Joe Biden’s Veepstakes: How does the choice of running mate affect his chances?

Joe Biden will be hoping that his choice of running mate in early August ensures he capitalises on his current momentum in the polls. The stakes are heightened by his advanced age: if he wins, Joe Biden will be the oldest President ever inaugurated. Amidst reports that he is considering serving for a single term, and his own admission that he sees himself as a “transition President”, his Vice-Presidential pick will be within short distance of a historic Presidency, which explains why many candidates have been intensely jockeying for the job.

Biden will need somebody who is ready to assume the Presidency and help him govern, as well as a candidate who is broadly palatable for different wings of the Party, not to mention plugging his enthusiasm gap. Even more crucially, Biden’s vice-presidential nominee will serve as a way to appeal directly to specific demographics.

  • One possible strategy would be an attempt to win back the Rust Belt by targeting a demographic of specifically white, male, working class Obama-Trump voters in key places like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
    • Candidates like centrists Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) would indicate at an attempt at this.
  • Given the current racial climate and the role a slump in black turnout played in Hillary’s 2016 defeat, many in the party, like Amy Klobuchar (who removed herself out of contention for the job) and Jim Clyburn, have argued that Biden needs to pick a woman of colour.
    • There are four African-Americans being seriously vetted: while Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) is the favourite, Rep. Val Demings (D-FL), Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms are also under serious consideration.
    • Harris has been emerging as the obvious choice; she has taken the lead on policing issues in the Democratic Party to meet the moment, has consolidated broad support in the Party, and has the experience that Joe Biden indicated he was looking for.
  • A third possible route for Joe Biden would be an attempt to unite the two wings of the party and reach out to young voters and progressives by choosing Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

Each choice is not without its pitfalls.

  • For example, choosing Rep. Val Demings, a former Police Chief with a shaky record on police brutality, could backfire by dissuading many young African Americans and progressives.
  • Mayor Lance Bottoms is widely unknown and has a mixed record dealing with the coronavirus in Atlanta.
  • While Sen. Duckworth has a high profile on military issues, her lack of charisma and profile might make her a less appealing candidate.
  • Warren has emerged as a policy leader on coronavirus and the economic crisis, but her antagonistic relationship with Wall Street and the Democratic establishment would destabilize markets and alienate some centrist or conservative Biden voters.
  • Harris, on the other hand, has a difficult relationship with the progressive movement, and gained widespread notoriety by attacking Joe Biden’s record on race, which she will then awkwardly be tasked to defend.

In sum, Joe Biden will need to consider the downfalls and support that might get alienated by his choice as much as the support he has to gain.

While the political pressures surrounding his choice are intense, polling and polling history suggest that public opinion is rarely moved by running mate decisions. Historical polling records show that running mates rarely affect voting intentions or the presidential candidate’s favourability ratings; a recent poll shows that 54% of registered voters say his pick will have “no impact” on their vote. Nevertheless, selecting a popular vice-president could help boost turnout, which Biden will certainly require if he is to ensure all those who currently support him actually turn up to vote for him on the day.

Recent polling indicates that the most popular candidates aren’t necessarily the ones that fit the political imperatives mentioned above. For example, only 6% of black voters in swing states, and 9% of all registered swing state voters, stated Joe Biden should choose a black running mate. Instead, polls have consistently shown Sen. Warren to be the most popular running mate pick to unite the party, especially among the key constituencies of young voters, progressive activists, and perhaps more surprisingly, (young) black voters.

This suggests that Elizabeth Warren would be the best choice for reassuring and reuniting the party – even as she is the one most likely to frighten the markets. Coupled with Biden’s current commanding polling lead, the choice of Vice President in a few weeks’ time might be the trigger for a financial markets crisis to join the twin health and economic crises already on the Presidential candidates’ plates.