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Applying Conventional Criteria to Biden’s Unconventional Vice Presidential Pool

A Commentary By Joel K. Goldstein


— Biden’s historic announcement that his running mate will be a woman will limit his process in an unprecedented way, yet it still leaves him with a number of choices who reachable voters are likely to view as plausible presidents.

— Even if Biden emphasizes choosing a presidential-caliber running mate, as governance and political considerations would dictate, the timing of the selection makes it inevitable that other political considerations will also be weighed in the choice.

— Democratic presidential candidates generally choose a running mate who is a senator and who has considerable experience in high government positions.

Biden’s vice presidential choice

Now that former Vice President Joe Biden has essentially secured the Democratic presidential nomination, his attention and that of others, except to the extent it’s focused on the coronavirus pandemic, has turned to selecting a running mate. It’s a long process, but Biden’s march to the nomination will make his vice presidential selection the major political news story on the Democratic side for the next few months. Each selection has its own dynamic as each involves a different selector choosing from a different set of options in a different political context. And Biden’s announcement that his running mate will be a woman was unprecedented — and it has narrowed the pool at the outset. Nonetheless, some elements of predictability mix with the inherent novelty of the quadrennial vice presidential selection.

Why the choice matters

Although it’s impossible to measure quantitatively the impact of a vice presidential choice — because vice presidential counterfactuals can’t be reliably tested — and it’s likely that few people will support a ticket based on the second person if they dislike the presidential candidate, the second choice makes a difference in important ways. The choice sends messages about the presidential candidate who makes the decision, regarding his/her values, decision-making process, and decision-making ability. A thoughtful process that generates a good decision is likely to reflect well on the selector.

Jimmy Carter’s choice of Walter F. Mondale in 1976 based on a then-pioneering process sent a message that the one-term former governor of Georgia was a careful and able decision-maker and reassured the liberal base of the Democratic Party that Carter was more receptive to its concerns than feared. Significant circumstantial evidence suggests that Mondale’s presence on the ticket and campaign performance was critical to Carter’s election. Ronald Reagan’s selection of George H.W. Bush in 1980 comforted Republican moderates four years later.

George W. Bush claimed that his choice of Dick Cheney was about governing, not politics, but its governing implications made it, by design and effect, politically advantageous, too. It signaled that a governor of Texas with little, if any, national security and Washington experience would surround himself with the expertise that the former Secretary of Defense, House minority whip, and White House chief of staff represented.

Bill Clinton’s seemingly unorthodox choice of fellow baby boomer, southerner, and Democratic centrist Al Gore carried subtle, but important, balances. More significantly, the visual image of Clinton and Gore and their spouses and young families presented in much more compelling fashion the message of positive change than Clinton alone or Clinton with anyone else.

And who can say that Donald Trump’s choice of Mike Pence wasn’t reassuring to evangelicals and other Republican social conservatives in addition to allowing him to avoid selecting the baggage-laden Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, or Jeff Sessions?

These examples involved choices that sent reassuring messages about presidential candidates who, for the most part, were relatively new to the national scene. Yet the messages may be negative as well as positive, and one should not assume that long familiarity with Biden means that his choice will not affect perceptions of him. Bush paid a price for his selection, and botched rollout, of Dan Quayle. Of course, he overcame it, in part because of misgivings about his opponent, Michael Dukakis, but it’s fallacious to conclude from Bush’s election that the vice presidential choice doesn’t matter. More recently, John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin excited Republican conservatives but undercut McCain’s themes of putting country first and of the value of his experience (and the relative inexperience of then-Sen. Barack Obama).

The vice presidential choice may only matter at the margins but the elections of 1960, 1968, 1976, 2000, 2004, and 2016 were decided at the margins. A bad choice, such as Spiro T. Agnew in 1968, may not sink a ticket, but it adds an extra obstacle to be overcome. The decision matters, which is why Biden, like his thoughtful predecessors, will commit a lot of time to it.

