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Biden-Harris: A Predictable Pairing

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and J. Miles Coleman

The presumptive Democratic nominee plays it safe.


— Kamala Harris, long seen as a frontrunner to be Joe Biden’s running mate, represents a vetted, qualified, and safe VP choice.

— Harris is the latest in a long line of Democratic senators who have become running mates. If she becomes vice president, Democrats should not have any real obstacles to keeping her seat.

— Biden’s new running mate has only been in the Senate for less than four years, but she was California’s statewide elected attorney general before that — though she almost lost in 2010.

The Biden-Harris ticket

Sen. Kamala Harris of California it is. To judge by past and present commentary, Harris has been the frontrunner all along.

Perhaps the only thing holding her back was a tough exchange with Joe Biden in the first Democratic debate. Yet Biden is a seasoned politician with a half-century in politics at the highest levels. If you don’t forgive and forget, at least sometimes, you’re not going to be successful in the long run. And after all, Biden and Harris were running against one another. As the old saying goes, politics ain’t beanbag.

At first blush, Harris appears to be a smart pick. California is a giant stage, and to win there, as Harris has done for state attorney general and U.S. senator, you have to be able to stand the heat in a large, crowded kitchen full of opponents and media happy to roast you alive.

Maybe there are aspects of her we will discover as the oppo researchers gear up, but Harris has already been vetted multiple times. She has had to deal with a wide variety of challenges, and has handled them well. She understands the special pressures placed on a woman who is first — potentially the first Black, Asian American, and female vice president. No question, she is far readier to run than Democrat Geraldine Ferraro (1984) and Republican Sarah Palin (2008) were.

The historic nature of Harris’ candidacy is and ought to be the main focus at the moment. Additionally, a vice presidential nominee also tells us a great deal about the man who picked her. Joe Biden went for a known quantity. To the extent that someone who is very outside the usual mold can be called a safe choice, this seasoned politician is. Presidential candidates only reach for outside-the-box VPs when the odds against winning are long, and conventional wisdom needs to be reset.

Joe Biden has just shown us that he knows he is the frontrunner and isn’t going to take unnecessary chances. That doesn’t mean Biden is overconfident — after 2016, how could a Democrat be overconfident? The key to this election for Democrats is keeping the focus on Donald Trump, by far the most controversial president in modern American history who is being weighed down by a poorly managed pandemic, a shell-shocked economy, and his own divisiveness.

If the election is about Trump, Biden wins. If the spotlight turns extensively to Biden, with his own long history of controversies and gaffes, Trump has a real chance to pull another upset. As a negative distraction from Trump’s problems, Kamala Harris gives Biden relatively little to worry about, at least compared to other groundbreaking VP nominees in recent decades.

At 77, the oldest major-party nominee for president ever, Biden wants to have Americans look at Harris and say, “Yes, if need be, I could see her stepping into the Oval Office and doing a competent job as president.” Almost all Democrats and a solid majority of independents will likely see Harris as passing the test.

It is unavoidable that Harris will receive far more than the usual attention for a VP candidate, given Biden’s age and her precedent-shattering characteristics. However, we are betting that, as usual, she (and incumbent Mike Pence) will fade into the background once the conventions have adjourned.

Assuming Trump retains Pence as his running mate — there’s been no real sign that Trump will pick a new running mate — Harris will debate Pence at the Wednesday, Oct. 7 vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City. VP debates are sometimes memorable — probably the most famous moment we can think of is when Lloyd Bentsen (D) told Dan Quayle (R) that “you are no Jack Kennedy” after Quayle compared his level of experience to that of the late Democratic president in their 1988 debate. But of course the Bush-Quayle ticket easily won the 1988 election anyway. There are other memorable moments, but we don’t really see the VP debate as an incredibly significant moment in the fall campaign.

Following the debate, Harris and Pence will step back onto the lesser traveled road for the rest of the campaign — barring a health emergency for either senior citizen running for president.

There has been some criticism of Biden for waiting until now to announce the pick. To us, the only mistake he made was saying that the pick would come by or around Aug. 1 — he shouldn’t have created an arbitrary deadline for himself that he didn’t end up meeting. Perhaps that contributed to some of the online angst we’ve been seeing in recent days. But that doesn’t really matter now, and the timing of this selection — within a week of the opening of the party convention — is very much in keeping with the timing of past announcements.

A Democratic presidential nominee picking a senator as a running mate is also very common: with the Harris pick, 16 of the last 19 first-time Democratic selections have been senators, per Joel Goldstein, the leading vice presidential historian and Crystal Ball contributor.

While Harris is the first Black candidate chosen as a major party running mate, and just the third woman overall, we don’t necessarily have much past history to lean on in terms of how she will be perceived and what impact she might have on the election. VP nominees sometimes have a modest impact in their home states, although because Harris is from deep blue California, whatever effect she’d have on her home state is meaningless to the overall outcome. More interesting, though, is whether Harris would spur improved Black turnout. There is evidence that Black candidates can help with Black turnout, according to a summation of relevant research by friend of the Crystal Ball Ted Johnson. One of Hillary Clinton’s problems in 2016 was that Black turnout was not as robust as it had been for Barack Obama, which may have contributed to her narrow losses in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (all of which have significant Black voting blocs). Following the announcement, Johnson tweeted “Biden-Harris is the ticket, which, in my view, signals the Biden campaign believes black turnout is the key to victory.”

