Stop Fretting About Biden’s VP Choice

Stop Fretting About Biden’s VP Choice

We
are entering the silly season of vice presidential speculation, filled with
ill-sourced rumors and Talmudic interpretations
of what Joe Biden means every time he says that his running mate must be
“simpatico.” Depending on
what you read over the weekend, Kamala Harris is either the inevitable pick (The Hill) or doomed (Politico) because she refuses to express remorse over her
theatrical debate attack on Biden over busing. All
that is missing from the melee is a Mount Rushmore-sized mistake like the New York Post’s 2004 front-page revelation that Dick Gephardt would be John Kerry’s running mate. The infamous exclusive
(based on a tip from Post owner Rupert Murdoch) held for about ten hours until Kerry
announced his intended VP choice: John Edwards, who was later infamous for
other reasons.  Most strategic
analyses by TV pundits and armchair
experts assume that Biden’s vice presidential pick (whoever she is) will matter in November. A sampler
of this type of political calculus: A Black woman like Harris on the ticket
would inspire African American turnout. Elizabeth Warren as VP would ideologically
unite the party. A governor like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer or a mayor like Atlanta’s
Keisha Lance Bottoms would help deliver a swing state. One of the downsides of
choosing either Harris, a Californian, or Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth is
that they both come from states already locked up for Biden. Political
science research and history have largely discredited all of these theories. In
fact, most of what you think you know about the politics of picking a VP is
probably wrong. As political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck wrote
in their study of the 2012 election, The
Gamble, “Vice-presidential picks have had at most a small influence on
modern presidential elections.”Begin
with the common misconception that a running mate can help the ticket carry a
state or a region. In 1988, Michael Dukakis, perhaps hoping that the pairing of
a Bostonian with a Texan might remind voters of John Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, chose Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate. Under a permissive law originally crafted for LBJ, Bentsen was able to run simultaneously for reelection to the Senate. He won his Senate bid but couldn’t come close to delivering Texas for Dukakis—Senator Bentsen ran 800,000 votes ahead of would-be Vice President Bentsen.In fact,
in their new book Do Running Mates Matter? political scientists Christopher Devine
and Kyle Kopko concluded “that vice presidential candidates, in general, do not
deliver an electoral advantage in their home state, division, or region.”Devine
and Kopko even debunk the myth that Johnson delivered Texas for Kennedy in
1960, stressing that there is no polling data to support the all-the-way-with-LBJ
thesis. (Of course, Johnson’s skill with vote counting may have had something
to do with Kennedy’s narrow victory in the state.)Many
of the misconceptions about the political significance of a VP choice are
rooted in an outmoded concept of the job. As Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at
the Brookings Institution, argues in a new ebook Picking the Vice President, “Every vice president since Al
Gore has been chosen more for their ability to help the president do his job
than for their ability to balance the ticket.” What changed, according to
Kamarck, who was a top Gore aide in Bill Clinton’s White House, was the
presidential nomination process: Since nominees are now picked in the
primaries, candidates no longer need to dangle the VP nomination as a
bargaining chip at contested conventions. Political
science data can only take us so far. Part of the trouble is that voters are
often contradictory about why they chose a presidential ticket. Many call the
VP pick “extremely important.” But Devine and Topco noted, “Vice
presidential selection is quite unimportant when measured in relation to other
electoral influences; approximately 90 percent of survey respondents cannot
recall ever changing their presidential vote based on account of the vice
presidential candidate.”The
other factor, particularly pertinent for 2020, is a shortage of relevant examples
when it comes to the electoral impact of a female running mate. It is hard to
imagine two more diametrically opposed political figures than Geraldine
Ferraro, a liberal Democratic congresswoman from Queens, and Sarah Palin, the
ill-informed hockey mom turned Alaska governor. Both VP choices were the
product of desperation, as both Walter Mondale (facing Ronald Reagan in 1984)
and John McCain (trailing Barack Obama in 2008) believed they needed to do
something unorthodox to shake up the race. But when Mondale ended up carrying
just one state and McCain lost by the biggest margin of this century, it was
hard to blame the flaws of their running mates (though Palin probably did cost the GOP
ticket votes). Of
course, no presidential nominee has ever tapped a person of color as his
running mate, and academic studies dating back to 2006 have shown that Black
candidates, in particular, do boost turnout. In 2015, political scientists Amir
Shawn Fairdosi and Jon Rogowski calculated that African American
Democratic congressional candidates increased Black voting participation by as
much as 5 percent. But there is no way of knowing whether these findings can be
extrapolated to 2020 presidential politics when voting interest is already high
because of Biden’s popularity with Black voters and the deep antipathy to
Donald Trump. Biden’s
hefty lead in the polls also provides an argument against choosing a vice
president primarily for political reasons. When seemingly safe Republican
states such as Ohio and Georgia are in play, it is hard to determine precisely
what Biden needs—even if the VP candidate had the clout with the voters to
provide it.There
is an axiom dating back to Richard Nixon in 1968: “The vice president
can’t help you. He can only hurt you.”Nixon’s
choice of Spiro Agnew that year (who called a reporter “a fat Jap”
and said, “If you’ve seen one city slum, you’ve seen them all”) was
an epic example of a political leader failing to follow his own advice. The
Democrats responded with an ad that consisted entirely of a
man laughing hysterically at a TV screen that showed the words, “Agnew for
Vice-President?” But Agnew survived the uproar and served as a laughingstock of a vice president until 1973 when he resigned because of his long addiction to taking cash bribes from Maryland highway contractors. The
one arena where a vice presidential pick can play an electoral role is in
raising or lowering perceptions of the presidential candidate who made the
choice. As Devine and Kopko put it, “The choice of a running mate is a
‘window’ into a future presidency—a ‘message’ or a ‘signal’ about who we are electing … and what he or she will do once in power.”To be
avoided at all costs are the kind of debilitating VP furors that were a staple
of late twentieth-century politics. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower nearly dropped Nixon
as his VP choice after he was caught up in a fundraising scandal. (Nixon saved himself by delivering his tearjerker Checkers Speech, vowing that he would never return the gift of a cocker spaniel). As the press became more aggressive in its campaign coverage, almost every other VP choice in the 1970s and 1980s boomeranged. There was Tom Eagleton (dropped by George McGovern
in 1972 for concealing his history of electroshock treatments for depression),
Ferraro (challenged over dubious real estate transactions by her husband), and
Dan Quayle in 1988 (portrayed as a lightweight senator who used family connections to wangle his way
into a safe billet in the Indiana National Guard during Vietnam).That
history explains why nominees like Biden place such an emphasis on exhaustively vetting the
vice presidential contenders. Former Senator Chris Dodd, who is taking a lead
role in the VP search, knows better than anyone (other than Biden) about the
twists, turns, and misdirection that accompany the choice of a running mate. In
1964, Lyndon B. Johnson conspicuously trotted out Dodd’s father, Tom, also a
Connecticut senator, on the White House lawn to add a note of fake drama just
before announcing that he had chosen Hubert Humphrey as his vice president.In
recent years, the press has gotten a jump on many vice presidential picks by
deciphering the flight path of a private plane departing from the VP nominee’s
home airport. That tactic may not work during a pandemic—since everything from
interviews with Biden to the vice presidential rollout may be done on Zoom.The
homebound flavor of Campaign 2020 gives Biden the element of surprise. But, as
history shows, the best vice presidential picks are solid figures (Gore, Biden,
and even Dick Cheney) who provide no unpleasant surprises whatsoever during the
campaign.
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