Biden’s narrowed pool

It was foreseeable that Biden’s running mate would be a woman or someone from a minority demographic group. Nonetheless, Biden’s announcement during the most recent presidential debate that his running mate will be a woman significantly narrowed the pool of candidates for his consideration (and our speculation) in a way no recent candidate has done. Although all but a very few prior presidential candidates have, implicitly if not explicitly, essentially limited their pools to male candidates, until recently virtually all public officeholders were men, so the hidden demographic criteria did not narrow the pool. When Mondale focused his pioneering 1984 vice presidential process on women and minorities, he still interviewed Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, and there was speculation that he might select his main rival, Sen. Gary Hart. His fallback choice, in case he opted against picking any of those most seriously vetted, was apparently Gov. Michael Dukakis. Of course, far fewer women (or minorities) then held the high government positions that generally produce running mates. There were no Democratic women in the Senate, only one recently-elected Democratic governor who was a woman, only 13 in the House, and few women who had been high officials in the Carter Cabinet. Mondale’s historic decision was not inevitable. He might have chosen a minority, like Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles or Henry Cisneros of San Antonio.

Biden is not the first presidential candidates to have applied a criterion that significantly circumscribed the pool. Carter, as a one-term former governor of Georgia, determined that his 1976 running mate needed to have national legislative experience, but given the tendency of Democratic nominees to choose senators, that criteria still left him with potential running mates like Sens. Mondale, Edmund Muskie, Frank Church, John Glenn, Adlai Stevenson III, and Henry Jackson, as well as Rep. Peter Rodino, the seven legislators he interviewed for the second spot, among others. Whereas most tickets wind up with some regional and ideological balance, candidates typically have considered a range of possibilities before producing that result. Even candidates like Carter who determined they could not choose a running mate from their own region still had available candidates from multiple other parts of the country from which to choose. The most analogous constraint perhaps was that for much of the first half of the 20th century, Democratic presidential candidates who were not from the South or border states tended to choose someone who was from that part of the country. Most past presidential nominees considered at least some candidates who seemed implausible choices based on geography, ideology, or other factors rather than announcing a sharp limiting criteria at the outset.

In any event, having decided that his running mate will be a woman, Biden’s announcement had two benefits. It avoided a dynamic in which he was publicly pressured to make a decision (choose a woman running mate) he had already made. It also avoided a process that would have imposed the huge costs of participating in the vetting process on some who were not really contenders. As such, Biden’s process will be more focused and authentic than if he had deferred his announcement of a decision already made. Biden will be the first presidential candidate in history with a strong chance of election to select a woman vice presidential candidate, but the reaction to that decision has in part already occurred because of his announcement.

Conventional limitations applied to Biden’s pool

The most effective vice presidential candidates have been those who, having passed a vigorous vetting screen, were deemed by persuadable voters to be plausible presidents. The substantial changes in American political life mean that Biden’s pool will have many more women who are plausible presidents than did Mondale in 1984. Even so, the pool will be constricted by the continued underrepresentation of women in positions from which vice presidential candidates typically come. Vice presidential candidates typically are past or present public office-holders; not since Alf Landon ran with newspaper publisher Frank Knox in 1936 has a vice presidential candidate not previously held public office. And if history is a guide, and sometimes it isn’t, vice presidential candidates come not just from any office but from certain traditional feeder positions. Every first-time vice presidential selection since 1940 has been of a sitting or former senator, governor, high national executive official, or member of the House of Representatives. On the Democratic side, 15 of the 18 first-time running mates during that period were senators, two (Henry Wallace and R. Sargent Shriver) were past or present executive branch officials, and only one (Geraldine Ferraro) was a member of the House, and that at a time when there was no Democratic woman in the Senate. The last public offices of the 15 Republican first-time running mates during the period were the Senate (four), governor (five), executive branch (four), and the House (two).

Presently 17 (of 47) members of the Democratic Senate caucus are women as are six (of 24) Democratic governors (four of whom just took office a little more than a year ago) and 88 (of 233) Democratic members of the House. Women also held numerous high positions in the Barack Obama administration including Secretaries of State (Hilary Clinton), Interior (Sally Jewell), Commerce (Penny Pritzker), Labor (Hilda Solis), Health and Human Services (Kathleen Sebelius and Sylvia Burwell), Homeland Security (Janet Napolitano), Attorney General (Loretta Lynch) and Ambassador to the United Nations (Susan Rice and Samantha Power). Biden and others have also mentioned some possible running mates who have not held such positions, such as Stacey Abrams, who lost a contested race for governor of Georgia, and Sally Yates, who served briefly as Acting Attorney General. Biden, accordingly, will have options to consider from those traditional sources of running mates yet not as many as a woman presidential candidate determined to balance gender.