It is worth noting that the New York Times reported the following about Harris on July 31: “One Democrat close to Mr. Biden’s campaign said its polling indicated that Ms. Harris has little allure with Black voters.” Maybe that was just sour grapes from someone who didn’t want Harris to be selected; maybe it’s real. For what it’s worth, and this makes intuitive sense to us, the pollster Morning Consult tested 12 hypothetical Biden running mates against the Trump-Pence ticket and found hardly any differences of support among the various tickets.

Reasonable people can debate whether this VP selection is more or less important than selections made in the past. There may not be much electoral impact from the running mate, and the two candidates may not play much of role in driving the campaign. In Trumped, our book about the 2016 election, Tim Kaine’s name appears on only one page, and Mike Pence’s appears on only five. In Identity Crisis, a book on the 2016 campaign by political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck, Kaine’s name appears on only one page, Pence’s on three.

However, even if the electoral value of running mates is, at the very least, difficult to quantify, that doesn’t mean we should discount the selections. Major party running mates are catapulted to the top of the list of most famous politicians in the United States, and some end up as presidential candidates and nominees in future elections. To wit: Does anyone think Biden would be this year’s Democratic presidential nominee had he not served eight years as Barack Obama’s loyal vice president?

It is not a certainty that Biden, if elected, would run for another term; if he doesn’t, Harris could have a leg up on becoming the Democratic nominee as early as 2024. If Biden does run again, Harris presumably would be a top contender in 2028.

That makes the selection important in and of itself.

Harris: A brief electoral history

While Harris certainly wasn’t chosen to deliver California to Biden — recent polling from UC Berkeley puts him up 67%-28% in the state — her career illustrates some striking changes in the state’s politics. A state now seen as a one-party preserve nearly elected a Republican over her just a decade ago.

Her first statewide campaign in California was in 2010, and already she was being touted as a second Obama. In fact, Harris was among Obama’s earliest supporters in California, and launched her campaign for state attorney general in November 2008, just weeks after Obama’s victory. Electorally, Harris’ base was San Francisco, where she had served as district attorney since 2004, and was unopposed for reelection in 2007.

Structurally, 2010 was the final cycle where the state used the traditional partisan primary system — for 2012, it transitioned to the jungle primary format that it currently employs, where all candidates compete in the primary and the top two finishers advance to the general election. With a 63% majority in San Francisco and a 30% plurality in Los Angeles County, Harris won the nomination with about one-third of the vote in a field that included seven Democrats. Though he wasn’t much of a factor in that race, clocking in at just a 10% share, one of Harris’ opponents was then-state Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D), who now represents the Santa Monica-based CA-33 — if Harris ascends to the vice presidency, expect Lieu’s name to come up as a potential replacement for her in the Senate.

After securing the primary nomination, Harris found herself in a close general election race with another incumbent district attorney: Steve Cooley, a Republican who had impressively won three easy elections in heavily Democratic Los Angeles County (though those campaigns were nominally nonpartisan).

Despite the anti-Obama tone of the 2010 midterms, California ended up being a bright spot for Democrats. As Republicans netted 63 seats in the House of Representatives nationally, they didn’t pick up any in the Golden State. At the statewide level, then-state Attorney General Jerry Brown (D-CA) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who were each trailing in polls during various points in the campaign, both beat back spirited challengers for governor and senator in businesswomen Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, respectively. As an aside, both those Republicans have endorsed Biden’s 2020 campaign, perhaps speaking to the erosion of the GOP brand in California.

As ballots were counted in the attorney general race, though, Cooley and Harris traded leads. In the closing days of November, Cooley conceded — Harris ended up winning by about 75,000 votes out of over 9.6 million cast in the race. In a situation that would be impossible today in California given its primary system, both Harris and Cooley were weighed down by third party candidates: she took 46.1% to Cooley’s 45.3%, as four minor party candidates soaked up almost 9%.

Harris won with a more comfortable 57.5% in her 2014 reelection bid.

Harris was a frontrunner in 2016 to replace Boxer, who retired from the Senate, though she drew some competition from then-Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D, CA-46). In a sign of how far the California Republicans had fallen, they fielded a handful of candidates in the primary election but failed to even place in the general election. Harris led in the primary with 40% to 19% for Sanchez, while the third-place candidate, a Republican, didn’t even break 10%. Harris easily beat Sanchez in the general election.

Two years later, the Senate general election once again featured two Democrats, as long-serving incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was reelected. So when Harris first ran statewide, Republicans were making serious attempts at the state’s top jobs — 10 years later, as she joins a presidential ticket, the GOP is hardly relevant in her state. In this sense, Harris’ statewide career has mirrored California’s transition from blue to navy blue.

If Harris does become vice president, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) would appoint a temporary replacement senator who would have to run for election in 2022, which is also when Harris’ current term expires anyway. So Harris becoming vice president would not materially impact the balance of power in the Senate.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and the Managing Editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball.

J. Miles Coleman is an elections analyst for Decision Desk HQ and a political cartographer. Follow him on Twitter @jmilescoleman.

See Other Political Commentary by Larry J. Sabato.

See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik.

See Other Political Commentary by J. Miles Coleman.

See Other Political Commentary.

This article is reprinted from Sabato's Crystal Ball.

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports. Comments about this content should be directed to the author or syndicate.

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