Houses of Congress, a majority of the cabinet – and the Vice President. Without him, the rest cannot move, even if there were unanimity elsewhere.
But the most important job of the running-mate is to help the presidential candidate be elected in the first place. And with the race for the Democrat nomination quite possibly heading towards a rapid conclusion, it’s time to think about who that might be and how they would fulfil that task.
A quick aside first. It is also possible that the race could still go all the way to Milwaukee. Biden does not have a large lead in delegates and the momentum could yet swing back Sanders’ way. Sanders’ reaction to his defeats this week won’t have helped him and the polls look discouraging but there’ve been enough twists and turns so far that we shouldn’t take anything for granted.
In general terms, as a name on the ticket, the running-mate has two jobs. (1) Make the ticket stronger, not weaker; (2) provide balance to the presidential nominee. These are the aims: the candidates don’t always get it right. In particular, it can be easy to focus too much on the second part to the detriment of the first.
As far as the campaign goes, the goal is to bring as many voters into the tent as possible. Hence, while of the face of it, Trump picking one oldish white man to join another on the ticket might not look much like balance, that depends on what the goal is; there are many forms of balance. In Trump’s case, he needed to address a potential weakness with what should be a natural Republican segment. As a man twice-divorced and who plainly doesn’t know one Testament from the other, he was potentially suspect with evangelicals; Mike Pence reassured them.
Not that everyone gets it right. Nixon was probably a drag on Eisenhower in 1952, though Ike was more than strong enough to cope with that; likewise, Quayle did nothing for Bush-41 other than supply the punchbag for one of the greatest put-downs in political history. More recently, Palin was a left-field choice for McCain and, as it turned out, a bad gamble. It’s all very well providing balance on identity characteristics, political stance, geography or personal factors but you still have to be seen by the public as a potential president, just in case.
Turning to the specifics, we can be reasonably sure that the nominee will be Biden or Sanders. Both are far clear of the field and only they will rack up further delegates now. With the Covid-19 outbreak, there is a discussion of what happens if both have to withdraw but we can leave that for another thread. For now, let’s restrict ourselves to the probable.
And the probable is Joe Biden. So, what does he need? On identity, he’s clearly an old straight white man which might imply someone who ticks one or more of the opposite boxes: young, non-white, female and/or gay. But does he? Well, yes and no. The reality is that relatively few votes are likely to be decided on who the Vice Presidential candidates are, with a greater risk on the downside than potential benefit on the up. Given both remaining Democrats’ age, that might be particularly relevant this time. As was noted earlier with Nixon and Quayle, young running mates do not necessarily help an older candidate with the youth vote.
On a similar note, there will be some pressure for a female running-mate but when the opposition is Donald ‘grab-them-by-the-p*ssy’ Trump, how many people would discount that kind of behaviour but then switch to the Democrat because they have a female running-mate? Probably not many. A woman might be an advantage on the ticket but only a minor one. Other things may be more important.
What about race then? Well, Biden already has strong support among America’s black community but it was notable that he did much worse in Nevada with its large Hispanic community – an ethinic group which unlike blacks is much more ready to vote Republican (Trump lost the black vote in 2016 by around 88-8; he was behind among Hispanic voters by only 65-29). Again, of itself, it’s unlikely to prove decisive but is a factor to throw into the mix.
What about ideology? I’m doubtful that there’s a case to be made for an overt liberal as a ‘unity’ ticket, not least because that would actually highlight the divide. I doubt that many of those who would be willing to let Trump in by refusing to back Biden could be tempted back by the gesture of a liberal running-mate. Policies alone are likely to be the only currency of value there.
It’s striking that the four leading names in the betting markets are all women, three of them former candidates in the race for this year’s nominations, though I only see value with one of them.
Current favourite is Kamela Harris (7/2), who briefly last summer was second-favourite for the nomination itself before fading and dropping out of the race in December but while she would provide balance to the ticket, those odds just look too short to me for someone from a state already safe for the Democrats.
Of the other two former candidates, Klobuchar (6/1) and Warren (11/1) look back-to-front. Warren’s age might be an issue – she’d be 75 by the end of the next presidential term, which doubling down on a weakness – but she is a formidable politician.
In between them in the odds is Stacey Abrams (8/1), who came very close to winning the Georgia gubernatorial election in 2018. However, she didn’t and as such, she’d be a very inexperienced choice as running-mate to a candidate in his late 70s.
After that come another three names who I wouldn’t be backing. Pete Buttigieg (16/1) is another young politician who punched above his weight for a long time but always looked (to me) more suited to a run for the senate or governor rather than the presidency. With Trump having won Indiana (Mike Pence’s state) by 20% in 2016, I don’t see much opportunity to flip the state either.
By contrast, Michelle Obama (20/1) and Hillary Clinton (25/1) will only appeal to those who only follow US politics once every four years or so. There are far too many reasons as to why neither is suitable to list here; they’re just not.
Also at 25/1 though is Julian Castro, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Obama’s cabinet and before that, mayor of San Antonio, Texas. He’s another former also-ran for this year’s Democrat nomination. It’s true that this is nothing like as heavyweight a CV as Warren, for example, but I wonder whether he might just be the right fit for a Biden ticket (or even a Sanders one). He would provide balance on race and sure up Biden’s less-strong support among Hispanic voters; he is also more of the left without being overtly confrontational. But perhaps the critical factor is that he’s from Texas.
The Lone Star State keeps being spoken of as a potential swing-state but it’s not made good on that yet. Trump won by 9% in 2016 but in the mid-terms, Beto O’Rourke came within 2.6% of winning the Senate seat for the Democrats from Ted Cruz. And of course, Texas is a huge prize: 38 Electoral College votes. Never mind Wisconsin, Michigan or Arizona: take Texas and that’s Trump’s majority gone in one fell swoop.
That said, while we can construct frameworks that might help, the decision as to who the running-mate will be is an individual and personal one and second-guessing it inevitably carries a great deal of uncertainty. That’s one reason I’ve looked down the list: I think the uncertainty is just too great to justify the shortness of most of the leading options. Will Castro be the pick? Probably not – but I think there’s more than a 4% chance.