Recent first-time vice-presidential candidates have averaged about 14 years in the four traditional feeder positions. Whereas Patty Murray (27 years in Senate), Debbie Stabenow (23 years in Congress, 19 in the Senate), Maria Cantwell (21 years in Congress, 19 in the Senate), Tammy Baldwin (21 years in Congress, seven in the Senate), Amy Klobuchar (13 years in the Senate), Jeanne Shaheen (17 years as a senator or governor), Napolitano (11 years as governor and as Cabinet-level official), and Sebelius (11 years as governor and as Cabinet-level official) are all above or around the average in time of service in these traditional feeder positions, Sens. Maggie Hassan (seven), Elizabeth Warren (seven), Tammy Duckworth (seven), Kyrsten Sinema (seven), Kamala Harris (three), Catherine Cortez Masto (three), and Jacky Rosen (three) all have shorter periods of service in those positions, as do Govs. Gretchen Whitmer (one), Michelle Lujan Grisham (seven, as governor and in the House), Kate Brown (five), Gina Raimondo (five), Rep. Val Demings (three), and many others prominently mentioned. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has also been mentioned as a possibility, but no sitting mayor has been selected for a national ticket and few have been considered.

Nonetheless, the past norms regarding length and type of service may not be entirely relevant. The value of experience in such positions relates primarily to the opportunities it provides for prospective candidates to demonstrate their presidential ability and to learn and develop the leadership skills and knowledge a president and vice president need. Experience is an imperfect surrogate for presidential ability. It’s easy to think of many with lengthy service who were never thought presidential. Although some inexperienced persons have proved disasters as national leaders, history also provides bipartisan examples of some whose limited time in such positions did not preclude them from being consensus great presidents. Abraham Lincoln had only served one term in the House roughly a dozen years before he was elected president, yet he became our greatest president. Franklin D. Roosevelt had served only a few years as governor of New York when he became the president who led the nation out of the Great Depression and through World War II. Some with little or no experience in traditional feeder positions may be able to demonstrate in other ways that their ability, knowledge, and skill equip them for a national campaign and for national leadership in 2020. Whitmer, for instance, as a governor of a major state during the coronavirus pandemic, may show national caliber leadership during this emergency. Yet it is difficult for most lacking in longer experience to gain the needed exposure, and the risks of such a selection are greater. Some women in the traditional categories will prove not to be serious vice presidential contenders (as would be true of their male counterparts) based on a variety of factors, including age, lack of experience or talent, vetting issue, or because they determine that they don’t wish to pursue a national campaign for the vice presidency.

Biden has said he will choose someone younger than himself, which would seem to eliminate Dianne Feinstein, a senator for 28 years who is 86, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (80) who has served in the House for 33 years and as speaker for five years over two stints. Some, like Jewell, Power, or former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm are constitutionally ineligible as naturalized, rather than natural-born, citizens. So too are three Democratic women members of the House because they are not yet 35 years old. House members often suffer from a stature deficit, and governors and mayors are often perceived as lacking national security credentials. Ironically, governors may be able to demonstrate that knowledge while campaigning for a presidential nomination but are less able to do so should they seek the second spot. Obama’s Cabinet included some very talented women yet only four — Clinton, Sebelius, Napolitano, and Solis — had electoral backgrounds, leaving the others more vulnerable to a question about how they would perform in a political campaign. These and other factors will reduce the real pool from which Biden will choose, but he still will have a number of potential running mates who, by experience, talent or both will measure up well against recent vice presidential candidates.

Vice presidential candidates must also be vice presidential

Vice presidential candidates must also be able to adjust to the unique demands of their role. They are in a principal supporting role, not the lead man or woman, and that assignment imposes special responsibilities and assignments. They must be willing and able to articulate campaign themes convincingly and to stay on those messages rather than sounding their own divergent ideas. They must be attentive not simply to what they think but to what Biden thinks and to be able to harmonize the two. Some policy differences are certainly not fatal. The ticket-mates on Carter-Mondale, Reagan-Bush, Dukakis-Bentsen, Bush-Quayle, Dole-Kemp, Gore-Lieberman, McCain-Palin, and Romney-Ryan didn’t see eye to eye on everything, and some had even criticized each other. But the ticket must be able to speak in unison and use their diverse voices to enhance the messages’ appeal. Vice presidential candidates also must recognize the supporting nature of their role, a facet some, like John Edwards or Palin, sometimes seemed to overlook, without becoming so sycophantic that they lose credibility. And vice presidential candidates must be able to be effective and willing critics of the other ticket and its policies without becoming political hit men and women. Kemp and Lieberman were unwilling to attack sufficiently during their debates in 1996 and 2000, respectively.

Electoral considerations inevitably affect the choice

Political considerations invariably affect the selection of a running mate because the choice is made in anticipation of the national campaign and election. Although presidential candidates rarely choose someone to carry their home state, they will look for a running mate who they believe can help them in competitive states. The political value of a running mate will be measured by her ability to expand Biden’s electoral, not popular, vote total. Polling is unlikely to provide very precise measures since even those who ran for president are not nearly as well-known now as they will be if chosen as Biden’s running mate and subjected to a national campaign. Public perceptions of the running mate, and her political impact, if any, will depend on the messages her selection sends about Biden and her performance during the campaign, including her ability to present herself as a plausible president and to effectively sound campaign themes without presenting harmful distractions, all as measured among potentially reachable voters in competitive states. Potential choices like Baldwin, Klobuchar, Stabenow, and Whitmer might have some appeal given the competitive nature of states in the Midwest. Yet any choice perceived as made due to political considerations is likely to backfire by sending unflattering messages about the selector.

Although Biden’s selection will almost certainly be made and announced in advance of the convention, party sentiment will play a role. Political conventions are now pep rallies to celebrate the party’s ticket and bash the opposition. The likelihood of opposition to Lieberman among Republican conservatives was a factor that dissuaded McCain from selecting his close friend. Biden, like other presidential candidates, will hope his choice will excite the party faithful and play well during that highly visible event. He will certainly not want to make a selection that will generate a negative response from his base.

Past presidential candidates may be considered and even chosen

Presidential nominees rarely select a rival for the nomination. Since 1960, the runner up has been selected only three times (Lyndon B. Johnson, 1960, George H.W. Bush, 1980, and John Edwards, 2004) and an also-ran chosen only once (Biden himself in 2008). Presidential candidates more often choose someone who has previously run (Hubert Humphrey, Lloyd Bentsen, Al Gore, Jack Kemp, and Biden) but that doesn’t happen too often either and, in any event, looking for presidential campaign experience in an earlier year would only add one possibility since the only Democratic woman who remains active who previously ran for president is Hilary Clinton.

But runners up, also rans, and past candidates are often vetted. Some of Biden’s most conspicuous options (Harris, Klobuchar, and Warren) were candidates this year and Biden, having advanced to the ticket in 2008 after an unsuccessful presidential race, may be more disposed to such candidates than some others in his position. Klobuchar endorsed Biden at a critical time for him, right before Super Tuesday, and her support probably helped him in Minnesota. Harris backed Biden after his Super Tuesday success greatly increased the odds of his nomination. Warren has not backed Biden or Sen. Bernie Sanders since her withdrawal, but she has recently praised Biden.

As an insider, Biden might choose an outsider, but probably not

Although Democratic presidential candidates rarely choose sitting governors (Charles Bryan, in 1924, was the last Democratic governor nominated for vice president) or former governors (only Edmund S. Muskie and Tim Kaine qualify, and they were senators when chosen), Biden, in view of his extensive experience in Washington, would certainly be more able to choose a governor than a D.C. neophyte like Carter, Reagan, Dukakis, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama, or Mitt Romney. Other than the two governors who ran with Thomas Dewey in the 1940s, the only two governors without any prior national experience selected to run as vice president (Agnew and Palin) were chosen by experienced insiders (Nixon and McCain). Trump, the only president in our history never to have previously served in any elected, appointed, or military office, also chose a governor, but most of Pence’s public service was in the House, where he served for 12 years. Whereas every political outsider the last 70 years has chosen a running mate with some D.C. experience, almost all political insiders have as well: Think Kennedy-Johnson, Nixon-Lodge, Johnson-Humphrey, Goldwater-Miller, Humphrey-Muskie, McGovern-Eagleton, McGovern-Shriver, Ford-Dole, Mondale-Ferraro, Bush-Quayle, Dole-Kemp, Gore-Lieberman, Kerry-Edwards, and Obama-Biden. History suggests Biden is more likely to choose someone with D.C. experience than he would be to choose a governor or mayor, and more likely to choose a senator than a member of the House, all things being equal. But, of course, the other factors are never entirely equal, and Biden will be choosing from a different pool in a different time, all of which might lead him to choose a non-senator unlike virtually all other recent Democratic presidential nominees.

Unconventional considerations may affect the decision

In addition to vetting issues, and predicting whether a particular prospect would do well as a vice presidential candidate in a national campaign, other factors might also affect Biden’s decision. Choosing a senator from a state with a Republican governor could cost the Democrats a Senate seat for at least some amount of time, which might make the difference between controlling the upper house or not. This consideration could cut against choosing Warren or New Hampshire’s senators Shaheen or Hassan. Indeed, on only two (Bentsen, 1988; Lieberman, 2000) of 15 occasions since 1940 has the Democratic vice presidential nominee been a senator from a state with a Republican governor who would choose that person’s successor.

Older presidential candidates, based on the changing standards of the times, typically either emphasize choosing an able presidential successor (Reagan-Bush or Dole-Kemp) or achieving generational balance (Eisenhower-Nixon, Bush-Quayle, McCain-Palin). These examples all come from the Republican side because recent Democratic nominees, other than Hilary Clinton, have all been in their 40s or 50s. The successor criteria is the more appropriate and politically prudent, and Biden has emphasized it.

Candidates also may look to other characteristics. Baldwin would be the first openly gay national candidate, Cortez Masto or Lujan Grisham would be the first Hispanic candidate on a national ticket, while Duckworth is both Asian-American and a double amputee.

How will they play in November, not August?

It helps if the running mate selection creates a favorable buzz when announced but ultimately, the best vice presidential choices are those who look good in November, not just in August (the Democratic National Convention has been moved back from July). Speculation often focuses on flashy choices that look good on paper, and an effective vice presidential announcement rollout, as Ferraro gave Mondale, Gore gave Clinton, Edwards gave Kerry, or Palin gave McCain, is an asset. Clinton’s campaign took off when he chose Gore, and McCain pulled even or went ahead of Obama in polls in 2008 after he chose Palin and she delivered her successful convention speech. But it’s important that the candidate sustain and build on the first impression. Palin lost her luster when she was unable to project presidential qualifications in interviews with Katie Couric and others, as well as in her debate. The best choices — Muskie, Mondale, Bush, Bentsen, Gore, Cheney, Biden — looked better in November than when chosen. Checking boxes is fine, but by far the most important box is how a prospective running mate will do under the intense scrutiny and pressure of a national campaign. That involves a prospective judgment about the future, but ultimately, the best choices don’t emphasize the characteristics that appear on paper but the ability, judgment, knowledge, and other qualities that make a candidate effective on the campaign trail and plausible in the Oval Office.

A final word

Biden’s choice will be unprecedented, particularly in his decision to announce before his process begins that he will choose a woman. Moreover, the choice will occur amidst the unique and changing context created by the coronavirus pandemic. Different vice presidential options will offer Biden, as they have his predecessors, different advantages and disadvantages. No option will present all of the attributes he would like and none of the potential downsides he would prefer to avoid. Vice presidential selection, like governing, involves making choices, often among imperfect and somewhat uncertain options.

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.

See Other Political Commentary.

See Other Commentaries by Joel K. Goldstein.

This article is reprinted from Sabato's Crystal Ball.

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